Three weeks left to tie up loose ends before the Masters

Three weeks left to tie up loose ends before the Masters


Jason Kokrak finally gets it done, Phil Mickelson stays perfect, Tiger Woods returns to action, Brooks Koepka offers insight on his injuries and more in this week’s edition of Monday Scramble:

Kokrak on first Tour win: ‘Inevitable that I was actually going to get it done’

1. In a stirring duel with Xander Schauffele at the CJ Cup, Jason Kokrak prevailed to win for the first time on the PGA Tour.

TAKEAWAY: It took 233 career starts, but Kokrak, 35, is at last a Tour winner. All he needed was to play one of the best rounds of his life, firing a bogey-free, 8-under 64 – the round of the day – missing only one green and two fairways, and rolling in 110 feet worth of putts. He pulled ahead with a par on the 16th and then bludgeoned the par-5 finishing hole after hitting a 342-yard drive, center stripe.

For years Kokrak has been one of the more underrated ball-strikers on the PGA Tour, ranking inside the top 50 strokes gained: tee to green all but once over the past five seasons. That’s one of the chief reasons why he hasn’t finished worse than 100th in the FedExCup since 2012, his rookie season. But Kokrak has also been below average (or … worse) on and around the greens, giving him six career top-3 finishes and $13 million in earnings but never a win.   

Something changed a few months ago, when he put a 36-inch putter in the bag, allowing the 6-foot-4-inch, 225-pounder to stand more upright at address and getting the club more in his palms. It helped, too, to have a putting savant like David Robinson on the bag, as he reads nearly every putt Kokrak faces. At Shadow Creek – a course he figures he’s played 20 to 25 times – Kokrak led the field in putting for the first time.

“Anytime that you’ve been out here for that length of time, you definitely have doubts in your mind,” Kokrak said. “Between the team I’ve got in place, it was inevitable that it was going to happen.”

Entering the week, Kokrak was third on the all-time money list among players who had never won. Here’s the current top 5, now that Kokrak has graduated:

 

2. Xander Schauffele stamped himself as one of the most feared chaser in golf, nearly stealing the title at Shadow Creek with a final-round 66.

TAKEAWAY: Indeed, Schauffele got his bad round out of the way Saturday with a third-round 74 in windy conditions and amid painfully slow pace of play. That left him three shots off the lead heading into the final round. Noting his history – all four of his wins have come from behind – he joked with the media: “It’s all part of my master plan.”

It looked like it, too, because he was 7 under for his first 13 holes and locked in a battle with Kokrak. Schauffele’s bid ended with an errant drive on the par-5 16th, where he was only able to advance his second shot about 85 yards because of a wood chip near his ball. He continued to make a mess from there and dropped a shot, his lone bogey, of the day.

Asked what he took away from the week, Schauffele said: “This is the first time after two rounds of golf I had a three-shot lead – and obviously it showed, with a rookie move there shooting 74 on Saturday. But for me personally, just to know that my really good golf is that good, it’s nice to know that I do have it in me.”

Up to No. 7 in the world, another win – you know, an official win, unlike the Tour Championship – is coming very soon.

Phil now 2-0 on Champions, begins to build Masters momentum

3. Phil Mickelson stayed perfect on the PGA Tour Champions, winning for the second time in as many starts by outdueling Mike Weir at the Dominion Energy Charity Classic.

TAKEAWAY: That Mickelson was even in Virginia instead of Las Vegas was a surprise, and though he laughed off the schedule decision – it’d be a “letdown,” he said, to play Shadow Creek, after beating Tiger Woods there in their $9 million match – it was clear that he had some work to do as he looks forward to the Masters. Before the senior event he put a new driver in play, looking for more pop and carry, wanting to play aggressively because that’s how he wants to attack Augusta in a few weeks.

The style of play worked, of course, as he closed with 65, shot 17 under for 54 holes and became just the third player in history to win his first two events on the PGA Tour Champions.

He’s got ‘momentum,’ but where will it carry Phil Mickelson on road to Augusta?

Down the stretch, Mickelson was excellent and showed how much of an advantage he enjoys on the over-50 circuit, putting for eagle three times in his last four holes, including on the 15th after a perfect 3-wood, over the trees, on the drivable par 4.

It’ll be his final Champions start before the Masters; he’s playing this week at the Zozo Championship and again in Houston.

After beating up, again, on the old-timers, Mickelson said of returning to play against the young bucks: “It’s not going to be easy, but I’m going to give it a try and I’m going in with a little bit of confidence now.”

4. Tiger Woods will make his final tune-up before the Masters at this week’s Zozo Championship.

TAKEAWAY: Because of the pandemic, the Zozo moved from Japan to Southern California, at one of Woods’ personal playgrounds, Sherwood Country Club. In eight career appearances there – all in his limited-field World Challenge exhibitions – he’s a combined 97 under par. 

Here are his list of finishes, the most recent coming in 2014:

Yet course history is the only reason to believe in Woods’ chances at this point. Other than a tie for 10th at Torrey Pines in his opening event of the year, he’s battled through injury and, now, post-pandemic break, 18 rounds of listless play. Overall, he’s failed to finish inside the top 35 and broken par in just three of his past 13 Tour rounds. Woods hasn’t played in a month, since his 10-over-par missed cut at Winged Foot, but he’ll obviously find more friendly confines this week at Sherwood.

