Monday Scramble: Top 10 favorites for the PGA Championship

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·14 min read
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K.H. Lee becomes the king of Dallas, Jordan Spieth readies for his best-ever shot at the Slam, Phil Mickelson remains in hiding, the PGA Championship comes to Tulsa and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:

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First: Massive props to K.H. Lee, who during his bogey-free 63 Sunday at the AT&T Byron Nelson had to stare down back-nine challenges from Jordan Spieth, Xander Schauffele, Hideki Matsuyama, Justin Thomas and a host of others.

That’ll turbo-boost his confidence.

He is just the fourth player in Tour history to successfully defend at the Nelson. The others all are known by one name:

Snead.

Nicklaus.

Watson.

And now ... uh ... Lee.

He shot 26 under at TPC Craig Ranch, bettering by a shot his mark from a year ago, and he’s hoping to build some momentum into the summer. Since last year’s breakthrough, he posted just a single top-10 and missed out on the Tour Championship by one spot. This victory moved him only to No. 28 in the FedExCup (indeed, it’s been a rough go of late) and put him back on the radar for Trevor Immelman’s International Presidents Cup team.

“I need to play well and hopefully get on that team,” he said.

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But the biggest takeaway from the week was Spieth. He finished second – his best-ever result in his hometown event – and looks primed for a serious shot at the Slam.

It wasn’t that long ago that he looked utterly lost off the tee. Though he was never Rory-esque with the driver, Spieth hit it short and crooked, missing both ways, and oftentimes by wide margins. After making strides with swing coach Cameron McCormick, Spieth seems to have found an effective pre-shot routine that exaggerates the move that he wants to make at the top of his swing. It might not be aesthetically pleasing, but the results are undeniable.

His strokes gained: tee to green stats the last two starts:

  • RBC Heritage, at claustrophobic Harbour Town: 1st

  • AT&T Byron Nelson, at wide-open TPC Craig Ranch: 2nd

And, folks, he’s starting to send it.

Five years ago, when Spieth enjoyed his best statistical season, he averaged just 295 yards off the tee, putting him 75th on Tour. His clubhead speed with the driver was in the 113-mph range.

This season, he’s up to a 307.5-yard average (gaining more than eight yards from last season alone). At the Nelson, his ball speed consistently cruised in the 180-mph zone, and TrackMan captured his swing speed in the low 121s. That’s some serious pop.

“I feel like I’m doing the right things,” he said of his long game. “My rehearsal is not exactly what I’m trying to do, but it gets me closer to where I want to be.”

Alas, Spieth’s worst day on the greens came in the final round, when he couldn’t afford many mistakes if he wanted to keep pace with the red-hot Lee. He said he “got in my head” when misjudging the wind on his 2-foot, 9-inch miss on the 10th. And he didn’t come close on a must-make 9-footer on the 17th hole to share the lead, that he said again was affected by the wind.

“It’s just tricky little pins,” he said. For the week, he ranked 36th in putting – a much-needed improvement for a player whose issues on the greens this season (186th on Tour!) have been well-documented. “We’ll get on greens next week that remind me a lot of Colonial – bentgrass, with a gradual slope where you don’t have a lot of tricks, which I will think will be nice. I gained a lot of confidence on the greens this week.”

Mickelson withdraws from 2022 PGA Championship

For just the third time in the past 50 years, a reigning major champion won’t be back to defend his title.

Payne Stewart died in a plane crash less than a year after he won the 1999 U.S. Open.

Tiger Woods missed the 2008 PGA Championship while recovering from knee surgery.

Rory McIlroy was out of the 2015 Open Championship following a fluky soccer injury.

And Phil Mickelson won’t be at the 2022 PGA Championship because … well … because if he’s not in hiding, he’s at least not ready to face the world media he’s dodged, or the thousands of fans he’s disappointed, or the peers he’s alienated.

It’s not surprising that he’s a no-show, of course, especially if he has ulterior motives in delaying a competitive return (as we wrote here). And it's hard to feel badly for him – this debacle was entirely his own doing, because of his (to borrow a phrase) obnoxious greed. But it’s surreal to think that one of the game’s all-time greats won’t get the victory lap he deserved after his historic win last spring.

Whether they’ll admit it publicly or not, PGA officials have to be relieved not to have to deal with the Mickelson circus this week. Leave it to the other two majors to deal with the fallout.

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The PGA Tour seemingly expedited its legal battle by denying releases to Tour members who sought to play in the inaugural LIV Golf Invitational next month in London.

