Monday Scramble: A designated-event snoozer, Cantlay’s caddie change, and McIlroy’s quiet return
Wyndham Clark blows away the field at Quail Hollow, Joe LaCava finds a new boss, Rory McIlroy returns, LIV golfers continue to complain and more in this week’s edition of the Monday Scramble:
There finally was a snoozer of a designated event – all thanks to some sublime golf from Wyndham Clark.
The 29-year-old Clark had been trending toward his first PGA Tour victory, but much was unsettled as he came to the first tee with a two-shot lead Sunday at the Wells Fargo Championship. Then came a nervy opening bogey and a tidy first 90 minutes from Xander Schauffele, and all of a sudden Clark, was trailing by the time he arrived at No. 8.
But Clark’s nifty up-and-in on the drivable par 4 – “that really loosened me up” – kickstarted a run in which he eventually turned a one-shot deficit into a five-shot advantage. He played Quail Hollow’s watery closing stretch with nary a concern, which would have seemed unthinkable at the start of the day, with the world No. 5, Tyrrell Hatton, and major champions Adam Scott and Justin Thomas all in pursuit.
Clark has had a handful of close calls this year, most notably in the Dominican Republic, and he recalled having several difficult conversations with his team about whether he really had the goods to win on Tour. It wasn’t the first time he doubted his skills: In college, he contemplated giving up the game, after his mother died of breast cancer. Clark transferred from Oklahoma State to Oregon, if only for a change of scenery, and then posted a player-of-the-year season to surge into the pros with confidence. Now in his fifth Tour season, he’s finally a winner and inside the top 50 in the world for the first time.
“I’ve dreamt about this since I was probably 6 years old,” he said afterward. “Since I’ve been on the PGA Tour, you fantasize about it all the time, and I’ve done it multiple times this year, where I catch myself daydreaming about winning. And to do it at this golf course, against this competition, is better than I could ever have imagined.”
Three other items from a busy week at Quail Hollow:
• Clark’s victory, as the 80th-ranked player in the world, bucked the trend of top players getting it done in the designated events. Even when Kurt Kitayama won at Bay Hill, he was being hunted most closely by Rory McIlroy, Scottie Scheffler and Jordan Spieth. In Clark’s case, it was Schauffele who had the best chance to take him down.
Assembling the best players in the world together has been a smashing success, but we were due for a dud. Here’s the world ranking of the previous designated-event winners:
- Jon Rahm: No. 5
- Scheffler: 2
- Rahm: 3
- Kitayama: 46
- Scheffler: 2
- Sam Burns: 15
- Rahm: 3
- Matt Fitzpatrick: 16
• In a surprising move, world No. 4 Patrick Cantlay changed caddies, switching from Matt Minister (a year and a half removed from their Player of the Year season) to Joe LaCava. The decision reveals more about Cantlay and LaCava than it does the caddie’s former boss, Tiger Woods.
It says that Cantlay, despite his eight Tour wins and lofty world ranking, felt something was missing between the ropes that was keeping him from accessing his full potential at age 31. It says that LaCava had more to give than just a few major appearances per year; he missed the weekly grind and wanted to compete again. Good for him; Cantlay should scratch that itch with a dozen or so top finishes per year.
As for Woods, there was little reason to retain a caddie as sought-after as LaCava with his competitive future so uncertain. At most Woods will play 16 rounds a year, at the majors, and he should be able to manage that limited schedule with a part-time caddie of his choosing (his right-hand man, Rob McNamara, makes the most sense). The two made a helluva team over the past dozen or so years; LaCava offered a steady hand through all of the demoralizing injuries and inspiring comebacks. It’s a bit sad to think the run is over.
• Rory McIlroy returned to competitive action, but his listless performance at Quail Hollow seemed to leave more questions than answers.
First, McIlroy explained his no-show at Harbour Town as a mental break; he knew the consequences of a second withdrawal would mean a $3 million reduction in his bonus money, but he felt the time spent at home, as a reset, was worth it. Commissioner Jay Monahan confirmed that the WD penalty would stand, but even that raised a few eyebrows: With the renewed emphasis on athletes’ mental health, are we really discouraging players from taking time for themselves? Very odd.
