Monday Scramble: Tiger's talk discouraging; Top 5 favorite PGA Tour venues

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Ryan Lavner
·13 min read
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Max Homa wins one for the home team, Tony Finau squanders another chance, Tiger Woods talks (somewhat pessimistically?!), Mike Whan gets a new job and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:

Homa bests Finau in playoff to win The Genesis Invitational

Little wonder Max Homa was choked up Sunday at the Genesis Invitational. This one meant just a little bit more.

At the tournament he’s been attending since he was a toddler, with his idol (and tournament host) Tiger Woods looking on, Homa fired a bogey-free 66, shrugged off a 3-foot miss on the final hole and a tee shot that settled inches from a tree, and defeated Tony Finau on the second playoff hole to capture his second career PGA Tour title.

Asked where this hometown victory ranked among the tournaments he most wanted to win in his career, Homa said: “1A, 1B, 1C. I don’t know if I could ever do anything cooler in golf than this.”

There was much to unpack.

After stuffing his approach into 18, Homa admittedly was shaky, knowing how much was riding on that potential game winner. “I think I choked a little bit,” he’d say later, but it was his wife, Lacey, who helped him refocus. Before the playoff she told him to “forgive quickly” – one of his mantras of the day – and that helped as he made a pair of pars in the playoff to win, none more wild than on the 10th hole after it appeared, initially, that he was stymied behind a tree.

Now 38th in the world, Homa is exempt into this week’s World Golf Championships event and, of course, the Masters.

Finau's final round bittersweet at The Genesis Invitational

Of course, Homa’s 3-foot miss on the final hole of regulation will also color how we view another Finau close call.

Had that putt not rimmed out, Finau’s final round at Riviera would have felt cathartic. Criticized endlessly for failing to get the job done on Sundays, Finau would finally have stepped up, recording a 64 that was the low round of the day – by two. He wouldn't have walked away with the trophy, but it still would have been a huge confidence-builder: At last, he had expertly handled the Sunday crucible!

“Anytime I’ve had a chance to win,” he said, “I haven’t been that guy that went low, and today I was, so I can take a lot of confidence from that. That’s something that I wanted to happen today to just prove to myself on Sundays that I can put myself in the thick of it and shoot a number, and I was able to do that this week.”

Tony Finau falls short again but fires Sunday low at Riviera

Unfortunately for Finau ... Homa’s putt did rim out, dropping him into a playoff. And in overtime, after a perfect tee shot just short of the 10th green, Finau followed it up with a mediocre pitch shot and a weak 7-foot birdie try that missed on the low side. On the next hole, the par-3 14th, he tugged his 7-iron left, into the greenside bunker. After a so-so bunker shot, he rapped his 12-foot par saver a bit too firmly and missed. It added up to a playoff loss that might hurt more than any of the other myriad opportunities; that's his EIGHTH runner-up finish on Tour since his last victory.

Through it all, Finau has remained impossibly gracious and positive, saying that if he continues to give himself chances, he knows he’ll convert – and then some. And that's probably true.

But for now, after a Sunday to remember and then ultimately forget: “It’s a little bittersweet right now.”

Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods

Tiger Woods sure didn’t sound like a guy who’s going to be teeing it up anytime soon.

Appearing during the CBS telecast in his role as tournament host, Woods said that he’s unsure when he next will be able to compete – and that includes at the Masters in April.

Woods underwent a fifth back surgery on Dec. 23 and is still awaiting full clearance from his surgeons, which he hopes will come after an upcoming MRI exam. That timeline puts in serious jeopardy The Players Championship, which begins in three weeks, and even the Masters, which starts April 8.

When asked by CBS’ Jim Nantz if he will be at Augusta, Woods said: “God, I hope so.”

Woods admitted that he’s taking his recovery slowly and listening to his doctors, because, he said, he doesn’t have “much more wiggle room left” with his surgically repaired back.

If you're wondering: Yes, the interview was as depressing as it sounds.

