Monday Scramble: TPC Tricky awaits Tour’s best at The Players
Kurt Kitayama prevails at Arnie’s Place, the PGA Tour prepares for radical changes, the Players Championship takes center stage and more in this week’s edition of the Monday Scramble:
In what has already been an entertaining, star-driven start to the year, the Arnold Palmer Invitational produced the wildest Sunday so far.
Surviving a triple bogey (and a second OB ball of the weekend), Kurt Kitayama outlasted a half-dozen Ryder Cuppers, buried a go-ahead birdie putt on the 71st hole and sealed his first PGA Tour victory with a deft lag from long range on the final green to prevail at Bay Hill.
It was a long-awaited victory for Kitayama, who figures he’s played on at least 10 developmental tours, all over the world, before finally landing on the big stage. Last year he was three times a runner-up, each time to some of the biggest names in the sport: Jon Rahm (Mexico), Xander Schauffele (Scottish), Rory McIlroy (CJ).
This time, it was Kitayama who nipped the stars, improbably, after snap-hooking his tee shot out of bounds on the ninth hole to squander a two-shot advantage. But just like in the third round, when he ballooned another ball over the fence on the fourth hole, leading to a shocking double bogey, Kitayama appeared undeterred. Before his putt for triple, he turned to his caddie for the past month, Tim Tucker (who used to loop for Bryson DeChambeau), and told him that he still felt comfortable. That it was just one bad swing, at a very bad time.
“I know,” Tucker told him. “You look fine.”
Kitayama didn’t drop another shot the rest of the way.
As Bay Hill’s baked-out greens became typically crusty, he was the rare player who sank a putt, his perfect 6-iron into the 17th green leaving him a 13-footer to pull ahead of a stacked group of contenders including McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Scottie Scheffler, Harris English and Patrick Cantlay.
A whole new world awaits Kitayama, who rocketed to 19th in the world and now, at No. 6 in the standings, could figure prominently in the U.S. Ryder Cup discussion. It’s an unexpected star turn for a 30-year-old who is finally coming into his own after years spent toiling overseas. Standing just 5-foot-7, he ranks among the Tour leaders in ball speed – little wonder he’s nicknamed “Quadzilla” – and has earned the respect of his peers.
“I think a little bit of luck finally went my way,” Kitayama said afterward. “When it’s that close at the top, that’s what you need. Anyone probably could have won it. Luckily, it just happened to be me.”
Radical change is coming to the PGA Tour in 2024.
The designated events will undergo another overhaul – this time, with 70- to 80-man fields, no cut and at least $20 million purses. Basically, it’ll be eight BMW Championships (as we previewed here, last August).
Opinion appears mixed. We’re on record as to liking these moves, for the most part.
So, let’s break it down here:
1.) The designated events have been a smash hit so far, so why not double down?
This is indisputable:
• Kapalua: Won by Jon Rahm, with an epic comeback over a skidding Collin Morikawa;
• Phoenix: Won by Scottie Scheffler, in a compelling duel against world No. 223 Nick Taylor;
• Riviera: Won by Rahm, who outlasted fan-favorite Max Homa on one of the Tour’s best courses;
• Bay Hill: Won by Kitayama, in a final round that included six different leaders on a familiar track that pushed players to the breaking point.
Turns out gathering the best players in the world, more often, in the Tour’s premier regular-season events, is a good idea.
2.) The Tour is finally catering to the best players.
For decades, the Tour’s modus operandi was to provide playing opportunities for all members, whether it was Rory McIlroy or Rod Pampling.
Catering to an organization’s middle and lower class is no way to run a successful business, especially when faced with an existential threat like LIV Golf, and it’s clear now that the Tour stars of the moment are in command. Their buy-in is the most critical. The clear delineation between the haves and have-mores will lead to more player flirtation with the Saudi-backed league, but all of the grousing, grumbling and growing pains in the short term will be worth it for the Tour in the long run.
3.) The idea of a “play-in series” of two to three non-designated, full-field events (littered with Nos. 51-125 guys) is intriguing.
Play well, change your career trajectory.
The Tour had to find a way to showcase not just the top players but the hot players, and this was a clever option. It also raises the stakes of every Tour event. Under the new plan, even non-designated events would offer (among other things): a two-year Tour exemption, entry into designated events for the rest of the year, major invitations and a first-place check commensurate with the current pay structure (roughly $1.5 million). That sure beats the current landscape of A- and C-level events.
