Monday Scramble: Top storylines as men's Olympic tournament begins in Japan

·13 min read

The men's Olympic tournament takes center stage, Minjee Lee rallies for her first major, Cameron Champ makes it count, Rickie Fowler flashes and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:

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The field for the men’s Olympic tournament took another massive hit over the weekend when both world No. 1 Jon Rahm and star attraction Bryson DeChambeau were bounced out of the field because of COVID-19.

Rahm’s positive test result is the most unfortunate since he tested positive for the virus for the second time in two months. In mid-June he was leading the Memorial by six shots heading into the final round when he was informed that he’d tested positive. Before winning the U.S. Open in his next start, Rahm said that he was vaccinated but that he was still within the 14-day window. Had this been a PGA Tour event, Rahm wouldn't have even been tested for three months in accordance with the CDC guidelines, but, well, the IOC doesn't play with its testing protocols, regardless of vaccination status.

In a statement announcing his withdrawal, Rahm expressed his disappointment and said that "unfortunately destiny had other plans." He will be replaced on Team Spain by Jorge Campillo.

DeChambeau, meanwhile, also tested positive before departing for Tokyo. The Olympics could have served as an opportunity for the polarizing star to write another chapter in what had been an eventful 2021, but he won’t get the chance.

DeChambeau was replaced on Team USA by Patrick Reed, who teed it up at the 3M but still agreed to go through the extensive testing protocols before flying to Japan. (Reed was the third alternate, meaning that Patrick Cantlay and Brooks Koepka both declined their invitation weeks ago.) Reed said that he will arrive in Japan on Wednesday afternoon, meaning he likely won't be able to squeeze in a practice round before the competition.

No matter.

“Anytime I can represent my country and go play for my country, I’m going to do it no matter what, no matter where it is, no matter what time zone or how I have to get there,” he said Sunday. “When they gave me the name ‘Captain America,’ the fans did, it feels like an obligation and a duty of mine to go out and play for our country whenever I can and whenever I get the call.”

Olympic rings
Olympic rings

Seven of the top 20 players in the world are teeing it up this week at the Olympics – and the course, Kasumigaseki Country Club, looks pretty sweet.

Players won’t have the usual Olympic experience with all of the strict health-and-safety protocols in place and no fans on-site, but that shouldn’t affect the competition.

Here are three storylines to watch this week (with coverage beginning Wednesday night on Golf Channel):

• Can Collin Morikawa continue his decorated debuts? The 24-year-old won the PGA and Open in his first appearances, so why not a gold medal in Japan? Morikawa, who is of Japanese and Chinese descent, has been looking forward to the opportunity to represent his country, and he’s the best bet of the four Americans (Justin Thomas, Xander Schauffele and Reed are the others) to land on the podium.

• Will the South Koreans’ preparation pay off? Few have more at stake this week than the South Korean duo of Sungjae Im and Si Woo Kim, who can avoid compulsory military service by age 28 if they earn a medal this week. (Im would have another chance at the 2024 Games, if he qualifies.) Both players withdrew from The Open in preparation for the Tokyo Olympics. Im and Kim have only one top-10 apiece since March but here’s hoping they can find some form (and ignore the weighty implications).

• Will Rory McIlroy play more than an ambassadorial role? It’s been obvious for years that the Northern Irishman is put in a tricky position with these Games, and his comments a few weeks ago suggest that he’s going simply because he believes it’s what’s good for the sport. That said: Come week’s end, there’d be no better imagery than Rory with a gold medal draped around his neck.

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What was supposed to be a coronation turned into a drama-filled back nine at the Evian Championship.

Leading by five shots on the strength of a second-round 61, Jeongeun Lee6 looked like she could go on cruise control to capture her second career major. Instead, she made five front-nine bogeys to open up the Evian to a slew of contenders.

Minjee Lee seized the opportunity.

