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The PGA Championship steps up to the plate (with our top 10 favorites!), K.H. Lee shines in the rain, the NCAA botches a women's regional and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:
It’s hard to recall a major in recent memory in which so many top players were NOT trending.
World No. 1 Dustin Johnson hasn’t played well for months. Justin Thomas’ putter has gone MIA. Oh, and Bryson DeChambeau has cooled since the Florida swing, Brooks Koepka isn’t physically fit and Patrick Cantlay has missed three straight cuts for the first time in his career.
So, who’s left among the favorites?
Top of the list is Jordan Spieth, who has posted four straight top-10s and showed little ball-striking rust at the Nelson despite four weeks away after contracting COVID-19. For maybe the first time, the pressure of chasing the career Grand Slam won’t consume his thoughts – his rehabbed game still requires all of his attention. If he gets hot inside 15 feet, look out.
The others are question marks.
Was Rory McIlroy’s slump-busting win at Quail Hollow a sign of things to come or a mirage? Jon Rahm admitted to struggling with finding a proper work-home balance since the birth of his son, but is it easier to focus at a major? Are guys like Viktor Hovland, Xander Schauffele or Daniel Berger ready to make the leap?
Our list of favorites is below.
Playing through an annoying rainstorm for much of the day (and then enduring a 2 ½-hour delay), K.H. Lee still managed to fire a stout final-round 66 to win his first PGA Tour event at the AT&T Byron Nelson.
Lee birdied five of the first eight holes to leapfrog overnight leader Sam Burns and take control. Though he bogeyed the 16th hole coming out of the restart, Lee bounced back with two clutch birdies – including a 4-foot dart on 17 – to put the tournament away. He won by three over Burns.
It was a timely breakthrough for Lee, who improved from No. 137 to 59th in the world ranking. As a result, he’s in the 2022 Masters, headed to Kiawah for the PGA this week, and could be in line for a U.S. Open berth if he can maintain this position through the weekend. The top 60 after the PGA automatically qualify for Torrey Pines.
The social-media outrage machine was working overtime last week when the NCAA canceled one of its four women’s regional tournaments without a single shot being played. That meant the top six seeded teams – those that had performed the best throughout the entirety of the season – were pushed through to nationals, while those outside the number were left to ponder what could have been.
The situation, of course, was more nuanced than it appeared. Because of the dire forecast in Baton Rouge, coaches were warned during the practice round that it was a possibility that only 18 holes would be played, or none at all. It’s also written in the NCAA manual that no golf can be played after Wednesday.
But the NCAA still failed the student-athletes. So much has been asked of these 18- to 22-year-olds over the past year: the 2020 NCAA cancellation, the fall postponement for many conferences, all of the COVID-19 testing and protocols. It hasn’t been a typical college experience. And in wiping out the regional, the NCAA representatives literally and symbolically turned their back on the players who have sacrificed so much, making the announcement and then heading back up the stairs (while players sobbed and shouted questions). They ducked into the clubhouse, dodged the coaches and failed to answer media inquiries for more than 24 hours. They failed in their stated duties to do everything possible to get in at least 18 holes of competition, if not more. If they had the foresight to start discussing the no-golf option four days early, then they could have begun exploring alternative options.
If ever there was a year to bend regulations and make accommodations, this was it. Instead, the NCAA fell back on the laughable excuse that they didn’t want to “overextend” the host venues – for about eight extra hours.
Kudos to Riggs and the rest of the Barstool folks for organizing a proper sendoff (with all expenses paid) for the players who won’t be in Scottsdale later this week for the beginning of the NCAA Championship.
THIS WEEK'S AWARD WINNERS ...
Worth the Wait: Richard Bland. What a story on the European Tour, with the 48-year-old Englishman finally breaking through after more than two decades of professional futility – 8,358 days since his first round on tour. He fired a final-round 66 and then won on the first playoff hole to win the British Masters in his 478th career start. The oldest first-time winner on tour, Bland was close to tears at the conclusion – and here’s guessing some viewers were, too.
Winning (Three Times) Is Hard: Stephan Jaeger. Looking for a rare three-win promotion on the Korn Ferry Tour – the first since Wesley Bryan in 2016 – Jaeger forfeited his three-shot lead, made only two birdies and missed a shortie for par on the 71st hole. His Sunday 72 wasn’t enough to hold off Greyson Sigg (who is now PGA Tour-bound this fall). The way he is playing, Jaeger will have plenty more chances to win three times in this super-season and earn the bump-up to the bigs – there are 14 events remaining.
Oh, What Could Have Been: Sam Burns. This could have been (and still might become) a monster season for the 24-year-old, who birdied the last hole at the Nelson to finish solo second behind Lee. He now has a Tour-leading four 54-hole leads this season, converting just one of those, at the Valspar. He was bidding to become the first player since Camilo Villegas in 2008 to earn his first two Tour victories in consecutive starts.
In the Least Surprising News of the Week: Phil Mickelson. Of course Mickelson was going to accept the special exemption into next month’s U.S. Open at Torrey Pines – the soon-to-be 51-year-old can’t win the thing if he doesn’t play. (In reality, it's hard to imagine him even making the cut, but that's not the point.) Why taking the freebie was even a question to him is the real wonder; it seems the USGA has more respect for Lefty than he does for them.