It’s his one and only tune-up before defending his title at the Masters, so this observer will be looking for a few things with an eye toward Augusta: 1) improved putting, since last season he would have ranked 183rd on Tour (out of 193!) had he played enough rounds to qualify; 2) a high draw shot shape, as that was one of the keys to his readiness for the 2019 Masters; and 3) tidiness around the greens, because that’s one of the areas Woods always emphasizes in his preparation for the Masters and he lost strokes to the field last season for the first time since his yip-filled events in 2015.

 

WHAT ELSE WE’RE TALKING ABOUT

Dustin Johnson became the most prominent PGA Tour player to test positive for COVID-19 when he was forced to withdraw last week from the CJ Cup.

It’s the third high-profile case in the last few weeks, as Rookie of the Year Scottie Scheffler was knocked out before the U.S. Open, Tony Finau tested positive before the Shriners and then DJ, the world No. 1 and reigning FedExCup Player of the Year, reported symptoms and then received confirmation that he indeed had come down with the virus. (And kudos to DJ: After first testing negative but starting to experiencing symptoms, he asked the Tour for another test.)

Though obviously his health is the most important thing, the timing is certainly interesting. Johnson was scheduled to play three times in four weeks in the run-up to Augusta. The CJ Cup is out. Johnson has to self-isolate and clear a 10-day threshold in order to return to competition, which jeopardizes this week’s event at Sherwood (where Johnson is a member). If he’s unable to go, that’d leave only the Houston Open before the Masters.  

Johnson was on a tear before this latest setback, racking up top-6s in each of his past five starts. 

Koepka: I didn’t realize how bad I felt

Brooks Koepka got through all four rounds at Shadow Creek unscathed after playing his first tournament in two months because of hip and knee injuries.

Before the tournament Koepka declared his health a “million times” better than when he began the year but acknowledged that he’s facing an uncertain future if his hip doesn’t improve. He had a cortisone shot recently to alleviate the discomfort from a slight tear in the labrum, but if he doesn’t experience improvement – or, worse, has another setback – he’s looking at surgery and a nine-month recovery.

But for now, he reported no issues. The bigger challenge will be getting his game in order with the Masters fast approaching. He managed a couple of 68s during the middle two rounds and tied for 28th in Las Vegas, but he nearly ranked last in driving accuracy (23 of 56) and was predictably rusty on the greens.

Koepka is slated for two more weeks of rest, recovery, rehab and rebuilding before a final Masters tune-up at the Houston Open.

Keep an eye this week on Bermuda, as the National Weather Service just issued a new advisory for Tropical Depression 27. It’s expected to become a tropical storm later this week before turning in a Category 1 hurricane that could impact the area by early Saturday morning.

That’s an issue, of course, because the PGA Tour is headed there next week for the Bermuda Championship, the second-to-last event before the Masters.  

Also interesting: Tournament organizers there are supposed to be welcoming a limited number of on-site spectators, the first time the Tour has allowed fans on property since March 12.

 

THIS WEEK’S AWARD WINNERS

When You’re Hot, You’re Hot: Adrian Otaegui. With rounds of 62-70-70-63, the 27-year-old Spaniard erased a four-shot deficit to Matt Wallace and captured his third European Tour title at the Scottish Championship (but first in a stroke-play event). He ended up winning by four, which was surely pleasing to his mentor, Jose Maria Olazabal.

Still Looking: Mike Weir. Taking the lead into the final round of the PGA Tour Champions event, the newly 50-year-old Weir was looking for his first win – anywhere – in 13 years. But he putted poorly in the final round and was lapped by Mickelson.

Beauty in the Madness: Tyrrell Hatton. The Englishman remains one of golf’s must-watch talents, not necessarily because of his shot-making but because of his combustibility, which was on full display last week after flying across eight time zones and not getting enough sleep in Vegas.

Auspicious Start: Takumi Kanaya. The former top-ranked amateur in the world finished seventh at the Japan Open to kick off his pro career, but a bigger test awaits: He received a sponsor exemption into this week’s Zozo Championship.   

Everybody Pitching In: Lost balls at Shadow Creek. The spread-out nature of the course, in addition to having no spectators on the course and fewer marshals, presented a challenge for players if they hit the ball off-line at Shadow Creek. Just peep this search party that broke out after Koepka couldn’t immediately locate his ball – Rory McIlroy even went commando!

Tough Break: Jason Day. Beginning the final round just five shots back of Russell Henley, in the same group as eventual winner Jason Kokrak, Day was looking to make a big move to earn his first title since the 2018 Wells Fargo but instead injured his neck/upper shoulder during his range session and couldn’t move properly. He walked off the course after making triple bogey on the first hole and struggling through the second hole. Hopefully he’s able to go this week at Sherwood.

Best Wishes: Michael Greller. Jordan Spieth’s loyal caddie left the CJ Cup early after learning of the death of his mother, Jane.

A Feel-Good Story, It is Not: Omar Uresti. The 52-year-old has 375 career starts on the PGA Tour, but the “PGA Life Member” just cleaned the clocks of those working the shop and giving lessons, setting the 72-hole scoring record at the Senior PGA Championship with a 18-under winning total.

No Words, Just Watch: Gary Player. Reminder: He turns 85 next month.

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Matthew Wolff. Fresh off a runner-up at the U.S. Open and then a playoff loss the previous week at the Shriners, Wolff would have been expected to keep rolling at Shadow Creek. Well, uh, except he shot 80 in the first round and closed with 77 and finished 73rd out of 77 players who completed the week. Sigh.





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