4.) The last four weeks of season should be a helluva show.
• Wyndham: Cut down to the top 70 for the playoffs, sparing those players the fall pressure-cooker for status;
• FedEx St. Jude Championship: Cut down to the top 50, a hugely significant divide now with the designated-event series;
• BMW Championship: Cut down to the top 30, putting players in line for what should be a $100 million FedExCup bonus (and qualifying ends for the cup teams);
• Tour Championship: Battling it out for FedExCup/$20 million prize/Player of the Year honors.
The Tour postseason struggled for years to have an identity. Now it has one: It’s Cut-Down SZN, with career-changing stakes.
1.) No-cut events.
Is this finalized? Commissioner Jay Monahan, in the memo, said there will be “no cuts.” Rory McIlroy, in a press conference, said it was actually “TBD.”
In any case, we can assume that the Tour didn’t just hastily arrive at this conclusion – clearly, players, sponsors, broadcast partners and fans are interested in having the star players around all four days, especially with weekend coverage drawing more than six times the viewers of the early rounds.
It seems like a solution to what is nearly a nonexistent problem.
How many weekends do these guys even miss? The top five Tour players in the world (Rahm, Scheffler, McIlroy, Cantlay, Schauffele) have missed a total of 12 cuts – combined – over the past season and a half. So, they’re watering down the competition for the rare off-week.
The halfway cut adds drama, urgency, finality, which is why we’d rather see them:
A) Preserve a small cut for the invitationals (Riviera, Bay Hill, Memorial), which is something that would appease hosts Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus, or:
B) Implement a top-50-and-ties rule. Why not copy the Masters, the best tournament in the world? They take a smallish field, then at the halfway point trim the old-timers, amateurs and struggling players. No one wants to be on the wrong side of that cut, and the premier Tour events should have the same feel.
2.) The remaining questions:
A two-page memo didn’t answer every outstanding question, and so it’s no surprise that Monahan will host a Tuesday morning Q&A with players at TPC Sawgrass. The commissioner will also speak with the media on Wednesday.
Still to be determined:
• What are they playing for in the fall? Full cards? Limited status? Do the players who tear it up gain entry into the designated events?
• What will be the selection process for the four sponsor exemptions? There are way too many backroom deals between player agencies and tournament officials, and that can’t happen anymore with so much at stake. It’s going to be an unenviable task, singling out the four special invitees who are either the most deserving, most promising and/or most interesting among the membership.
• What happened to the strategic alliance with the DP World Tour? McIlroy voiced support for some day incorporating some of the European tour’s Rolex Series events (BMW PGA, Scottish/Irish Open, Abu Dhabi, etc.) into the Tour schedule, creating more of a world circuit. A reminder that the top 10 players in the Race to Dubai standings will earn Tour status for the following season.
• What does the FedExCup points allocation look like? In announcing the news to the membership, Monahan mentioned that “additional points” will be awarded to those in the designated events versus the non-designated events. But if the calculus is off (and if the FedExCup history is any indication, it likely will be in Year 1 …), then it will create a closed shop with not nearly the 40% churn that the Tour models are projecting, particularly with the new changes to the Official World Golf Ranking still being felt.
• Can players work their way into the designated series – and then stay there? Let’s say a player competes in three consecutive full-field events to try and be among the top 10 not already eligible for the Pebble/Riviera doubleheader. He plays fine there but not quite good enough, though, and then falls back out, leading to three more starts if he wants to play for another $40 million combined in four weeks’ time. That seems … less than ideal.
Of course, before judging too harshly, let’s see if there are any more tweaks before Jan. 1.
If there’s been one unexpected consequence of the designated-event era, it’s this: The Players Championship doesn’t feel quite as grand.
The Tour’s flagship event at TPC Sawgrass used to mark the first time that season that the top players were assured of getting together.
But this will be the FIFTH such occurrence this season – and we’re just now entering the second week of March.
Still, there’s much to be excited about: It’s a significant title, on a dramatic track, with a record $25 million up for grabs. The forecast looks delightful. The Stadium will be rocking.
The event itself remains a bit of a handicapping mystery. The defending champion (Cam Smith) isn’t there. Neither is the rest of the 2022 podium (Anirban Lahiri and Paul Casey). The game’s best players all have a spotty record, at best, at Sawgrass.
Their best finishes:
• Jon Rahm: T-9
• Scottie Scheffler: T-55
• Rory McIlroy: Win (only finish inside top-10 since 2016).