Riviera Country Club
Riviera Country Club

Despite abundant sunshine Saturday in Los Angeles, the third round of the Genesis was suspended for four hours because of dangerous conditions.

High winds, in fact.

Putts were rolling all the way off the green. Debris and hats were flying everywhere. And the Tour finally plugged the plug after a piece of communications equipment fell on the 14th hole.

Sure, it’s highly unusual, but a firm and fast Riv was already pushed to the brink, providing two days of nonstop thrills and spills. The third-round forecast called for 30-mph gusts, but not until later in the day; when the wind arrived earlier than anticipated, it left the slick greens unplayable and led to a lengthy delay that forced the final few groups to finish up play early Sunday.

Even if the miscalculation cost us the chance to watch the world’s best battle extreme conditions, Riv wasn’t a pushover once play resumed. Tour staff syringed greens and doused the course in water, but even after the restart some greens couldn’t be held with short irons and 10-footers were approached cautiously.

It was delicious fun and, ultimately, worth the wait. Course conditions are the easiest way to combat golf's distance problem, but for an outdoor sport that follows the sun, it requires a near-perfect confluence of events to achieve the fiery conditions that identify the best player.

whan
whan

What seemed like a perfect fit officially was announced last week, with outgoing LPGA commissioner Mike Whan being named the next chief executive of the USGA.

By all accounts, the move was universally applauded, which is not easy to do with an organization that has a less-than-stellar reputation with today’s touring professionals and has weathered a number of controversies over the past several years. But Whan has been a miracle worker for the LPGA since taking over in 2010, and his energy, passion and innovative ideas should help propel the USGA forward.

Much like the women’s tour he inherited, Whan is taking over the USGA at a precarious time, with the organization smack in the middle of its Distance Insights Report that threatens to put constraints on manufacturers and alter the way the elite game is played. Whan’s vision is best summed up with this quote: He wants to “respect history but don’t be afraid to make some, too.”

We dig it.

THIS WEEK'S AWARD WINNERS ...

Last In, Last Out: Hayden Buckley. On Thursday morning, at the first Korn Ferry Tour event of the new year, Buckley learned as the first alternate that he’d be teeing it up in about 20 minutes – so go get ready. But that didn’t deter him, as the former Missouri standout opened with 68-65 and then held on to win a three-way playoff at the Lecom Suncoast Classic. How important was this W? Buckley began 2021 with only conditional status, and now it moved him all the way to 27th in the super-season standings, just outside the cutoff for Tour cards, with a whole year left to go.

He’s Human!: Dustin Johnson. In one of the most bizarre final-round developments, DJ could never really get going, slumbering his way to a 72 and a tie for eighth. His 1-over final round was the first time he’s shot over par on the final day of a Tour event since ... this tournament a year ago.

More to Learn: Sam Burns. The 24-year-old led for the first three rounds, taking a five-shot lead at the halfway point. But it never felt like a coronation, not when he slipped with a Saturday 74 and especially not when he started to make a series of mistakes on the back nine Sunday, ultimately leaving him a shot out of the playoff. Afterward, he didn’t try to hide his frustration, saying succinctly: “I just didn’t play well enough.”

A Shot at History: Phil Mickelson. Ineligible for this week’s WGC, Mickelson will take his talents back to the PGA Tour Champions, where in Tucson he’ll try to become the first player on any PGA Tour-sanctioned circuit to win in his first three starts.

Annika Sorenstam
Annika Sorenstam

What We’re Watching This Week: Gainbridge LPGA. It’s the first women’s event in a month, since Jessica Korda’s stirring playoff victory at the Tournament of Champions. In the field at Lake Nona are seven of the top eight players in the world; a 72-time winner in Annika Sorenstam; and a newly minted pro, Gabi Ruffels, who will be making her debut. Yes, please.

