Golf loses a legend, Rory McIlroy steals the FedEx Cup, Ryan Moore makes the U.S. team, Ryder Cup mania begins and more in this week’s edition of the Monday Scramble:
The sport is worse off today, after the heartbreaking news Sunday night that Arnold Palmer, the King, had died at age 87.
It was a life well lived. Arnie was the most transformative figure in golf history, and the most important, his impact stretching far greater than his 62 wins or his seven major titles. No one did more to popularize the game. He was beloved, appreciated, revered. He was, in every sense of the word, an icon.
Everyone has an Arnold Palmer story, so here is mine: It was Bay Hill, March 2010, his tournament – and my first day on the job at Golfweek magazine. I was nervous. Hesitant. I was 22 years old, in my first pro gig.
A colleague and I wandered out onto the course. Waiting in a cart behind the first green, the very first person I saw, was Arnold Palmer. We locked eyes, and he gave me a big smile and a thumbs up, and immediately I felt at ease. That’s what I’ll remember most. He was disarming.
He made everyone feel special, even with the tiniest gesture. There will never – ever – be another superstar like him.
2. As Sunday night turned into Monday morning, Golf Channel went deep into the night, bringing in some of golf’s biggest names to share their memories of the King. Some reflections were particularly poignant. Grab a Kleenex for these eight minutes with Fred Couples:
3. When you’re Rory McIlroy, even lost seasons still turn out OK.
What had been a year filled with frustration ended Sunday in unlikely fashion – with majestic shots and clutch putts and, best of all, fist pumps and primal screams. It was the McIlroy we’d grown accustomed to seeing. The alpha dog.
Add it all up, and this season he won twice, had eight top-10s and cleared nearly $ 5.8 million in earnings. Only two seasons (2012, 2014) have been more profitable.
No, it wasn’t the year he hoped for, especially in the majors. But after sweeping the FedEx Cup/Tour Championship titles, he said: “I’ve made it no secret that it’s one of the last things I feel like I had left on my golfing CV.”
4. McIlroy has been so brilliant, so often, that it’s easy to lose perspective. Not yet 28, he now has 13 PGA Tour titles.
The only players in the past 25 years with more wins at this point in their careers? Tiger and Phil.
5. It took 10 years, but the FedEx Cup finally has its signature moment.
Sure, there were other points over the past few years when you thought, “Hey, this playoff thing is pretty cool.” Jim Furyk’s backward hat. Bill Haas’ splash from the water. Jordan Spieth’s putt from downtown Buckhead.
But none was better than what transpired Sunday at East Lake, with McIlroy stuffing a long approach shot to 6 feet on the first playoff hole and then celebrating in the gloaming a few holes later after running in his winning putt.
The Tour Championship won’t ever be able to compete against the behemoth that is football – a Labor Day finish, anyone? – but the final round was the best reminder yet that meaningful, exciting golf can still be played long after the majors are over.
6. The much-maligned Ryder Cup task force finally got one right when it was announced that Moore had received the 12th and final spot on the U.S. roster.
We likely couldn’t have typed these words a week ago, but there would have been a mini mutiny had Moore been left home.
Quite simply, he was the only player who stepped up late. Since the PGA, he led the Tour in combined score (57 under), birdies/eagles (122) and rounds in the 60s (18).
Even more important for his bid was the spirited duel at East Lake with McIlroy, matching him shot for shot despite spotting him 50 yards off the tee. Throw in his strong match-play reputation (albeit from a dozen years ago), and Moore was the only choice.
7. Seriously, let’s give the task force just a little bit of credit here: They pushed back the deadline for the final pick until after the Tour Championship, so the PGA leadership wouldn’t get skewered again for leaving off a player like Billy Horschel, who in 2014 won the final two tournaments of the season.
They said they wanted the players who were playing the best at the time, because good form doesn’t disappear over four days, no matter if the next tournament is held in Minnesota or Malaysia.
The final spot seemed certain to go to Bubba Watson, who could wail away on driver at long, rough-less Hazeltine. But Moore forced Love and Co. to call a late audible. Credit to them for adapting, using the new rule to their advantage and adding a player who can help them win.
8. Left out, of course, was Watson, which was stunning only when you look at his lofty world ranking: No. 7.
Much will be made about the perceived chemistry or partnership issues with Watson, but the reason he wasn’t picked was actually quite simple: He’s struggling with his game. He doesn’t have a top-10 in a full-field Tour event since early March, and his Ryder Cup record (3-8) didn’t help his cause.
Sure, it was a bold move, leaving off a player of Watson’s pedigree, but it was the proper decision.
9. That’s not to suggest that this whole situation was handled properly. Far from it, in fact.
Not only did Love put Watson in an awkward position by failing to address him by name during the initial picks announcement, but the waiting game created an unnecessary melodrama that provided endless fodder for the Europeans.