Priorities: Jason Day: A two-time winner at Torrey Pines, Day said he won’t chase a sectional qualifier to earn his way into the U.S. Open, citing a (cringe) previously arranged sponsor day with NetJets. At No. 65 in the world, he needs to play his way into the top 60 after the PGA or he’ll be watching from the couch with the couple’s fourth child, who is due any day now. He missed the cut at the Byron Nelson.
Something New: Rangefinders. Distance-measuring devices will make their major debut this week at the PGA, a decision that organizers said should help speed up play. Unless a player is way off-line, we’re not buying that – those who use them will likely only do so as a way to double-check their yardages – and it could potentially lessen the advantage of having a top-shelf caddie.
You Good or Nah?: Brooks Koepka. Though it was encouraging that Koepka could give his injured right knee a test run ahead of the PGA, it’s clear that he’s not close to 100% – and likely won’t be a contender until he’s nearer full health. Still unable to squat to read putts or mark his ball, he took 62 putts, shot 3 under (cut was minus-6) and made an early exit during a week of red-hot scoring in Dallas. Sadly, he won’t be among our top picks for Kiawah.
Blessing in Disguise: Cole Hammer and Pierceson Coody. Sure, the Texas stars would have loved to make the cut at the Nelson in a rare big-league start, but it would have been a logistical nightmare: Storms pushed back the Sunday finish, and the boys needed to be in Indiana for the beginning of the 54-hole regional tournament that began first-thing Monday morning. That could have been messy for the top-seeded Longhorns, but the missed cut allowed the guys another day to rest and a practice round at the host site.
Head on a Swivel: Dottie Pepper. During the third round, CBS’ roving reporter was nearly brained by an errant tee shot from Alex Noren. “Almost got me,” Pepper said, before quipping: “I’m not gonna walk into it.” It’s actually a surprise this doesn’t happen more often – those walkers put themselves in the line of fire on nearly every hole.
Good to See: Luke Donald. It’s been a miserable stretch for the former world No. 1, who had 18 missed cuts in his past 25 starts with just one finish better than 40th. Then he tied for 13th at the Nelson, his best result in 14 months. He was down to 658th in the world prior to last week.
So That’s What Being Proactive Looks Like?: Men’s Stillwater regional. With a dodgy weather forecast this week in Oklahoma, the top men’s teams in the country will play 36 holes on Monday (instead of the usual 18) in an attempt to ensure that it can get in all of the 54 holes for the NCAA qualifier by nightfall Wednesday. Ah, it’s that type of forward thinking that the women in Baton Rouge could have used ...
ONE MAN'S TOP 10 FAVORITES FOR THE PGA CHAMPIONSHIP
At a shade under 8,000 yards, Kiawah Island will clock in as the longest venue in major championship history. Even for the strongest major field of the year, that could dwindle the list of contenders if the wind blows (gusts of 25 mph as expected on Sunday, but overall conditions will be more benign in May than they typically are in August).
So, who do we like this week?
These guys, in order:
1.) Jordan Spieth: His driving is vastly improved, his iron play is back at an elite level, and if everyone is going to miss greens, we’ll take our chances with the player who has the sickest short game in the world. He's THE storyline this week.
2.) Jon Rahm: After a rare missed cut in Charlotte, he bounced back and shot 13 under at the Nelson. Maybe he isn’t in full flight quite yet, but with his all-around game, he doesn’t need to be.
3.) Viktor Hovland: On the doorstep of the top 10 in the world, Young Hov has back-to-back top-3s heading into this week. His penetrating ball flight should work nicely in Kiawah’s winds.
4.) Justin Thomas: His putter is icy cold, but majors typically become ball-striking contests. JT is No. 3 in the Tour’s strokes gained: tee to green statistic.
5.) Rory McIlroy: We understand the rush to anoint him as the favorite – he won two weeks ago, and he dominated at Kiawah the last time the PGA was held there – but there’s still reasons to doubt he’s all the way back. Hopefully he is, because the sport is better when he’s strutting around, but his swing is still very much a work in progress with coach Pete Cowen.
6.) Xander Schauffele: Yes, our pick to win seemingly every major for the past three years. He’s played only once since the Masters but still checked in with a top 15. Maybe it’s his time. Again.
7.) Dustin Johnson: Odd to peg the world No. 1 in this spot, but it’s warranted. Six starts without a top-10 is his longest stretch in two years, and he continues to search on the greens. This could be the week he awakens from his slumber.
8.) Collin Morikawa: The defending champ is the best iron player in the game. That’ll work everywhere, of course, but especially at a course like Kiawah that puts a premium on approach play.
9.) Bryson DeChambeau: The longest course in major history should suit DeChambeau, even if he’s not as sharp as he was two months ago. A legitimate concern: His moon balls could get eaten up by the crosswinds.
10.) Patrick Reed: Improving long-game stats and top-10s at beefy Torrey Pines (win), Concession, Augusta and Quail Hollow suggest that this all-world scrambler is becoming a more complete player.
Longer shots worth considering: Tony Finau, who top-tenned at the Masters and should thrive at a big ballpark; Cameron Smith, who enters the PGA after four weeks off (and two consecutive top-10s); Sam Burns, who nearly went back-to-back and absolutely pounds it; Daniel Berger, who lands in South Carolina after a Sunday 64 at the Nelson to tie for third; Garrick Higgo, the left-hander who has been mopping up on the European Tour and is making his major debut; Keegan Bradley, who ranks fifth in SG: tee to green and enters with six straight top-30s; and Will Zalatoris, because, like, obviously.