Monday Scramble: Big-game Scottie strikes again, Tiger ramping up for Augusta
Scottie Scheffler remembers he’s Scottie Scheffler, Tiger Woods returns, the designated events shine and more in this week’s edition of the Monday Scramble:
Make way for golf’s new big-game hunter, Scottie Scheffler.
With a macho 65 to hold off a stacked leaderboard at the WM Phoenix Open, Scheffler won for the first time in 10 months and reclaimed his position as the top-ranked player in the world.
“I knew it was going to take a great round. Nobody was going to give this golf tournament to me,” he said afterward. “I had to go out and earn it. I was definitely proud of the result.”
His track record now speaks for itself: All five of his victories are (or have been elevated to) designated events. That means he’s beating the best fields on the best courses and with the most at stake.
Invitationals. Stroke play or match play. Majors.
It didn’t, and doesn’t, matter. Scheffler is a threat in all of ’em.
This triumph was particularly sweet, for Scheffler hadn’t won anywhere since the Masters, the culmination of a stretch in which he claimed 4-of-6 starts after having previously been winless. During that “drought” he didn’t exactly fall off – a playoff loss at Colonial, a narrow defeat at the U.S. Open, a final-day collapse at the Tour Championship in what could have been a historic campaign – but others had assumed the title of Hottest Golfer in the World, whether it was Rory McIlroy or Jon Rahm.
Scheffler doesn’t possess the firepower of those two studs, but he’s a lethal iron player with an innate ability to get the ball in the hole. To score. In the final round at TPC Scottsdale he hit only five fairways for the second consecutive day, and yet he shaped shots and scrambled and dropped big putt after big putt – none bigger than his 15-footer for par on the raucous 16th.
That make (coupled with Nick Taylor’s miss) propelled Scheffler to back-to-back titles in Phoenix, where it all started a year ago. We couldn’t possibly have known then what was coming. But now, with more experience in the cauldron, he might be primed for something even better.
With one simple sentence, Tiger Woods announced his return to competitive golf.
Rumors began swirling last week that Woods might tee it up at Riviera – where he’s played more times than any other course without a victory – but his commitment still registers as a mild surprise.
And it’s an important development for a few reasons.
It suggests that the plantar fasciitis that knocked him out of the Hero World Challenge in December wasn’t a long-term setback, that he’s been able to ramp up and prepare to put his game on display for a worldwide audience. Other than the hills on the first and 18th holes, Riviera is not a strenuous walk.
It suggests that he might be able to play next month, too, at The Players Championship, the PGA Tour’s flagship event, assuming he can get through this week without any setbacks. That’d give him a better sense of where his game stands heading into the year’s first major. Last year, he had no warmup heading into the Masters, and yet he still made the cut in his first competitive appearance since his horrific single-car accident 14 months earlier.
And it suggests that Woods wants to do his part to support the Tour. By any metric, PIP or otherwise, he remains the most important figure in golf, even as a part-time player. Though he’s been active and instrumental in helping shape the future of the Tour, he’s more influential between the ropes than in a boardroom.
That he’s playing one of the game’s most storied venues, in one of the Tour’s marquee events (which benefits his foundation), in one of the country’s largest markets is a massive boon for the Tour at a time when it’s trying to prove to sponsors that its product remains infinitely more appealing than its competitor’s.
All of which is to say a top-shelf event at Riviera (every top-25 player who is eligible is there) just got even better. Your trusty correspondent will be on-site beginning today.
This designated-events thing is kinda fun, no?
What played out at the WM Phoenix Open is how it should work, after all: When 22 of the top 25 in the world get together, the chances are better that the headliners are going to rise to the top.
And sure enough, the 54-hole board at TPC Scottsdale showed the goods: Scheffler leading, but Rahm and Jordan Spieth and Xander Schauffele all in pursuit, with the resurgent Rickie Fowler and Jason Day in striking distance, and with Canadians Nick Taylor and Adam Hadwin looking to play spoiler.
That last part is important.
With the 2024 schedule still under construction, there seems to be a growing sentiment that the designated events could basically replicate the BMW Championship model – top players, 70-man fields, no cut. Essentially, it’d be a World Golf Championship event, played over and over and over again throughout the season.
Which is fine …
Except the Tour’s designated events should strive to be more than just a new-look WGC. They shouldn’t just celebrate the stars, but also help develop new ones.
Though not as sexy, it’s a compelling subplot to follow, just as it was in Phoenix: Could the likes of Taylor and Hadwin (who have combined for three career Tour wins) overcome two of the best players in the game?
And so the Tour should do everything in its power to ensure that dynamic at its best regular-season events. Keep a spot or two open for qualifiers. Or hotshot new pros. Or Europe’s elite. Whatever.
