Abe Ancer is the last man standing in Memphis, Harris English and Bryson DeChambeau struggle with the shot clock, Nelly Korda makes it a clean sweep for Team USA, Aditi Ashok shines and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:
All credit to Abe Ancer.
For nearly the entire day it didn’t appear as though 16-under 264 would be good enough to win the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational – and it probably wouldn't have under different circumstances. But Ancer benefited from the final-group implosion, posted the 16-under number to join the others in the clubhouse and then seized his opportunity in the playoff, first eliminating Hideki Matsuyama and then Sam Burns with a 6-footer for birdie. Burns’ try on a similar line brutally lipped out.
It may have taken 121 career Tour starts, but the 30-year-old Ancer was due. He had a bunch of close calls among four runners-up, now posting his fourth top-5 in his last eight starts.
And his was a victory worth celebrating: He has an amazing backstory from Mexico (he’s the second Mexican this season to win, joining Carlos Ortiz); he’s a short but lethally accurate player; and he has a wonderful presence about him – intense but chill, confident but also comfortable with his lot in life.
Just like that, Ancer jumped to No. 6 in the FedExCup – poised for yet another massive payday – and all the way up to 11th in the world.
And yet ...
This was one of the most bizarre finishes you’ll ever see.
Rushing for the last 11 holes at TPC Southwind, Harris English and Bryson DeChambeau combusted on the inward nine, combining to take 81 strokes and missing out on the playoff. DeChambeau's sprint to the clubhouse was particularly challenging as he played amid an endless stream of taunters, teasers and hecklers. Little wonder he looks downright miserable on the course.
Here, writing live on Sunday night, we re-lived the drama in forensic detail (and kudos to English for handling the defeat as gracefully as possible), but one point deserves mentioning:
English and DeChambeau tried like mad to catch up and avoid bad times while on the clock, but was the Tour – wildly inconsistent in enforcing its own pace-of-play policy – really going to dock the tournament leader a crucial shot considering the tricky conditions (20-mph winds), the course (water everywhere!), the stakes (English would be the Tour’s first three-time winner this season, and he’s playing for $1.9 million) and the showcase (one of the Tour’s premier WGC events)?
And that made the cringeworthy finish even more unfortunate.
Nelly Korda’s breakout year continued at the Olympics, where she led over the final 54 holes and held on for a narrow gold-medal victory over Mone Inami and Lydia Ko.
Between Korda and Xander Schauffele, that's a clean sweep atop the podium for Team USA.
If you’re keeping score at home, over the past few months Korda has won her first major, become the first American in seven years to reach the top spot in the world rankings, and now took home the top prize in Tokyo. Oh, and she’s just 23 years old, with a reign of terror that looks like it’s just beginning.
On her way to a second-round 62 (that included a double on the last, when she had a chance to shoot 59), Korda looked like she might run away with the Olympics by a massive margin. Instead, she was tied with 11 holes to go, showing her mettle with three consecutive birdies to give her a cushion she wouldn’t relinquish, at least not fully.
Powerful, poised and polished, with a pure putting stroke and plenty of perspective, Korda is what golf fans long thought Michelle Wie or Lexi Thompson would someday become.
She’s already much better.
Just like in the men’s competition, there was a playoff for one of the medals between homegrown hero Inami, a seven-time Japan LPGA winner, and Ko, the former teen prodigy who is one of the game’s most popular players.
Inami bogeyed the 72nd hole after finding a plugged lie in a greenside bunker, but she bounced back with a par on the first extra hole to grab silver. Ko missed an 8-footer but still became the only player, male or female, to medal in both Games.
“For me, I don’t feel this is real – I still can’t believe [the Games] were held in Japan and a Japanese player win the medal,” Inami said. “So for the future of the golf players, for the younger generations who wish to play golf, I hope such a generation of younger golfers will come out.”
Even more impactful might have been the play of Aditi Ashok, the Indian who was the feel-good story of the 2016 Games who looked destined for more in Tokyo. In the mix all week, including late into the back nine of the final day, Ashok, ranked 200th in the world, came up a shot shy of the playoff, in fourth place, despite having fairway woods into most par 4s and relying on a molten-hot putter that saw her gain more than 13 (!!!!!!!) shots on the field on the greens.
“I gave it 100%,” she said afterward, “but yeah, fourth at an Olympics where they give out three medals kind of sucks.”
Still, in a country with more than 1.3 billion people and just 60 golf courses, it’s easy to envision the potential impact of Ashok’s sterling play. Even the president of India weighed in on the performance:
A couple of takeaways from the unveiling of the 2021-22 PGA Tour schedule:
• The phasing out of the WGCs has begun. They’ve been trimmed from four to two, leaving only the HSBC Champions in China and Match Play in Austin. The Mexico Championship is now a full-fledged event but could struggle to attract a strong field during a soft spot in the schedule (late April), while the Memphis stop is turning into the first playoff event, subbing in for The Northern Trust.