• Patrick Cantlay: T-22
• Xander Schauffele: T-2 (only made cut in four tries)
• Max Homa: T-13
• Will Zalatoris: 21st
• Justin Thomas: Win (just two top-10s overall)
• Collin Morikawa: T-41
Good luck picking a winner!
THIS WEEK’S AWARD WINNERS …
Back Like She Never Left: Jin Young Ko. After a surprisingly poor 2022 in which she battled a nagging wrist injury and poor form, the former world No. 1 got right at the HSBC World Championship, outdueling Nelly Korda in the rain for her 14th career LPGA title, and first in a calendar year. Ko was emotional on the final green, and for good reason: She’s a winner again. “It’s going to be big momentum for me in my life,” she said.
So Much For That: Extra Tiger Woods appearance. Though it was a slim chance, there was at least a chance that Woods would sign up for this week’s Players just three weeks after the Genesis. It would have been an encouraging sign that his body recovered well from the wear and tear of walking 90 holes at Riviera – but, alas, that wasn’t a commitment he was ready to make, opting to sit out the Tour’s flagship event. That means we likely won’t see him until the Masters. Even though he has pulled off the improbable before, to seriously contend there, Woods needed another tune-up start – he has played just 13 competitive rounds in the past year. His body simply can’t handle it right now … and, potentially, for the foreseeable future.
Order is Restored: McIlroy. One of the co-architects of the designated-event series, McIlroy had been conspicuously absent from the last two marquee tournaments with a pair of finishes outside the top 25 – even more surprising since he won in Dubai at the beginning of the year. Arnie’s Place has always been a get-right spot for McIlroy (just one finish worse than T-13), and it was again this time, even if he was left to rue his hooked tee shot on the par-3 14th that led to the first of two-consecutive bogeys, dropping him out of the solo lead and dooming him to a T-2 showing. Still, he showed some marked improvement off the tee. With two starts before Augusta, he believes he’s where he wants to be.
He’s Human!: Jon Rahm. There has been no better driver of the golf ball over the past few seasons than Rahm … but he finished last off the tee among those who made the cut at Bay Hill, where he lost a whopping 6.5 strokes to the field with the big stick, the most significant reason why he tumbled down the leaderboard following an opening 65. The burly Spaniard hasn’t often played in Florida, and perhaps we know why – his West Coast/Florida swing splits are pretty drastic. His scoring average the past three years on the West Coast: 68.57. But in Florida? It’s 70.83 – and that’s before his 1-over 289 for a T-39 in Orlando, his worst finish since last July (!).
Young Man Comin’: Akshay Bhatia. With a runner-up finish at the Puerto Rico Open, Bhatia locked up special temporary membership on Tour, enabling him to receive an unlimited number of sponsor exemptions this season. Good thing, too, for the 21-year-old southpaw should receive a bunch of ’em, thanks to his big game and fun personality. Now that he’s found his footing, he’ll be a name to watch over the next few months as he tries to join the game’s elite.
Common Sense Prevails?: 2024 Pebble. Recent reporting suggests that the AT&T event at Pebble Beach will receive designated status next season, a no-brainer given that it’s one of the game’s crown jewels and should be highlighted on the Tour schedule. What wasn’t so simple was figuring out what to do with the pro-am component, since the top players in the world aren’t going to be down with slogging through at least three rounds with celebrities and businessmen. The solution, according to Golfweek? Just two courses in the rotation and an amateur cut after 36 holes, leaving the weekend to the pros in what should become a U.S. Open Lite in February. Can’t wait.
Bad Look: Kamaiu Johnson. In the API field on a sponsor exemption, Johnson was in the mix to make the cut when he made a triple-bogey 7 on the ninth hole of his second round. Trouble is, he insisted that he had made a 6 on the hole, under some pretty questionable circumstances, as reported here by Ryan French. Johnson came home with three more bogeys to miss the cut by six, but he was later disqualified for signing an incorrect scorecard. It remains to be seen whether this incident affects the likelihood of future handouts. (Here is his explanation of what happened.)
Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Will Zalatoris. Bay Hill is a ball-striker’s paradise, which is why we were so high on Zalatoris, especially after his fourth-place showing at Riviera in his only action over the past month. But he never got going at Arnie’s Place, uncharacteristically struggling with his iron play and around the greens while failing to break par in any of the four rounds, slumping to a tie for 53rd. He still should factor in the proceedings this week at the Stadium Course … or so we think. Sigh.