Widely regarded as one of the top women’s players without a major, she fired a final-round 64 and rallied from seven shots back (tying the largest comeback in women’s major history) to force a playoff with Lee6.

In overtime, she stuffed a long approach on the first extra hole, forcing Lee6 to play more aggressively into the par 5. Lee6 dumped her second shot in the water and made bogey. Lee calmly two-putted for birdie to grab her first major title and realize her immense potential.

It's the second clutch performance from the Lee family in the past three weeks. At the Scottish Open a few weeks ago, Minjee's younger brother, Min Woo, delivered a dagger in the playoff to earn his second European Tour title. Great stuff.

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Think of Cameron Champ as golf’s version of former MLB slugger Adam Dunn: He doesn’t always connect – but when he does, he usually makes it count.

Much like Dunn, who sported a paltry .237 career batting average but still clocked 462 home runs, Champ has delivered the few times he’s been in the mix. With just seven career top-10s on Tour, Champ now also has three victories, the latest coming at the 3M Open, where he closed with a bogey-free 66 to win by two over a trio of players, including – you guessed it – Louis Oosthuizen.

On a TPC Twin Rivers venue better suited for plodders, Champ reined in his driver (just 17th in total driving distance) and relied on a molten-hot putter to get back on top for the first since the 2019 Safeway. He has won each of their first three seasons on Tour, joining the likes of Morikawa, DeChambeau, Reed and Dustin Johnson.

So, how did the player who had one top-25 since November pull this one off?

Look at his work on the greens: Ranked 206th in putting for the season, he was first at the 3M. And to hear Champ afterward, the bump had little to do with any technique or equipment changes. One of the most thoughtful and introspective players on Tour said it was actually something much deeper that led to his success. He had a breakthrough a few weeks ago, before his resurgent tie for 11th at the John Deere.

“All this year it’s just been a struggle between the ears,” he said. “I had to figure out how to manage everything and how to manage my own expectations and what I want to do in life. I was just putting a lot of stress on myself and doing things that I usually wouldn’t do and acting certain ways that I usually wouldn’t act on the course. So I just had to take a step back and say, You know what, this has to stop. I’ve got to be more true to myself no matter what happens.”

How refreshing is that?

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#Trending over the past few months, Rickie Fowler appeared poised to take the next step midway through the 3M. He opened with 64 to grab a share of the early lead and then weathered a breezy Day 2 to give himself a realistic shot on the weekend to earn his first title since 2019.

It’s been a rough few years as Fowler plays his way through a swing change with coach John Tillery. Fowler has tumbled outside the top 100 in the world rankings (even needing an exemption into this year’s PGA) and suffered statistically in all aspects of his game, including his once-reliable putting stroke. But much like his pal Jordan Spieth before him, Fowler has remained easy to root for during this slump, for he never made excuses or pointed fingers or got snippy with the press. He’s epitomized the old cliché: Form is temporary; class is permanent.

And Fowler’s persistence is starting to pay off. He showed glimmers of hope recently: A tie for eighth at Kiawah, to help justify his inclusion. A tie for 11th against another stout field at the Memorial. In the Year of the Comeback, Fowler’s reemergence seemed another logical entry.

On Saturday afternoon, he went 6 under for the first 10 holes and sprinted into the lead at the 3M. But trust and commitment are easy to attain when there’s little pressure, and that afternoon at TPC Twin Rivers was a reminder that Fowler is close, but not quite there yet. In the lead again in the third round, he failed to birdie the par-5 12th. Then he took back-to-back bogeys on Nos. 13 and 14. Still in the mix, he made a mess of the 18th and carded a triple-bogey-8; just like the old days, it seems, he has never lost the propensity for the big number.

Fowler wound up tied for 34th and actually dropped a spot in the FedExCup standings, to the bubble-boy position of No. 125. These next few weeks, with more at stake, will be another test of commitment to his new swing, but he’s not about to lose his card (he’s exempt through the 2022-23 season) and just wants to play better, period.