Even task force/committee member Phil Mickelson conceded that it was a mistake to wait so long: “It’s kind of hard to get all the game plans and so forth in sync when the team is not quite finalized.”
The European team, meanwhile, has been finalized – and gelling – for the past four weeks …
10. Dustin Johnson’s field-worst 73 in the final round of the Tour Championship was costly – like, $ 8.5 million.
In line for a season-ending, $ 11.44 million sweep, DJ instead finished second in the FedEx Cup, taking home $ 3 million, after shooting his worst final-round score since March. Had Moore or Kevin Chappell won the playoff, Johnson still would have claimed the big bonus.
“It still wouldn’t have felt right just because I didn’t win the Tour Championship,” Johnson said.
His accountant might disagree.
11. Jason Day’s season came to an abrupt end when he withdrew from the Tour Championship with more back issues.
It makes you wonder about his long-term prospects.
Day has been plagued by injuries ever since he broke on Tour. His swing is so violent, and creates so much stress on his lower back, that he’s bound to break down. When he’s healthy, or at least able to manage the preexisting condition, he’s able to play sublime golf – after all, he has won eight times over the past two years, more than any other player. But like his famous idol/mentor, he’s also a risk to withdraw at any moment. Among the activities during which Day has thrown out his back: changing a diaper, snatching his tee and picking up a pillow. Ugh.
12. NBC Sports analyst Johnny Miller suggested that the Europeans have, on paper at least, the “worst team they’ve had in many years.”
He cited the loss of Ian Poulter as one of the main reasons, which was curious, because the Englishman hasn’t played particularly well for years and only went 0-1-2 in his most recent Ryder Cup appearance.
The American team should be favored – the home-course advantage is real – but it likely won’t be a blowout. The Europeans still have the Masters champion, Open champion, Olympic champion and FedEx Cup champion, after all, and more top-12 players than the U.S. team.
The only way Europe loses by five points is if the stars don’t show up.
Davis Love III, Southern gentleman, isn’t prone to hyperbolic statements or trash talk. And yet there he was last week, popping on SiriusXM radio, channeling his inner Hal Sutton and declaring that this year’s U.S. Ryder Cup team – the one that, outside of Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth, has combined for just three wins this year – was the “best golf team maybe ever assembled.”
Yeah, uh, maybe not.
In 1981, the U.S. team consisted of Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Lee Trevino, Johnny Miller, Hale Irwin, Raymond Floyd, Tom Kite, Ben Crenshaw, Larry Nelson, Jerry Pate and Bill Rogers. They didn’t need a task force, either.
Such an uncharacteristically brash, arrogant comment leaves many questions, including this: What on earth are you doing?
Love showed a lack of respect for his opponent, and the Europeans will surely use that as bulletin-board material. (Rory: “They’ve definitely assembled the best task force ever, that’s for sure.”) It’s not like the Americans need any more pressure – they already play tight having lost eight of the past 10 cups.
Why add to that?
This week’s award winners …
He Did What?: Phil Mickelson. Trying to gain more distance in advance of this week’s Ryder Cup, Lefty tried out three new drivers at East Lake that were an inch longer than normal. Tinkering before the most pressure-packed week of the year is a bad idea for a number of reasons – namely: why not stick with what’s led to a resurgent season? – but he hit only six of 28 fairways over the first two rounds, the worst start of his Tour career. Who knows what type of form he’ll bring to Hazeltine.
Swell Move: Changing the routing for the Tour Championship. By switching the nines at East Lake, the finish now includes a watery par 4 and a final-hole par 5 that brings an eagle into play. That definitely beats a 210-yard par 3 that never produced much drama. Now players can win the tournament, as Rory did, rather than lose it.
Oh, So It IS Possible …: Kevin Na. One of the slowest players on Tour hustled around East Lake as a single on Sunday, checking in at 1 hour, 59 minutes while running between shots and making birdie on the last four holes. So maybe everybody else is slowing him down?
Random Thought of the Week: East Lake rough. They needed penal, hack-out rough for the 30-man season finale … why exactly?
Apropos of Nothing (or Something): Tour Championship performance. Excluding Moore, the other eight U.S. Ryder Cup members were a combined 11 over par for four days at East Lake. That includes Patrick Reed, J.B. Holmes and Jimmy Walker, who occupied three of the last four spots on the leaderboard. Uh-oh.
Oy, Oy, Oy: Australia’s amateurs. The three-man Aussie team put a beatdown on the field at the World Amateur Team Championship in Cancun, matching a tournament record at 38 under par, finishing 1-2 in the individual race (including U.S. Amateur champion Curtis Luck as the runner-up) and lapping the field by 19 shots. The U.S. squad tied for sixth, marking the first time since 1998 that it didn’t medal.
Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Jordan Spieth. A win and a runner-up in two of his last three years there, approaching the week like a major, plenty of motivation to try and salvage a what-could-have-been season … and a tie for 17th? Sigh.