Billy Horschel adds another impressive in his résumé, the round-robin format comes under more scrutiny, Joel Dahmen wins one for Golf Twitter, Inbee Park gears up for a major week the only way she knows how, and more in this week’s edition of Monday Scramble:
One of Billy Horschel’s career goals is to play on a Ryder Cup team, and he left a strong impression Sunday with a 2-and-1 victory in the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play championship match over Scottie Scheffler.
Horschel beat a host of big-name players en route to the $1.8 million title – Genesis winner Max Homa; reigning PGA champion Collin Morikawa; European Ryder Cup hero Tommy Fleetwood; future Ryder Cupper Victor Perez; and then the 2020 Rookie of the Year Scheffler, who was playing in front of the UT faithful – and served notice to U.S. captain Steve Stricker that he has the goods.
He’s feisty. He’s accomplished, with six Tour wins, including the FedExCup, and a world ranking inside the top 20. And now he has this hard-earned match-play title.
“I feel like I should have been on Ryder Cup teams before,” Horschel said, “but that’s my fault because I haven’t done what I needed to do to take care of that. But maybe this is the year.”
For more on Horschel’s gritty win, check out colleague Rex Hoggard’s column from Austin.
Critics of the round-robin format at the WGC-Dell Match Play had even more ammunition after a sleepy championship Sunday.
Unpredictability is fun, but not when nearly EVERY top player is eliminated; only one top-20 seed (Jon Rahm) advanced to the knockout portion of the championship. The average seed of the advancing player this year was 43.4. Of the top 10 players in the strokes gained: tee to green statistic – aka the guys who are hitting it the best – only two (Robert MacIntyre and Kevin Kisner) advanced to the Round of 16. That shows the format is not necessarily identifying the best players.
The two semifinals and 18-hole final included just nine total birdies. Sure, that was largely a product of more difficult conditions, with cooler temperatures and a steady breeze out of a different direction, but the quality of golf wasn’t the same. The finalists played seven matches in five days, including back-to-back 36-hole doubleheaders on the weekend.
Tired legs and frayed nerves seldom produce inspiring golf.
“It wasn’t pretty,” Horschel conceded. “I feel sorry for the fans watching the coverage because they didn’t see any great golf shots, or very few of them. They saw a lot of sloppiness.”
The championship match rarely lives up to the suspense of the previous few days, when there’s always the threat of the underdog and going home early. The Jason Day-Victor Dubuisson scramble-off in 2014 was the last memorable finale. But the round-robin format (introduced a year later) has led to too many weekend letdowns, so let’s try something new, since the Tour seems wholly against the old single-elimination bracket, especially with the event so close to the Masters.
Our proposal: 54 holes of stroke play, then knockout match play over the weekend for the top 16.
This accomplishes a few things:
• It keeps the stars in town for at least three days;
• It should produce some exciting playoffs to reach the weekend;
• The top players would be best positioned to advance through medal play, setting up a stronger bracket;
• And there are still four matches over the weekend.
Let’s do it.
Joel Dahmen scored one of the most popular victories of the PGA Tour season at the Corales Puntacana Resort & Club Championship.
The 33-year-old is a cancer survivor who toiled for years on the mini-tours before sticking the past few years on the big circuit. He’s been solid if unspectacular, living out his dream while comfortably keeping his status each season and appealing to diehard golf fans (and writers like me) with his honest and revealing interviews. “The last four years have been pretty easygoing; they’ve been easy for me,” he said. “Not easy, but I played great.”
That hasn’t been the case in 2021, when Dahmen missed six cuts and tied for 60th in the other event. But he and his team never panicked, and he texted his loyal caddie Geno Bonnalie this message last Monday morning, after a week off to work on his game:
Joel sent me this text prior to our flight Monday morning. And yes, I have 1067 unread texts. I’ll do my best to respond 🍻
— Geno Bonnalie (@GenoBonnalie) March 28, 2021
Dahmen opened with 67, ran off four birdies early Sunday and then hung on for a one-shot victory – his first on Tour. Though the opposite-field win doesn’t come with a Masters invite (“I’m going to take the Masters off for my 33rd year in a row,” he joked), it does come with various other perks, including a trip to Kapalua to start 2022 and a two-year exemption.
“I’ve been a pretty solid player out here for a couple years now,” he said, “and I was due for a win. It hasn’t quite hit me yet, but it’s pretty darn cool.”
Michelle Wie West’s long-awaited return to the LPGA Tour ended quicker than she hoped after missing the cut by eight shots at the Kia Classic.
