Hopefully you enjoyed that brief intermission – the PGA Tour season restarts this week in Hawaii.
We’re kicking off another year of the Monday Scramble, so let’s get into it:
Only Rory McIlroy is missing from the 2021 calendar-year Tour winners. Everybody else – headliners such as Jon Rahm, Collin Morikawa and Bryson DeChambeau – are all teeing it up at Kapalua for the 2022 lid-lifter. Here’s what we’re watching this week:
The world No. 1, for now
Rahm hasn’t played since he ran out of gas late in the year on the European Tour (now called the, sigh, DP World Tour). He even pulled out of the season finale in Dubai, citing a need to recharge after what was demanding year physically and emotionally.
So, what should we expect from Rahmbo as the calendar turns? More of the usual. This is the same monster who led the Tour in basically every major statistical category. Even though Collin Morikawa has closed the gap at the top of the world rankings – he has yet another opportunity to overtake him at Kapalua – Rahm is a perennial contender who isn’t going anywhere for a long, long time.
Rust might be an issue for Rahm (and, frankly, the rest of the field) but he’s still top-10'd in each of his previous four appearances at Kapalua.
Nice to see you again
Only one top player took off the entire fall slate after the Ryder Cup: Patrick Cantlay, the reigning FedExCup champion.
It’s hard to blame Cantlay, after what has been a hectic 18 months during golf’s pandemic return. After a career season, the 29-year-old played a ton of high-level golf but also knew he needed to ensure his body was right after dealing with various back issues over the years.
While the rest of the top 10 dusted off the clubs in Vegas or Mexico or the Bahamas, Cantlay stayed put for the past three months – likely the only time he’ll be able to have a dedicated break.
Smart planning, really – and some much-deserved time off.
Ahh, so that’s why
More than a few eyebrows were raised when it was announced that Phil Mickelson would play in the opening event for the first time since 2001. It wasn’t because Mickelson longed for the tropical paradise – nah, with Lefty, there’s usually an ulterior motive.
Mickelson tweeted that he was playing Sentry because he needed to fulfill the new-event requirement of the Player Impact Program. The PGA champion said that he won the $8 million first-place PIP prize, though that may have been a premature declaration to juice his various metrics. Colleague Rex Hoggard recently reported that the PIP ran through the end of the calendar year and could result in a lag in reporting time, thus the announcement to the membership would likely be delayed until February. It’s reasonable to expect that Tiger Woods’ stirring performance at the PNC Championship would help bolster his case as the top needle-mover.
Whatever the case, it’s cool that Mickelson signed up for Kapalua, perhaps for the final time. Though he routinely beat up on the over-50 set in 2021, he struggled mightily against the Tour crowd save for his historic victory at Kiawah. Prior to the PGA title he didn’t register a top-10 in his previous 17 starts. Since then, he doesn’t have a top-10 in his past nine.
Hey, if you’re gonna somehow stumble your way into a win, it might as well be a major.
What’s he gonna do now?
Bryson DeChambeau has been too quiet for too long. Since the Ryder Cup he has only played once, officially, at the Hero World Challenge (T-14 out of 20). He was also whipped by Brooks Koepka in that highly touted charity match.
Regardless of the final PIP standings, no one generated more content last year than the polarizing DeChambeau. That included at Kapalua, where he discussed his ongoing experimentation with the now-illegal 48-inch driver and how during speed training he often pushed himself to the brink of blackout. Who knows what kind of goodies he’ll serve up this year in his pre-tournament comments.
More interestingly: How does he look? Not just appearance-wise, since he has slimmed down in recent months. But it’ll be noteworthy to see whether his game is any tighter. He should have a massive advantage at a sprawling ballpark like Kapalua, but his oft-maligned wedge game will be put to the test in the whipping winds. Short-iron play was one of his major points of emphasis this offseason.
WAY-TOO-EARLY PREDICTIONS SURE TO GO AWRY!
Player of the Year: Collin Morikawa. Might be the first time in Monday Scramble history that we haven’t selected Justin Thomas in this spot, but Morikawa gets the nod this year. His iron play is peerless, and he now has enough experience on these Tour layouts that he’ll be even more lethal. If his putting continues to improve – he’s already situationally great – it’ll be another three- or four-win campaign. He’s in that competitive sweet spot: 24 years old, without familial responsibilities, and hungry for more.
Ready to Make the Leap: Maverick McNealy. This category will mean different things to different people. For instance: We think Viktor Hovland, currently ranked No. 8 in the world, will continue to climb. We think Scottie Scheffler and Matt Fitzpatrick are likely bets to earn their first Tour title. We think youngsters like Sam Burns and Will Zalatoris could play their way on to the U.S. Presidents Cup team. But our pick to “break out,” whatever that means, is McNealy, now 26 and in the midst of his third full season on Tour. Last year he had a couple of chances to win, at Pebble and Napa, but he’s ready to challenge outside of his native state. An improved ball-striker thanks to his work with swing coach Butch Harmon, McNealy has nine top-25s in his last 14 starts, and the belief here is that he can comfortably climb into the top 50 in the world and secure his first appearance at the Tour Championship.