Upon his return, McIlroy’s game looked plenty rusty. After an opening 68, he shot 3 over the rest of the way at a place where he’s won three times previously, then didn’t speak to the media following the final round. It will be McIlroy’s one and only tournament appearance between the year’s first two majors. His last three stroke-play results heading into next week’s PGA: MC-MC-T47. If there’s a silver lining, he tied for eighth the last time the PGA was held at Oak Hill, back in 2013. He’s a member of the club, thanks to his wife Erica’s ties to the area.
Conveniently, Talor Gooch, Phil Mickelson and the rest of the LIV supporters whining about Gooch being kept out of next month’s U.S. Open have forgotten one thing.
Had they been paying attention, this was telegraphed all along.
At USGA CEO Mike Whan’s press conference ahead of the 2022 U.S. Open at The Country Club, he expressed his disapproval with the ongoing division within the game and said this in regards to future qualification for LIV members and everyone else:
“As we would do any year, we’re going to definitely reevaluate field criteria. We would any year. We will take a look at what the landscape looks like.”
And they did.
On Feb. 9, the USGA announced its qualification criteria that included a subtle but notable change: Players who qualified for the PGA Tour’s season-ending Tour Championship were exempt into the Open … but they also had to be ELIGIBLE to play at East Lake. Gooch was not, after he was banned by the Tour following his defection to LIV late in the season. Augusta National has made a similar qualification tweak for the 2024 Masters. It’s closing a loophole that otherwise would exempt a player who is no longer in good standing with his former tour.
For this year’s Open, that move affects one player, and one player only: Gooch.
“Any time we make changes to our criteria going forward it impacts somebody and that stinks,” he said, “but we can only look forward.”
LIV players and supporters howled that Whan and Co. were going out of their way to exclude them. They argued that Gooch would have ordinarily been exempt, but that the tweak was designated specifically to force him out. Mickelson, having suddenly rediscovered his voice on social media, accused the USGA of colluding with the established tours and described Whan’s decision as a “d–k move.”
But this isn’t “retroactive” – field criteria can, and does, change on an annual basis. It’s retribution, and they all should have known it was coming.
Of course, Gooch could have played his way into the Open through another avenue. He ended last year ranked 40th in the world but was set to freefall over the next few months. That was his decision, though, after he opted to sign up with a tour that doesn’t currently offer world ranking points. He knew (or at least should have) the possibility existed that his major-playing days were in jeopardy; players like Harold Varner III and Thomas Pieters openly discussed it at the Masters. Gooch sits right now at No. 63, and the OWGR cutoff is the Monday after the PGA Championship. If Gooch plays well there – he was granted a spot, presumably as a top-100 player – then he can still make his way into the field for LACC.
Gooch also could have joined the rest of the dreamers and schemers to tee it up in the one-day, 36-hole final qualifying, but he let the April deadline come and go without submitting his entry form. That is his fault alone.
Gooch’s predicament is further proof that LIV players now find themselves on an island with few to answer their desperate pleas for help. The world ranking decision wasn’t expedited despite their wails that it is “obsolete.” An arbitration panel sided with the DP World Tour. And the majors, at least right now, aren’t tripping over themselves to exempt the LIV players.
Only now are they starting to get the message.
Luke Donald’s looming decision was made a bit easier last week when Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter and Richard Bland all decided to resign from the DP World Tour because of upcoming sanctions after LIV Golf lost its arbitration case against the DP World Tour.
That means that the players will be ineligible to compete in the upcoming Ryder Cup; only the 43-year-old Garcia, the all-time points leader, had even a remote chance of playing on the squad in Italy, considering the division he’s caused (and ongoing feud with McIlroy) over the past year. It also means – for now – that Garcia, Westwood and Poulter, among the most decorated players in European Ryder Cup history, cannot captain a future squad.