Obviously, don’t fill up half the field with those guys – just a couple, just enough to create the possibility of a life-changing week.
It’s fun. It’s interesting. It’s different.
And that’s never been so important.
THIS WEEK’S AWARD WINNERS …
Respect: Nick Taylor. The surprising foil to Scheffler’s title bid, all Taylor did in the final round was go spike-for-spike with the world’s best and fire a 6-under 65 (three shots better than world No. 3 Jon Rahm!) to come up just short of a third Tour victory. All week he filled it up on the greens, but there’s one putt Taylor will rue the most – a 7-footer for par on 16 that weakly slid right of the cup, without much of a chance. For his runner-up effort, Taylor cleared more than $2 million in earnings – but, more importantly, he walked away with the confidence that he nearly pulled off the improbable.
No Spoilers Here: “Full Swing”. The long-awaited, eight-episode Netflix show finally drops Wednesday. It’s a fun watch, and we won’t spoil the good parts here, but viewers should be prepared that the show is focused more on character-building than exploring the Tour-LIV rift. So, we’re getting some cool behind-the-scenes looks at JT and Spieth’s hijinks and other lifestyle choices of the rich and famous … but we’re only slightly more educated on a few cast members’ reasons for bolting (there’s little post-Tour intel shared from both Ian Poulter and Brooks Koepka). Like any good show, “Full Swing” is best when showing the humanity of these stars and their inner circles: Mike Thomas’ love for his son, Joel Dahmen’s love for his caddie and Tony Finau’s love for his wife are among the highlights.
Rough Start: Brooks Koepka. After a pedestrian finish to begin the new year in Saudi Arabia, the four-time major winner bombed out of the Asian Tour’s event in Oman and missed the cut, sparking a Golf Twitter pile-on. Save for a LIV title in Saudi Arabia at the end of the year, Koepka has virtually disappeared. Over that period – as was made clear in the Netflix docuseries – he found himself at a crossroads, deeply questioning whether his competitive window had closed and how much his broken body had left to give. Ultimately, he made the choice to sign up for LIV not for competitive reasons but rather a reported nine-figure contract to set up his family for future generations. The majors will be a greater indicator of his form, of course, but it’d be a shame if King Koepka – still just 32 – has relinquished his crown for good.
Business as Usual: U.S. Open qualifiers. The words “LIV Golf” weren’t mentioned in the USGA release detailing its exemption categories for this year’s Open at Los Angeles Country Club, which means that the USGA is following Augusta National’s lead in saying: Hey, this isn’t our fight. So, DJ, Brooks, Bryson, Phil and the other qualifiers – they’ll all be at LAAC. As they should. They earned their spot there. Also, kudos to the USGA for getting both the men’s and women’s NCAA champions into their respective national championships. It’s about time the winner of the preeminent stroke-play amateur event got some more recognition.
They Gone: Sebastian Munoz and Mito Pereira. As has been rumored (and reported) for months, both Munoz and Pereira have gone to LIV, as Munoz confirmed to El Tiempo newspaper. Munoz said that with fewer and fewer Latino players left on Tour, he felt the pull of the team, and the community, that has made golf so enjoyable for him. It’s hard to fault him there; only he knows what will make him happy. Big picture, the move won’t move the needle, but it does further decimate the future International Presidents Cup teams. Curiously, LIV hasn’t confirmed their additions, perhaps holding out for more marquee signings with the season now a week away.
Tweet of the Week: Lee Westwood. Indeed, the rebellious fella who paraded around the 16th green and then belly-flopped into the 17th pond bore a striking resemblance to the mulleted major champion.
The Best Shot No One Saw: Jordan Spieth’s bunker shot on 17. There’s only a handful of players on the planet who would attempt this shot, let alone pull it off, as Spieth does here with an utterly ridiculous 76-yard blast to 3 feet in the third round. It’s almost (almost) best that it never made air – there’s a mythical-like quality to a mind-bending shot like this.
Just Like Last Year: Patrick Cantlay. The rust has been slow to come off this year for Cantlay, whose shoddy iron play in Phoenix led to a missed cut and his third consecutive finish outside the top 15 to begin 2023, which is … very un-Cantlay-like. Of course, it’s similar to the stretch he endured a year ago, when in four starts from Riviera through the Masters he failed to record a top-25. From that point on, he was dialed – and we’d expect similar production once he gets cooking this year, too.
Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Collin Morikawa. This was a head-scratcher, for Morikawa had gotten off to a flying start to the year – the deflating loss at Kapalua, yes, but also a tie for third at the Farmers in his follow-up. But in two rounds at TPC Scottsdale, Morikawa was slightly off-kilter, sharp with neither his longer clubs nor his shortest, as he ranked outside the top 100 both on and around the greens. It was his first missed cut since the 2022 Open. Sigh.