• It was a no-brainer to make the Scottish Open a co-sanctioned event, what with so many Tour players already making the trip across the pond early to acclimate themselves to the time difference and links golf. A more global golf calendar is a good thing! Now they should do the same thing with Abu Dhabi, the Irish Open, BMW PGA and Dubai ...
• Set up as the penultimate event in the regular season, two weeks after The Open, the Rocket Mortgage seems strongly positioned to attract a better field. Not so much for the John Deere, now immediately following the Travelers, two weeks before The Open and likely not offering a charter to Scotland.
• The Tour has already tweaked the Asian swing, with the CJ Cup once again heading to the West Coast, with back-to-back stops in Las Vegas. Considering the deteriorating health crisis thanks to the delta variant, it’ll be interesting to see whether the Zozo (Oct. 21-24 in Japan) and HSBC (Oct. 28-31 in China) are played in their current locations – and if so, who shows up.
THIS WEEK'S AWARD WINNERS ...
And Another One: Erik van Rooyen. The player perhaps best known for his rampage at the PGA this year became the latest first-time winner at the Barracuda Championship, winning by five points outside Tahoe. So continues a torrid run for the South Africans, with van Rooyen joining Garrick Higgo and Branden Grace in the winner’s circle this season (and Louis Oosthuizen oh-so-close on countless occasions).
Gold-Medal Grind: Xander Schauffele. X is too humble to make excuses for his pedestrian play in Memphis (T-46), but come on – the dude just won a gold medal! He’s headed home to celebrate for a few days with his team, and then it’s back to work. He’s clinging to the final automatic Ryder Cup qualifying spot (not that there’s any doubt he’ll be at Whistling Straits) and wants to improve his positioning for the $15 million FedExCup. Relatedly, this shows who Schauffele really is:
Bubble Watch: Wyndham Championship. This is the final week of the super-season, and there is a collection of interesting names near or outside the top-125 heading into the Wyndham: Olympic bronze medalist (and No. 120) C.T. Pan, No. 121 Adam Scott (whom we wrote about here last week), No. 124 Matt Kuchar, No. 130 Rickie Fowler, No. 136 Tommy Fleetwood, No. 137 Charles Howell III, No. 138 Justin Rose, No. 140 Francesco Molinari and No. 141 (and silver medalist) Rory Sabbatini. Many of those marquee names wouldn’t lose their cards if they don’t move inside the number this week, but no one wants to miss out on a chance to pad their already considerable wallets.
Decisions, Decisions: Will Zalatoris. We don’t envy the 24-year-old, who is dealing with a back injury (thanks to that hack-out at The Open) but needing to showcase his skills if he wants to be picked for the U.S. Ryder Cup team. He could sit out and fully rehab his back issue – about a month-long recovery – or head to Europe for two events to show Captain Stricker that he’s in good form. His tie for eighth in Memphis moved him up to No. 26 in the FedExCup but ... oh, never mind, he's not eligible for the postseason, since he's not technically a full-fledged Tour member yet. Bummer.
Arrow Up: Rory McIlroy. After saying in May that he was committing to a fade off the tee (rather than his patented push-draw), McIlroy has now gone back to his natural shot shape, as well as shortening his driver and taking off a ¼-degree of loft. It added up to him leading the strokes gained: off the tee stats (+5.9) – his best driving week since the 2020 CJ Cup. Since the big stick usually filters down into the rest of his game, it was little surprise to see him post three straight rounds of 66 to finish 12th. For more info on what he's doing differently, click here.
What’s in a Number?: Si Woo Kim. Known to run hot, he dumped five balls in the water on the 155-yard 11th hole at TPC Southwind. He took a 13 – the highest score on a par 3 on Tour (non-major) since at least 1983 – and nosedived to a last-place finish at the WGC. Still taking home $35,000, he should be able to afford a few more sleeves.
Role Model: Lydia Ko. During a week when DeChambeau drew the ire of his peers for failing to alert galleries to his errant tee balls, Ko showed how it's done in this small but telling moment. Indeed, Ko has proven to be one of the most impressive athletes in any sport, period.
Tip of the Cap: Olympic officials. With a tropical storm bearing down and a hard out for Sunday night because of the closing ceremonies, tournament officials could have been excused for panicking and turning the women's Olympic tournament into a 54-hole event. Or they could have twice sent weary players back out in oppressive heat for an extra nine holes. But they didn’t. The organizers monitored the situation, kept the players abreast of the various scenarios and, after a 45-minute delay on Saturday, were able to squeeze in the final round before the skies opened up. A tricky situation expertly handled.