It was widely assumed that the Tour would green-light the releases, just as it had for other money-grabs (including earlier this year!) in Saudi Arabia or Singapore or South Africa, perhaps with some conditions attached. Then the lawyers would get busy batting away the challenge of the second LIV event, in Portland, since the Tour, per its guidelines, cannot grant releases to conflicting events in North America.

The Tour instead just opted for a blanket ban.

Both sides have their arguments: The Tour will contend that it’s a member organization that has rules and regulations that each player signed up to follow; and LIV Golf will counter that the Tour is engaging in monopolistic practices that are restricting the independent contractor’s right to work. We’ll find out (in five years?) who is right.

What’s more important, in the short term, is that there still will be a handful of players who weigh the repercussions and choose to defy the Tour by playing in the first LIV event, June 9-11, a week before the U.S. Open. They’ll be suspended by the Tour, in all likelihood, but players of a certain ilk (Mickelson, Lee Westwood, Sergio Garcia) might be ready for their next chapter anyway.

Those defectors will get blasted on social media. They might get kicked out of the Ryder Cup. They’ll probably lose sponsors. They’ll absorb the initial scorn and the public backlash, but they’ll undeniably make the leap easier for those who follow. The furor will die down. And before long, five players become 10, then 15, then 20 or more – or so LIV Golf officials hope. They’re banking on the idea that the game’s elite players will get jealous seeing upstarts, journeymen and has-beens collect $15 million for playing less.

The Tour needs a real strategy, stat, not just catchphrases and talking points.

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Major championship golf is back in our lives! We’re heading today to Tulsa to cover the PGA Championship at Southern Hills, which is hosting the PGA for the first time since Tiger Woods won in searing temperatures in 2007.

Woods is already in town, testing his 46-year-old body, but he doesn't crack our list of the top 10 favorites this week:

1.) Scottie Scheffler: It has almost aligned too well for the Masters champ: He’s won four of his last seven stroke-play starts, he was solid throughout the bag at the Nelson in his final tune-up (T-15), and host Southern Hills is one of his favorite courses in the world. He’ll stay hot – count on it.

2.) Jordan Spieth: His current form is excellent. Southern Hills, with its wide fairways, smallish targets and devilish chipping areas, accentuate his gifts. And he’s playing just a few hours away from home. If he can avoid the momentum-killing short miss, this is easily his best chance to finish the Slam.

3.) Jon Rahm: Finally off the schneid after hanging tough down the stretch to win in Mexico, his first title in 11 long months. Striking it the best he has in his career, the world No. 2 has somehow disappointed in the three biggest stroke-play events this year (T-21 at Riv; T-55 at Players; T-27 at Masters). That ends here.

4.) Collin Morikawa: Fortunately, he’s a world-class iron player, because he could have a difficult time navigating some of the tight, grainy lies around the green (SG: around the green rank this season: 192nd). Continues to play tough tracks exceedingly well, as evidenced by his top-5s this year at Riv and Augusta.

5.) Rory McIlroy: Always better suited for shootouts than scramble-fests, he’ll need to continue honing in his iron play for Southern Hills’ exacting challenge – that’s been the biggest reason why he’s winless this year. Other than that, he’s doing everything superbly well and could be poised to break that major-less drought.

6.) Patrick Cantlay: Took three weeks off after leading his team to the Zurich win – an overdue (albeit shared) title for his consistently excellent play this season. One of the game’s most complete players, Cantlay isn’t higher on this list simply because of his major record: only two career top-10s (and none since 2019).

7.) Justin Thomas: Been over-par in his last five opening rounds in the majors. Broken par just twice in his last 11. For this uber-talented stud (SG total: 5th), that can only mean one thing: He’s putting too much pressure on himself to perform. If he starts well, take cover.

8.) Cameron Smith: Had a month off to erase the sting of his disappointing Masters finish. No one makes more birdies per round (5.38), and last we checked, that’s critical in winning tournaments.

9.) Xander Schauffele: Been a too-quiet year for Schauffele, who didn’t even take much of the credit for the Zurich win. Every year since 2017 he’s factored in at least one major, and he should be able to keep rolling after his lights-out 61 in Dallas where he played the last 49 holes in 26 under par.

10.) Hideki Matsuyama: Factored deep into the final round at the Nelson, the surest sign yet that he’s over the back issues that have disrupted his two-win campaign. Just needs the putter to catch fire, again.