Blowout of the Year: Presidents Cup. Hopefully we’re wrong, because team events are among the most fun to cover all year, but the Internationals’ new blood of Sungjae Im, Joaquin Niemann and Abe Ancer won’t be enough to derail this American powerhouse. The fight for those 12 spots will be fierce (heck, the B-squad might be able to win), and that year-long competition will bleed into the event at Quail Hollow – a beefy venue that will play right into the U.S. team’s hands, again. This won't be 2017-level bad, but it ain't gonna be close, either.
Drought Most Likely to End: Rory McIlroy at the Masters. Yep, we’re suckers for the narrative, even with McIlroy now seven-plus years removed from his last major title and still 0-for-career at Augusta. But all these years later, there remains reason for optimism: The short field at Augusta gives him the best chance to pick off a major, his improved putting can stand up to Augusta’s notoriously difficult greens, and his back-to-his-roots mindset has already begun to unlock some stellar golf. Give him another few months of fine-tuning in the early spring, and he should arrive at ANGC ready for the challenge.
Who Will Have the Better Year, Brooks Koepka or Bryson DeChambeau: Bryson DeChambeau. DeChambeau is always going to get his every year on benign Tour setups, even more so if he can limit some of the off-course distractions that, he said, nearly drove him into retirement last year. Koepka, meanwhile, remains a perennial threat at the majors, but since the 2019 PGA he hasn’t been as bulletproof in the big events. Of late, he was one of the Americans’ worst players at the Ryder Cup (it’s all relative, of course) and he closed out the Tour year with a handful of lifeless performances. DeChambeau still cares about events other than the majors – and that might be the key difference in this head-to-head showdown.
Needing to Make a Statement: Dustin Johnson. Have we seen the end of DJ, dominant player? A year ago this week he was the undisputed world No. 1, fresh off a Tiger-like stretch of sublime form. Then he sleepwalked his way through an indifferent 2021 campaign, failing to earn a Tour title while putting up his worst stats since his early pro years. His 5-0 week at the Ryder Cup showed us the magic is still in there, but now 37, he may have a harder time accessing it and/or getting up for the weekly grind.
Most Likely to Step Back: Louis Oosthuizen. There was a stretch last summer when King Louis was arguably playing as well as anybody in the world. Then a cold dose of reality: He failed to win any of his myriad opportunities, a reminder that he inexplicably has no other Tour wins besides the 2010 Open, and he’s 39 years old with a creaky back that ages him even more. Louie begins the year at No. 11 in the world on the strength of his major finishes. With the explosion of young studs and Oosthuizen’s lengthy medical history, it wouldn’t surprise if he dropped out of the top 25 by year’s end.
Most Likely to Bounce Back: Justin Thomas. See, we had to put JT somewhere. At the end of the year he started to wake up his dormant game, and what was – in his words – a disappointing year, even with the Players title, will only fuel his fire for 2022. Jim “Bones” Mackay jumped back into the caddie role for a reason – this guy is a superstar.
Tiger Woods Will Return at ...: St. Andrews. The Open makes the most sense, for a couple of reasons: It gives the 46-year-old another seven months to get his body and game in gear. The flat terrain makes for an easier walk than, say, Augusta National. And links golf is a better fit for his scaled-back (but still genius) game, a style in which he could compete with only his guile and golf IQ. If he doesn’t make it back in time for The Open, it’s reasonable to think we won’t see him at all in 2022, save for perhaps the Hero or the PNC.
Best Tournament of the Year: Open Championship. The oldest major returns to the Home of Golf, and no matter what transpires it’ll be an unforgettable week. Will the pros tear apart the sacred links if the wind dies down? An amateur shared the lead after 54 holes in 2015, so who will surprise this time? Our early pick: Jordan Spieth ... seven years after he had a legitimate chance there to capture the third leg of the Grand Slam.
The First Player to Sign with a Rival League: Lee Westwood. We’re still skeptical that any of these startups will actually get off the ground, but if they do, Westy is as good a bet as any to first sign on the dotted line. Turning 49 in April, he’s at an age when few would blame him for cashing in on his terrific year; with little else to prove, he’d also be unafraid of rankling execs at HQ. Removing himself from consideration for the European Ryder Cup captaincy (he said he wanted another turn as a player in 2023, despite being hesitant to play this time around and stumbling his way to a 1-2 mark at Whistling Straits) could be viewed as yet another sign that he’s ready to move on.
Bold Prediction: Jon Rahm top-3s in every major. We hate these kind of picks, because how bold is BOLD is obviously subjective. This one is unlikely to happen ... but it’s not so unlikely that it’s inconceivable. A year ago Rahm finished T-8 or better in every major, and that’s with a couple of interruptions in the run-up to the events, with the birth of his first child ahead of the Masters and then a COVID-19 diagnosis before the U.S. Open. There isn’t a major ill-suited for this all-around stud.