Rory McIlroy and Patrick Reed duel in the desert, Max Homa becomes the king of Cali, Jon Rahm suffers a rare letdown and more in this week's edition of the Monday Scramble:
So much for easing into the year.
In a drama-filled Dubai Desert Classic from start to finish, Rory McIlroy made a highlight-reel putt on the 72nd hole to avoid a playoff with his Tee-Gate rival, Patrick Reed, and win for the first time in his opening event of the new year.
For all of the talk this year about Jon Rahm’s torrid run, it’s worth remembering how much McIlroy was cooking before he shut it down for two months. Dating to last fall, the world No. 1 now has seven consecutive top-7 finishes, including three wins.
“It’s been a pretty draining week as the first week back out,” he said. “But obviously ecstatic to get the win.”
Making his first competitive start since the season-ender in Dubai last November, McIlroy’s week began with a reported “incident” with Reed, with whom McIlroy has sparred at both the Ryder Cup and the Masters. Though it was initially described as Reed throwing a tee at McIlroy in disgust, video clearly showed a playful toss of a LIV-branded tee in McIlroy’s direction.
Still, both players traded barbs in the press. McIlroy took exception with one of Reed’s lawyers, Larry Klayman, serving him a subpoena for the separate Tour antitrust case on Christmas Eve. Reed said that McIlroy was behaving like a “immature little child” and, thus, deserved to be treated like one. Those fighting words laid bare the true feelings of a Tour-LIV rift that, in some circles, has gotten deeply personal.
It served as the spicy backdrop for what became a wildly entertaining Rolex Series event in Dubai.
Throughout the week McIlroy wasn’t outstanding in any particular area. He started slowly. He found only two fairways in the second round. He ended his third round with a thinned 3-wood into the pond. And he appeared as though he had lost the tournament with a left miss on the par-3 15th, dropping him a shot behind Reed.
But, first, McIlroy launched a tee shot onto the front edge of the drivable 17th for a two-putt birdie. And then, after narrowly missing the water with his tee shot on 18, he opted to lay up and rely on his tidier wedge game. Given some of his recent memories there (he lost in 2022 after finding the water, and an ugly bogey-6 Sunday let a handful of players back into the tournament), it proved a prudent choice.
McIlroy holed the 15-footer for birdie in a moment that was eerily reminiscent of his clinching putt to win at Bay Hill in 2018.
“The most satisfying thing for me this week is I haven’t had my best, far from it,” he said, “and to be able to win when you don’t have your best, that’s sort of like the Holy Grail of what we’re trying to do.”
That he nipped Reed by a shot was even sweeter.
The final round was one of the “toughest rounds I’ve ever had to play,” McIlroy said, “because it would be really easy to let your emotions get in the way and I just had to really concentrate on focusing on myself.”
Reed once again proved he’s impervious to distractions, not just shaking off the headline-making drama from the range but also a penalty drop in the third round that generated plenty of online chatter and necessitated a detailed explanation from the on-site rules official:
Even with all that swirling around him, Reed fired a 65 in the final round to post the clubhouse lead. He was in the scoring trailer, awaiting a playoff, when McIlroy denied him.
If we’re lucky, it won’t be their only battle this year.
It’s jarring to watch in final rounds how Max Homa transforms himself from the self-aware everyman to a stone-cold assassin. No golfer on the planet slips as easily between his dual personas.
A day after he helped give viewers unprecedented access with an in-round walk-and-talk at Torrey Pines, Homa got down to the serious business of winning with a final-round 66 to capture the Farmers Insurance Open.
Having once made $18,008 in a 17-start season, Homa now has earned six Tour titles, four of which have come in his native state of California, including two this season. Already, Homa is being tabbed as one of the favorites for the U.S. Open at Los Angeles Country Club, where he holds the course record of 61 and once won the Pac-12 Championship.
There’s much to accomplish until then.
“I’d like to say I’m going to feel just like I do right now,” he said, “but I’m just going to keep working at it, and when I get there I’ll be able to look around and appreciate that I have great history there.”
This title at Torrey underscored Homa’s ruthless streak inside the ropes.
Seemingly channeling his boyhood hero, Kobe Bryant, Homa summoned his best stuff of the week Saturday from tee to green, methodically chipping away at Sam Ryder’s lead that at one point stretched to four shots.
Making the turn in 32, Homa made two impossibly sweet swings on the 11th and 16th tees that helped nab him the title. On the 213-yard 11th, he smoothed a mid-iron that wound up 13 feet behind the flag for an unlikely birdie. Then on 16, a 230-yard monster that played even longer on a cold afternoon, he launched a gorgeous high cut with a 4-iron to a back-left pin that put him 15 feet away, the left-to-right bender dropping for birdie that put him into the lead for good:
Those two back-nine blows were highlight-reel worthy – per stats guru Justin Ray, they were also historic – but just as pleasing to Homa were the gut-check 5-footers for par that he drained on the 13th and 15th holes to keep him in the mix.
“Just that tenacity,” he said. “Everyone around you might be oohing and ahhing, and you know what’s about to happen, and you just kind of stand up there and say, I’m going to show you what guts are right now, and, I’m going to show you that I trust what I’ve been doing.”
What Homa has been doing recently is playing the best golf of his life.
His swing, honed over the years with coach Mark Blackburn, is among the most technically sound on Tour, and his stellar ball-striking has now been complimented by his recent work with a new sports psychologist, Julie Elion, who worked previously with the likes of Phil Mickelson.
Having been open about past crises of confidence, Homa believes a mental coach might be the key to untapping his greatness in the game’s biggest events. (Somehow, he has zero top-10s in the majors, a statistic that seems likely to change this year.)