“Keep things simple and small and take care of what we need to do here,” he said, “and things will all fall into place and work out.”

THIS WEEK'S AWARD WINNERS ...

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Can’t Draw That Up: Stephen Dodd. Because of COVID restrictions the 55-year-old Welshman has played only one tournament in the past 18 months, and even he admitted that he didn’t know what type of game he’d wake up with Sunday morning. It proved to be good enough, as he rolled in a 10-foot birdie on the 72nd hole to win the Senior Open Championship in what is surely his career highlight. Dodd had three European Tour titles, but none since 2006. He had three European Senior Tour wins, but none since 2018. He’d never made a cut in a men’s major. And yet he fired a 62 in the third round at Sunningdale and poured in the biggest putt of his life when it mattered most. Tip o’ the cap.

Anddddd ... Another One: Louis Oosthuizen. After yet another agonizing near-miss at a major, King Louis wanted to hop right back into competition and signed up for the 3M. We’re not sure that offered any solace – he came close AGAIN, this time finishing two shots behind Champ. It was his 18th top-3 finish on Tour since 2011 without a win; for context, the next-closest player has nine. Great play, with very little to show for it. Still, he remained optimistic: "We had a good time here this week and I'm just trying to see if I can go one better than all these seconds and thirds," he said.

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Winning Is Hard, Part 1: Nacho Elvira. It took him 195 starts and eight seasons – plus a rollercoaster final round at the Cazoo Open – but Elvira is finally a European Tour winner. He went all Lee6 and coughed up a six-shot lead on the final day in Wales, but at least he survived in a playoff against Justin Harding so his fine play wasn’t all for naught.

Winning Is Hard, Part 2: Cameron Tringale. The overnight leader at the 3M, he plummeted to T-16 after an ugly 74 as the long wait continues for his first Tour win. And how about this for a stat: Phil Mickelson (PGA) is the last 54-hole leader to win on Tour – a span of 13 events.

Hopefully Help Is on the Way: Grayson Murray. The one-time Tour winner tweeted what appeared to be a cry for help, detailing his struggle with alcoholism and how the Tour lifestyle is “absolutely horrible” for him. One of his chief complaints was how the Tour never offered any training for his transition to the big leagues and cares only about the top one-percenters (the Tour, in a statement, denied this). Here’s hoping the 27-year-old can now get the assistance he needs.

That Hurts: Andrew Alligood. He grabbed the 54-hole lead at the PGA Tour Latinoamerica’s season-ending event despite recording a 10 (!) in his third round. Remarkably, he still shot even par on that side, and for the round, but he couldn’t keep rolling on the final day. His 74 dropped him into joint fourth. Had he simply made par on that disastrous hole, he would have won the tournament by one.

When Your Good Is Good: Mito Pereira. After launching onto the big tour following a three-win instant promotion from the Korn Ferry Tour, Pereira has acquitted himself rather nicely. He now has gone T5-T6 in his last two events. Welcome home.

Hey, We’ve Got That Shot!: Gary Woodland. Into the wind on the par-5 finishing hole at TPC Twin Rivers, the 2019 U.S. Open champion hit such a wicked slice that his ball crossed the width of the water and wound up on the other side, leaving him on dry land and just 227 yards into the green. He actually could have made birdie – he missed an 8-footer – but the closing par kept him in the tournament, just a shot off the lead after 54 holes. He eventually tied for 11th after a disappointing Sunday.

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Dustin Johnson. There’s no way to sugarcoat it: DJ has been one of the year’s biggest disappointments, and that continued at the 3M, where he was playing without his caddie/brother Austin (COVID-19) and made three bogeys in the back nine – including driving into the water on his final hole of the day – to miss the cut at TPC Twin Rivers. Coming off his best result in five months (T-8) at The Open, we’re still waiting for him to kick in gear, but who knows – this was the tournament that launched his career run in the second half of 2020. Maybe the same will happen this year.