Lay the Smackdown!: Michelle Wie West. After one of the country’s most despicable men, Rudy Giuliani, told yet another cringeworthy joke-that-wasn’t-a-joke-at-all on a recent podcast, Wie West torched him with this strong but reasoned response:

Are They Still Great Holes?: Riviera’s fourth and 10th holes. When the long par-3 fourth is best played by missing the green left and pitching back up the hill for a kick-in, and then there’s no debate over the proper way to attack No. 10 – the percentage play is to go for it, every time, and miss left – then some of the allure, sadly, is gone. A great hole should offer options, angles and different hole locations.

You Love to See It: Albin Choi. Last year we told the inspiring back story of Choi – who was an accomplished college and amateur player despite living through the traumatic experience of losing his mom to suicide, then lost his way professionally and began caddieing for Sungjae Im – and he appears back on the upswing. After Monday-qualifying into the first Korn Ferry Tour event of 2021, he fired an opening 62 to take the lead, then posted a tie for 14th.

Unfortunate Timing: Kansas men’s golf team. The Jayhawks were leading after one round of the Wyoming Desert Intercollegiate but were forced to withdraw after a player on the team tested positive for COVID-19. We’ve already seen a handful of teams pull out pre-tournament because of virus-related issues, but this is the first time this spring the leader had to exit. Sadly, it likely won’t be the last ...

Tiger’s Record Is Safe For Another Week: Rory McIlroy. His missed cut snapped a streak of 25 cuts made in a row on Tour and was his first early exit since the 2019 Open at Royal Portrush. No one – ever – will even approach Tiger’s record of 142 consecutive cuts made. That bring-it-every-week-no-matter-what mentality can’t be taught.

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Justin Thomas. Seemed as good of a bet as any last week, given his recent course history (he blew a four-shot 54-hole lead in 2019) and all-around sterling play over the past year-plus. Except it’s clear something’s not right with JT at the moment: He missed the cut in Saudi Arabia and then lost his grandfather after the third round of the Phoenix Open; understandably distracted, he dropped to 13th. After a week off to mourn, he shot rounds of 77-73 and left LA early. Sigh. Hopefully he turns it around this week at Concession.

ONE MAN'S TOP 5 FAVORITE PGA TOUR VENUES

3. Riviera Country Club
3. Riviera Country Club

1.) Riviera: We’ve yet to find a single person who dislikes Riv. That's because it’s impossible. This classic has stood the test of time and is the perfect combination of design, variety and setting. And, no, we’re not at all bitter that the one and only time we’ve been invited to play, L.A. had torrential flooding and the outing was washed out.

2.) Pebble Beach: Shocker! The meh holes keep this American gem from being No. 1 on our list, but the ocean holes, on a 70-degree day, are as good as it gets anywhere. Even when the weather is lousy – which can often be the case in mid-February – the scenery is still better than most, and it doesn’t hurt that the Monterey Peninsula, in non-COVID times, is an incredibly fun hang.

3.) Muirfield Village: Last year was the first time we’ve gotten to cover the annual event at Jack’s Place – it always conflicts with the men’s NCAAs – and now we see what all the fuss is about. It’s challenging and beautiful, with dramatic elevation changes, and ... yeah, the milkshakes in the snack shack off the ninth green are divine.

4.) Austin Country Club: Might be an unpopular opinion, but the WGC-Match Play host venue always produces tremendous theater. It might not present the most stout test for the top 64 players in the world, but it’s not supposed to! It asks unique questions, and the back nine offers all sorts of fun possibilities. Covering this event is always a treat.

5.) TPC River Highlands: Yeah, we know, crazy – we’re ranking this one ahead of notables like TPC Sawgrass or Kapalua, both of which are memorable in their own way. But there’s something charming about the par 70 that plays at less than 6,900 yards and yet isn’t completely obliterated every year on Tour.

Also worth consideration: Innisbrook, TPC Scottsdale, Colonial, Quail Hollow ...

And on the other end of the spectrum ...: TPC Louisiana, PGA National, TPC San Antonio and (*ducks*) East Lake.