One website noted how Wie West improved seven shots from round to round (81-74), but the big takeaway here was how the 31-year-old reported no setbacks with her wrist and still wants to reside among the game’s elite, even after enduring so many physical setbacks and becoming a mother last year. The Kia was Wie West’s first LPGA start since June 2019. For a while, she thought her career was over.
There’s a massive mountain to climb for her to once again become a weekly threat, but Wie West says she’s committed to the task. That’s half the battle. She’s also in the field this week at the ANA Inspiration.
Speaking of which …
It’s time for the first LPGA major of the year!
What a tricky tournament to forecast. There’s been only four LPGA events played so far this year, and they’ve been won by accomplished players: Both Korda sisters, Jessica and Nelly; Austin Ernst; and Inbee Park, who closed out her 21st LPGA title with a dominant wire-to-wire performance in her season debut at the Kia. Still, this is like playing the Masters after only the Tour’s West Coast swing. There just isn’t a huge sample size to consider.
World No. 1 Jin Young Ko has a pair of top-5s in three starts. Second-ranked Sei Young Kim doesn’t have a top-10 in three tries. Last week was the first time that each of the top 10 players in the world teed it up in the same tournament.
Conditions are ripe for another player to break through, unless, of course, the Queen ’Bee double-dips: After all, Park has a win and five other top-10s in her career at Mission Hills. Lexi Thompson has finished inside the top 7 in six of her last seven appearances there, and she’s coming off a runner-up at the Kia.
Some more good news: At least this year they won’t have that ridiculous backstop on the 18th green.
THIS WEEK’S AWARD WINNERS …
McIlroy has a ‘natural fit’ with new swing coach
Gotta Try Something: Rory McIlroy. Frustrated with his direction and unable to see longtime swing coach Michael Bannon as often as he’d like because of COVID-19 travel restrictions, McIlroy made the move, officially, to add renowned instructor Pete Cowen to his stable. The first order of business is getting McIlroy’s iron play (especially his wedges) under control, and he only got three days of work last week after going 1-1-1 in pool play. Completing the career Grand Slam next week seems unlikely, but a new set of eyes should get McIlroy back on track for the summer stretch.
Won’t Be Dustin Johnson’s Cup Partner Anytime Soon: Kevin Na. During their third-round match, Na decided to lecture the world No. 1 after Johnson scooped a 1-foot putt that Na hadn’t yet conceded. Na was well within his rights and did the sporting thing by not making DJ forfeit the hole, but he could have handled the situation better: Did he really have to call Johnson back over to the green – a 50-yard walk – just to put his hand on his shoulder and scold him for an innocent mistake on a 13-inch putt? Of course not. Gently remind him on the next tee: Hey, man. Just be careful, because I’ve gotta say something first …
Kevin Na giving DJ a lesson on scooping a ball before it’s officially conceded:
Na: “I know it’s this, but you still have to wait until I say something.” pic.twitter.com/GVJhXMBMXI
— Ryan Lavner (@RyanLavnerGC) March 26, 2021
Na didn’t think he did anything wrong and downplayed any friction between the two. DJ didn’t talk to reporters after the loss and, in a surprise move, signed up for the Valero for the first time since 2015 (Editor’s note: Johnson officially withdrew from the Texas Open on Monday afternoon). We don’t know if he was more frustrated with himself or Na. Clearly, though, he wants to dial in his game a little more before his title defense at Augusta – he’s gone three consecutive starts without a top-25, his longest stretch since summer 2019.
When Even the Consolation Match Means Something: Victor Perez. In the third-place match Victor Perez and Matt Kuchar were playing for more than just the difference of $140,000. A solo-third finish at the WGC would have given Perez special temporary membership on the PGA Tour, meaning he’d be eligible for unlimited sponsor exemptions the rest of the season. Though he lost in the semis, Perez still should be in good position to earn that status with another decent tournament, following top-10s now in both the Match Play and The Players. At No. 30 in the world, he’s the highest-ranked player in the world who is not a Tour member.
The Hottest Player in the World (Non-Tour Division): Daniel Van Tonder. With Justin Harding stumbling on the final day in Kenya in his bid to go back-to-back, Van Tonder rallied to capture his fifth title in his past 13 starts. He’s mostly been beating up on guys on the Sunshine Tour, but hey: a W is a W. He’s up to 73rd in the world.
Hard-Luck Loser, Part 1: Patrick Cantlay. No one got hosed by the pool-play format more than Cantlay, who made 15 birdies, an eagle and only four bogeys across his three matches, yet he was sent packing after losing a tiebreaker playoff to Harman, whom he’d already defeated. At 9.4 strokes gained: tee to green, no one played better than Cantlay, if you’re wondering about his form heading into Augusta.