“The last two months have opened my eyes to a lot of things,” he said.
Homa isn’t generally considered one of the game’s slam-dunk closers, but perhaps he should – of the nine times he’s entered the final round in the top 5, he has gone on to win six of those events.
Sure, the goal is to get there more often, to give himself as many chances to win each year as McIlroy and Jon Rahm and Scottie Scheffler. But when Homa sniffs contention, he clearly knows what to do.
Some other tidbits from a lively week at Torrey …:
• Jon Rahm was the prohibitive favorite heading into the final round … even though he was two shots back of Ryder. Such are the times. But Rahmbo wasn’t comfortable from the outset, bogeying the opening hole, making a messy double bogey on the fifth hole and scrambling just to shoot 74 on a day when his usually reliable driver deserted him and he bemoaned a couple of bad breaks. After making known his displeasure with the current rankings system, his fate was squarely in his hands – a win would vault him to No. 1, and he had a chance with as little as a third-place showing, but Rahm settled for joint seventh. After a week away, he’s sure to come roaring back in Phoenix.
• ’Twas an impressive bounce-back from Collin Morikawa, who finished alone in third at Torrey in his first start since kicking away that six-shot lead at Kapalua. Twice in the final round his ball settled into a divot in the fairway, costing him what should have been ideal looks at birdie with a short iron. His short game and putting continue to be works in progress – he got up-and-down in just half of his 18 attempts, and he lost strokes on the green in two of the three recorded rounds – but he’s striping it so nicely that he needs only to be average. His arrow is pointing upward, again.
• Tip of the cap to Ryder, who was gunning to go wire-to-wire for his first Tour win at one of the Tour’s most difficult venues. And for a while, he was keeping at bay a host of worthy challengers that included a face-to-face showdown with Rahm. Needing to avoid the gnarly rough, he found only half of the fairways in the final round, which doomed him on both the par-5 13th (just a par) and the 15th hole, where he slashed out of a terrible lie, clanked his pitch shot over the green and took double to tumble out of the lead. (The brutal footage here.) Said Homa: “Sam is a phenomenal golfer; I’m sure he’ll win a bunch out here. But he hadn’t won yet. And it’s hard to win, I know that. I’ve done it, fortunately, and I think when the old guys say experience is key, that’s what they’re talking about.” Ryder signed for 75.
THIS WEEK'S AWARD WINNERS ...
More of This, Please: Homa. CBS has promised to mic up more players this year for the in-round walk-and-talk, and Homa was, obviously, the perfect guinea pig for the experiment. That he eventually went on to win should, hopefully, serve as evidence to the other top players that they can let us into their inner sanctum without complete and utter collapse. Yes, players are competing for their livelihoods, but the PGA Tour is an entertainment product, first and foremost, and no player straddles that line as well as Homa.
If This Is It …: LIV rebels. An arbitration hearing next week will decide whether the LIV players can continue to play on the European tour. If a ban is upheld, it was a heckuva way for the guys to go out, with LIV players (Reed, Lee Westwood, Henrik Stenson, Richard Bland) occupying four of the top 12 spots on the leaderboard in Dubai. Stenson carded the low round of the day Monday, an 8-under 64, to fly all the way up to joint eighth.
Fast Starter: McIlroy. Somehow, McIlroy’s triumph in Dubai was the first time that he’s won in his first start of the new year. That’s not to say he hadn’t played well previously – since 2008, he had posted a whopping 10 top-3s and 12 top-5s in 15 opening-event starts. Only once had he missed the cut. More than anything, it’s a testament to his offseason practice and preparation that he comes out of the gates so hot.
Big Yikes: Pebble field. What used to be a can’t-miss event is now – as a non-designated event placed ahead of two in a row – one that nearly all of the top players are skipping, save for Jordan Spieth, Viktor Hovland and Matt Fitzpatrick. In all, there are just seven top-50 players in the field. The most interesting event this week is, indisputably, the Asian Tour event in Saudi Arabia, which is serving as an unofficial kickoff event for the LIVers. Speaking of which ...
Interesting: Tour players in Saudi Arabia. Keep an eye on the future plans of Tour Rookie of the Year Cameron Young, Mito Pereira (reported last summer to be headed to LIV), Sebastian Munoz and Lucas Herbert, all of whom secured competing-event releases from the Tour to collect appearance fees and compete in what is now an Asian Tour event featuring, well, basically every player on the LIV roster. Of course, those Tour players’ appearance there doesn’t necessarily mean they’re gone to the rival circuit, but the lineup in Saudi Arabia has often served as a harbinger. Young’s appearance, in particular, could be giving those at HQ some heartburn. He hasn’t denied his LIV interest in the past.
Caught in Between: Tyrrell Hatton. The fiery Englishman was the third member of a three-ball in Dubai that got everyone’s attention, with Hatton playing alongside Luke Donald, the 2023 Ryder Cup captain, and the man Donald replaced, Stenson – the first time they’d been matched up since the controversial decision last summer. Because this is competitive golf, nothing unsavory transpired in Dubai, but the tour account still had good fun with the moment:
Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Will Zalatoris. A playoff loser at Torrey Pines, Willy Z was looking forward to some redemption as well as a chance to continue to knock off the competitive rust after four months away. Indeed, it’s been a solid if unspectacular return, with his first nine Tour rounds in the 60s, but that streak came to a sudden end in the second round with a sloppy 77 that sent him packing. After three starts in four weeks, he’ll have a much-needed week off before teeing it up again in Phoenix.