Keep an eye on: Viktor Hovland, the Norwegian who has a virtual home game (?!) in Tulsa, playing about an hour away from Stillwater; Will Zalatoris, who hits as many quality iron shots as anyone in the game; Joaquin Niemann, who contended at the Nelson but has yet to seriously challenge in a major despite his lofty world ranking; Sam Burns, who has five missed cuts this year but can win when he’s on; and Shane Lowry, who enters the week with top-3s in his last two starts, as well as rookie Cameron Young, who has done the same.

THIS WEEK'S AWARD WINNERS ...

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Comeback SZN: Steve Stricker. In just his third start since returning from a serious, post-Ryder Cup illness, Stricker destroyed the field at the Regions Tradition, leading wire to wire, winning by six and collecting his fourth senior major title. Since returning to competition, he’s been inside the top 10 in all 10 of his rounds. After the health scare, it’s great to see him back on top.

Jin Young’s Biggest Threat?: Minjee Lee. With Nelly Korda still on the mend, it was Lee’s turn to step up and capture another LPGA title, her first since the 2021 Evian. The world No. 5 has been a standout in multiple statistical categories this season, and she held off a game Lexi Thompson at the Founders Cup for her seventh LPGA trophy.

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Consider Us Impressed: Bryson DeChambeau. The timetable for DeChambeau’s return, according to most medical experts, was about two months, putting him right up against the clock to be ready in time for the U.S. Open in mid-June. Instead, he popped up on social media last weekend ripping drivers four weeks and two days post-surgery, registering 192 mph ball speed and making it at least possible that he could play at the PGA. Golf Channel's Todd Lewis reported Sunday night that DeChambeau will head to Tulsa on Monday for a test run and, barring a setback, he'll give it a go. It seems risky: There's no chance of him contending, and rushing back from injury too soon could jeopardize the rest of his summer. Speaking of which ...

Status Update, Please?: Brooks Koepka. The four-time major champion set off some alarms when he withdrew from the Nelson last Wednesday, with no reason given. His manager didn't return messages seeking comment. Koepka didn't offer any additional info on social media. He just ... disappeared for the past five days, and we have no idea if he's dealing with an injury (his hip, initially injured in 2020, has reportedly been bothering him). Here's hoping we get some intel early Monday regarding his status.

Open Up Your Wallets: Tiger Woods, analyst. In the wake of the news last week that quarterback Tom Brady will receive a 10-year, $375-million contract as an in-game analyst for Fox Sports once he retires, it got us thinking: How much could Woods command from the networks if he somehow decided he wanted to go into the booth? His would be a larger tournament schedule, with two work days a week instead of one, and he’s a bigger global superstar than Brady. Sure, execs might hear the fastest “no” in TV history, but it’s worth an ask.

Tough Break: Sungjae Im. Having flown to South Korea to play in front of the home fans for the first time since fall 2019, Im instead caught COVID and withdrew from the PGA. It’s horrible timing for Im, the 20th-ranked player in the world who was the first-round leader at the Masters, but all of that international travel ahead of a major probably wasn’t the wisest idea anyway. He joins Paul Casey, Harris English and Mickelson on the DL for the strongest major field in golf.

Tales of Two TPCs: Craig Ranch. As underrated at TPC Potomac was for the Wells Fargo – making us at least question whether there should be an annual Tour stop there each year – the opposite is true for the Nelson host, which staged the event for the second consecutive year. It’s a forgettable, uninteresting compilation of 450-yard par 4s and easy par 5s, leading to some uninteresting viewing, despite a jam-packed board. From TPC Las Colinas to Trinity Forest to Craig Ranch, the Nelson is struggling to find a proper home.

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#Trending: Xander Schauffele. At one point in the second round, Schauffele was eight shots off the projected cut line and looking like he could head a few days early to Southern Hills. He didn’t just play the weekend – he played the rest of the tournament without a bogey, rocketing into the solo lead Sunday before running out of holes. Still, his closing 61 should give him a whole lotta momentum with the PGA on deck.

Buckle Up: Tulsa weather. The early-week forecast calls for temperatures around 90 degrees, but the fun begins once the tournament days kick in. After a warm first two rounds, temperatures will plunge into the low-70s. The best part? Winds are expected to gust to at least 25 mph each of the tournament rounds, which will give the demanding Perry Maxwell design even more teeth. Yes. Please.

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Will Zalatoris. Spieth and Scheffler had it going, but one of the other hometown favorites didn’t stick around for the weekend. Zalatoris lost more than four shots to the field on the greens, getting lapped in what was a week of low scoring. The cut fell at 5-under 139, and Zalatoris (as well as another pre-tournament favorite, Sam Burns) were on the wrong side of it, bringing to a sudden end Willy Z’s recent stretch of three consecutive top-6s. Sigh.