Was That the End?: Shanshan Feng. The affable 10-time LPGA winner has contemplated retirement after the Olympics, but now she doesn’t sound so sure. Her upcoming playing schedule is unclear because of the mandatory two-week quarantine to return home to China, so she may play the Asian swing this fall before the LPGA grand finale, wait until the early-season events next year, or just hang it up altogether. “I wouldn’t say I’m retired yet,” she said with a smile, but she couldn’t say exactly where she was prepared to return, either.
All-Time Underdog: Jensen Castle. Sometimes it’s just your week. The Kentucky junior, ranked No. 248 in the world, survived a 12-for-2 playoff just to get into the match-play field and then became just the third No. 63 seed to win a USGA title when she captured the U.S. Women’s Amateur in a 2-and-1 victory over Vivian Hou. The win also secured Castle a spot on the upcoming Curtis Cup team. The boys are on deck this week, at mighty Oakmont.
Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Brooks Koepka. In his his last eight starts he had either finish among the top 6 or missed the cut, and so the no-cut event in Memphis – at a course that he thoroughly enjoys – seemed a likely spot for him to feast. Or not. Showing the same regular-season indifference that has plagued him in the past, Koepka ended an uneventful week with a thud, his closing 76 sending him all the way down to T-54. When we asked him earlier in the week how he’d get up for the final stretch of the season, knowing the majors are done, he replied: “I don’t know, we’ll find out.” Sigh.
WHEN IN MEMPHIS ... SOME TOP BBQ JOINTS TO HIT
Last week was just this scribe's second time in Memphis, and the first since becoming a self-appointed BBQ aficionado. In the weeks leading up to this trip, we scoured the internet, quizzed people in the know and put together a list of the must-stop shops for good eats. But before we get into the top 7 (the length of our stay), a disclaimer: We wanted to visit Payne's BBQ, but the lunch-only hours conflicted with, you know, our work schedule; and Rendezvous (though a tourist trap with overrated food) was closed for the week for pit cleaning.
OK, let's get into it!
Ordered: half-slab rib combo, both wet and dry, with smoked sausage; sides of coleslaw and mac and cheese; banana pudding; Corky’s brew
Thoughts: The final leg of our journey, and we pulled in about an hour before closing Sunday night. Perhaps that’s why the ribs were overcooked (fall off the bone: not good!) and the mac and cheese a bit runny. After a long, sweaty day at the course, the Corky's brew sure tasted good, though.
6.) Central BBQ
Ordered: ribs combo, both wet and dry, with chicken and pulled pork; side of baked beans and mac and cheese; Ghost River lager
Thoughts: Headed here straight off the plane, so famished that the roll of paper towels probably would have tasted good. Of the three meats, the pulled pork was the highlight. The ribs slightly disappointed, thus the lower ranking.
4., tied) Gus’ Fried Chicken
Ordered: three-piece hot and spicy fried chicken; side of fried pickles and baked beans; Ghost River lager
Thoughts: As good as advertised. Never been a fan of too much breading on fried chicken, but this was the perfect crispiness without being too dense. A must-stop if you're within, like, 50 miles.
Tie 4., tied) Cozy Corner
Ordered: four-bone rib plate; side of BBQ beans and BBQ spaghetti; Coke
Thoughts: The restaurant doesn’t look like much, but it houses some killer ribs. For properly cooked ribs you’re looking for bite-through texture, so you can see your teeth imprint, and these were perfectly tender. But this particular version of BBQ spaghetti: Pass.
3.) Uncle Lou’s
Ordered: four-piece chicken mixed; side of corn poppers; strawberry banana pudding; root beer
Thoughts: Don’t be scared off by the wild Guy Fieri decals on the front door – this is definitely a trip to Flavortown. Our particular batch of chicken had a few more bones than we would have liked, but the sweet and spicy flavor was out of bounds. Make sure to save room for dessert – the strawberry banana pudding was shut-the-front-door good.
2.) The Bar-B-Q Shop
Ordered: pulled pork sandwich; sides of BBQ spaghetti and coleslaw; 7-Up
Thoughts: Was really excited about this one, and it lived up to the hype! A plate of BBQ spaghetti sounds gross, but trust us – it is deeeelish. Classic comfort food. With another night (or, perhaps, one fewer stop) we would have gone back and ordered the ribs as the main course.
1.) Germantown Commissary
Ordered: two-meat combo with ribs and brisket; BBQ nachos; sides of onion rings and coleslaw; banana pudding; Ghost River lager
Thoughts: Uh, as you can see above, we went big here, since it was the most highly recommended. Literally, every bite was delicious. The ribs: tender, but not overcooked. The thinly sliced brisket: pull-apart perfect. The nachos and the beer and the dessert: must-haves, all of ’em.
And, since you're probably wondering: Gained only four pounds on the trip. Considering that a small victory.