Hard-Luck Loser, Part 2: In Gee Chun. In a tie for fifth heading into the weekend at the Kia, Chun apparently forgot to sign her card – a violation of Rule 3.3b(2), which results in a disqualification. From a chance to win to a weekend off. That’s a harsh lesson learned.
Thankful for Fans: Matt Kuchar. Late in his Round of 16 match against Jordan Spieth, Kuchar told the fans on the 16th hole to duck under the ropes and help him find his errant second shot before the 3-minute requirement elapsed. Despite rooting for the former Longhorn Spieth, they did locate the ball, with about 20 seconds to spare, and Kuchar paid it off with a crucial par to remain tied. He eventually won on the final green.
That Hurts: Texas’ Kaitlyn Papp and Agathe Laisne. Both Longhorns, ranked inside the top 16 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking, tested positive for COVID-19 last week and were forced to withdraw from the Augusta National Women’s Amateur. A bummer, for sure, but at least they got to play in the inaugural event two years ago. Papp, you may recall, also played in the final group Saturday at the 2020 U.S. Women’s Open.
Uhh, Priorities?: Andrew Yun. The former Stanford stud missed the birth of his second child after he Monday-qualified for the Tour event in the Dominican. Yeah, it’s a tough way to make a living and sacrifices have to be made, but was the T-22 (in an opposite-field event!) really worth it? “I’m trying to make the most of this opportunity,” he said, then added ironically: “But at the same time, I think it gives you a good perspective on life in general. Golf’s not the most important thing, it’s family.”
Won’t Do That Again: Rafael Campos’ early call. Ah, yes, this was tough to watch, as Campos’ birdie putt to tie on the final green lipped out, leaving him one back of Dahmen and breaking the heart of the native Puerto Rican. But let this be a lesson to you, kids: Start your celebration after the putt drops, not before.
TOP 5 TAKEAWAYS, FROM A RYDER CUP PERSPECTIVE
1.) Steve Stricker has an unenviable task. There’s still six months to go, but it’s pretty clear that some uber-talented players are going to be left at home. Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau, Justin Thomas, Brooks Koepka, Collin Morikawa and Xander Schauffele would automatically qualify if the team was decided today. (We know: It’s not.) All of those guys will be on the team; only Brooks Koepka is a question mark, because of his latest knee injury. After that: Patrick Reed, Tony Finau, Daniel Berger, Webb Simpson, Horschel and Patrick Cantlay round out the top 12. With six captain’s picks, who are you really going to leave out from that group? And guys like Scheffler, Kisner, Jordan Spieth, Will Zalatoris and Matthew Wolff are all on the outside looking in.
Stricker has to be hoping the next six months provide some more clarity. But that said …
2.) … if he’s in anything resembling decent form come the fall, Kevin Kisner deserves a long look. He’s a former champion of the Match Play. He has a 16-6-1 career record. He has Presidents Cup experience. He’s a tenacious competitor and strong putter. With six captain’s picks this time, Stricker has the ability to round out his roster with specialists. Match play is Kisner’s specialty.
3.) Tyrrell Hatton is a confusing player to figure out. He has risen to No. 8 in the world ranking on the strength of three wins in the past 12 months – all against strong fields, at Bay Hill, Wentworth and Abu Dhabi – but he’s never really showed up in the game’s biggest events. He didn’t have a chance to win in any of the five top-10 finishes he’s posted in the majors. Last year, when he was playing the best golf of his career, his major run looked like this: MC-MC-MC. He went 1-2 in the 2018 Ryder Cup, and last week he managed only a half-point as the top seed in a pod that included warhorses like Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood.
About the only thing we really know about Hatton? He’ll let us know when he’s displeased.
4.) Victor Perez is going to collect some pelts come September. Though he’s still a relative unknown to many in the States, he’s now up to 30th in the world and nearly locked up special temporary membership on the Tour. Reaching the semifinals was no fluke – and neither was beating a match-play savant like Garcia and upstart Robert MacIntyre. Pair him with a veteran at Whistling Straits (maybe even Garcia) and let him shine. He’s rock-solid.
5.) Bryson DeChambeau has struggled in match play. The 2015 U.S. Amateur champion hasn’t enjoyed the same success in the pros, falling to 2-8-1 in match-play competitions, including a 1-2 performance at Austin Country Club. DeChambeau’s immense length will be a huge advantage at a brawny ballpark like Whistling Straits, but Stricker has to find him a compatible partner. That’s not easy, so let us suggest Patrick Reed. They’re pals and would compliment each other’s games nicely in match play.