We say “for now” because those rules, of course, could be amended in the future, if, say, there’s a compromise reached between the warring sides, but that doesn’t appear to be imminent. So Donald will carry on with his duties, the future clearer, while the decorated trio watches from home (as will Henrik Stenson, who was stripped of the captaincy once he bolted for LIV).
In a statement, the DP World Tour thanked those players for their contributions. McIlroy weighed in, too: “At the end of the day, that was their choice, and they knew that these were potentially going to be the consequences of those choices and of those actions, and here we are.”
Is the event poorer for not having those legendary figures play a role? In the short term, not really. It was time for the next European chapter, anyway. But here’s guessing the landscape will look markedly different by the time Bethpage rolls around in 2025. They mightn’t be banished just yet.
THIS WEEK’S AWARD WINNERS …
Back Again: Jim Furyk. The 2018 Ryder Cup captain will get another turn at the helm, this time leading the Americans into Montreal for the 2024 Presidents Cup. It’s a fine selection if the goal is to maintain continuity and consistency – the smart, savvy Furyk has been a trusted and dedicated part of the Team USA leadership for years, and the talent disparity between the two sides is such that it might not matter who is the most front-facing member. But it also lays bare the reality that the U.S. squad needs to bring some new members into the fraternity. Furyk’s assistant choices will be very interesting: When do the likes of Stewart Cink, Matt Kuchar and David Toms start getting worked into the rotation?
No Thai Here: Team Thailand. The four-headed monster of Atthaya Thitikul, Patty Tavatanakit, and the Jutanugarn sisters (Ariya and Moriya) proved to be a tough out at the International Crown, with the team going 11-1 for the week at Harding Park to hoist the trophy. The championship match against the Australians was a clean sweep, with Ariya, the former world No. 1, claiming MVP honors in what will hopefully catapult her for the rest of the season; she is far too talented of a player to be ranked 83rd in the world. The format at the International Crown, once again, was a fun and refreshing change from the monotony of stroke play.
Getting Closer: Adrian Meronk. With his second win of the DP World Tour season (and third overall), the big man from Poland rose to No. 5 on the European Ryder Cup points list, not insignificant with Donald likely needing to fill out the back end of his lineup with newcomers. At this point, it seems certain that Meronk will be among the chief contenders, especially after he won Sunday at upcoming host Marco Simone. That many of the other Ryder Cup hopefuls did not participate mattered little – Meronk has elevated himself to a new level this year and deserves serious consideration.
Bad Time for a Bad Time: Xander Schauffele. Needing to “put the screws down” on Clark, Schauffele instead let him back in the tournament. On Sunday he had both his worst driving day of the week (hit half the fairways) AND his worst putting performance, losing nearly a stroke and a half to the field and holing just 50 feet worth of putts. That added up to a 70 – when he needed something in the mid-60s – and another close call in a season in which he’s still searching for win No. 1, though he joined Scheffler and Rahm with a Tour-leading eight top-10s this season.
Coming Back: Michael Kim. Statistically one of the worst players on Tour over the past few years, Kim had fallen out of the top 1,000 in the world about 14 months ago. But he has rediscovered his game, climbing all the way back to No. 157 after a resurgent spring in which he has three top-11 finishes, including his first in a designated event. His seventh-place showing at Quail Hollow also earned him an automatic exemption into Royal Liverpool through the Open qualifying series. (Oh, and he is also a sneaky-great follow on Twitter.)
Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Jordan Spieth. Jason Day also deserves a shoutout here, but Spieth was the biggest surprise – he went 5-0 in last year’s Presidents Cup at Quail Hollow, and he arrived in full flight with five top-6s in the past three months. Alas, Spieth blew out of town early with a second-round 77, losing nearly six shots to the field from tee to green. At least he’ll have a chance this week to rinse off the stench, with a home game in Dallas for the Nelson. A momentous opportunity awaits at the PGA – rarely has he arrived in better form (or so we thought) for a shot at completing the career Grand Slam. Sigh.