Cam Smith outduels the best player in golf, Jon Rahm picks up where he left off, defenseless Kapalua gets absolutely torched, the TOC continues to shine and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:
What a way to kick off the new year for Cameron Smith, who stared down the world No. 1 over the weekend and nosed in front with a birdie on the 72nd hole to win the Sentry Tournament of Champions.
During a soft, windless week at Kapalua (more on that in a bit), Smith obliterated the PGA Tour’s all-time 72-hole record to par, shooting 34 under. With the victory – the fourth Tour title of his career, his second individually – he rose to a career-best 10th in the world ranking.
Smith led the loaded TOC field both off the tee and on the greens. That latter wasn’t surprising – he’s long been one of the best putters in the world. The former was, frankly, a stunner, given the other big-hitting participants and the fact that it’s always been Smith’s chief weakness.
“I felt like last year it let me down a lot,” he said, “so to be able to hit so many fairways, especially under pressure, was really good.”
Here were his recent ranks in strokes gained: off the tee:
- This season, entering the TOC: 171st
- 2020-21: 119th
- 2019:20: 160th
- 2018-19: 140th
- 2017-18: 145th
- 2016-17: 130th
- 2015-16: 158th
And yet, on the wide-open Plantation Course, Smith routinely put himself in better position than Rahm (and everybody else, for that matter) and avoided the blunders that had previously doomed his title chances. The 28-year-old Australian has been in a solid stretch of form dating to August, with five top-10s, but that period was also defined by poor drives on the final hole in Memphis and again during his playoff loss at the Northern Trust, where he hit a foul ball on the first playoff hole to hand the trophy to Tony Finau.
Smith said that improved driving was a focus of his offseason work: “We knew that if I could finally sort out the driver that I could really have one of my best seasons yet.”
So he ... um ... practiced more?
“Probably just hitting more balls with the driver, to be honest,” he said afterward. “I’m not lazy, but I guess I’m lazy on the range. I get through the wedges and the irons and then I’m like, Oh, I’m ready to go home, and I barely hit driver. So I made sure I stayed there for an extra 10 or 15 minutes and actually hit some balls.”
Yep. That formula worked.
Rahm is, unfortunately, getting used to these types of inexplicable disappointments.
He led by six at the Memorial and didn’t win.
He tied the low score at the Tour Championship and didn’t win.
And he broke the Tour’s score-to-par record at the Tournament of Champions and didn’t win.
Chalk it up to COVID. A staggered start. And, well, Smith, who knocked in his 3 ½-footer on the last to top Rahm by one.
Afterward, Rahm struggled to reconcile how he could play so dominantly – one eagle, 32 birdies, one bogey! – and wind up without a trophy, saying that he had every reason to smile “but one.”
Still, this showing reinforced that the world No. 1 isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, even if Collin Morikawa eventually turns the OWGR math in his favor and wrests away the top ranking. Fresh off a two-month break, Rahm looked sharp off the tee (save for one lost ball on the fourth hole Saturday), locked-in with his irons and strong on the greens once he adjusted to their slower pace.
Against eight of the top 10 players in the world in this winners-only field, Rahm ranked fifth off the tee, second approaching the green, sixth around the green and fifth in putting. That across-the-board excellence will be good enough most weeks, unless Smith goes unconscious again.
In the last 61 years, only three players reached 30 under par or better in a PGA Tour event.
Last week alone at Kapalua, just as many players – three – accomplished the feat: Smith (34 under), Rahm (33 under) and Matt Jones (32 under).
A tip of the cap, first, to Jones, who shot 123 on the weekend to surge into the mix. His 23-under total to close out the week was the lowest 36-hole score to par in Tour history.
Smith’s 34-under 258 shattered the previous score-to-par mark set by Ernie Els (-31) here in 2003; Rahm also put that record in the rearview mirror with rounds of 66-66-61-66. There was more: Rahm, Justin Thomas and Jones also set (then tied, then matched) the tournament scoring record of 12-under 61. All but two players in the field shot double-digits under par.
Predictably, the lights-out scoring prompted the usual wave of hysteria. How equipment needs to be regulated. How weekly Tour setups are too benign.
But how about a little context. The Tournament of Champions should never be confused for a major; it is a soft launch for the new year, played on a resort course for those vacationing on Maui. Statistically, it was the easiest course on the PGA Tour last year. Even before this scoring rampage, the last seven champions had an average winning score of 22 under par – and that’s with the wind blowing more than it did all last week, when it gusted no more than 10-15 mph during the tournament rounds.
Of course they were going to tear it up.
“This golf course only has one defense, and that’s the wind,” Rahm said. “If people are shooting between 20 and 26 under with a 20-mph wind, what do you expect us to do when there’s absolutely no wind?
“You have 50-yard fairways. Soft greens. We’re going to shoot low. It’s just kind of how it goes.”
And it was an incredible display of golf – all the birdies and the eagles, the easily reachable par 5s and the drivable par 4s.
Do we want to see that every week on Tour? Of course not. These are the best players in the world. They need to be pushed, to be challenged, to be forced to think about something other than 30 birdies a week.
But it was a delightful outlier, just as it was last fall, at the BMW Championship, when Patrick Cantlay and Bryson DeChambeau dueled into the high-20s under par. Just kick back and enjoy the show.
Remember when the Tournament of Champions was supposedly on its death bed?
It was less a decade ago when the future of the TOC appeared to be in grave danger. Tiger Woods hadn’t showed up since 2005. Phil Mickelson had gone even longer, saying that the winds and the slopes allowed bad habits to creep in. Europe’s best players were playing deep into the fall and needed a break. The weather was so poor in 2013 that the event didn’t even begin until the Monday after.
There was talk of expanding the field, to include the LPGA winners. Or to offer a two-year exemption. Or to invite all past winners.
So, what happened? How did the TOC once again become a must-play event without changing its identity?
The tournament continued to produce elite winners: Patrick Reed, Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Dustin Johnson. Kapalua might not ever host a major but it's a fun track to play, with ultra-generous fairways and greens, and boatloads of birdie opportunities. It certainly helped that young stars like Spieth and Thomas embraced not just the limited-field event but also the entire vibe of paradise living; that excitement has trickled down to the next wave, to Collin Morikawa, Viktor Hovland, etc. And Sentry stepped in for the 2018 edition and has since re-upped for the long term, adding more stability.
The only top-10 players missing this time were Dustin Johnson (didn’t qualify, even as the world No. 3) and Rory McIlroy, who played there in 2019 but decided to begin his new year in a few weeks, in the Middle East.
From 2012-15, the event had an OWGR strength of field no better than 272 and only 46 world-ranking points to the winner – the tropical equivalent of, say, the Wyndham Championship.
This year: a SOF of 514, with 62 world-ranking points to the winner. And that was actually down from last year.
It may come first, and with a small (and rusty) field, but the TOC is back to being one of the game’s premier events.
THIS WEEK'S AWARD WINNERS ...
Rust, What Rust?: Patrick Cantlay. Making his first competitive start since the Ryder Cup more than a hundred days ago, Cantlay never posted a score worse than 6 under and finished alone in fourth. If you thought he’d fade after his Player of the Year campaign, um, think again. Brimming with confidence, he’s going to be a force each week – including, finally, in the majors.
Best Wishes: Steve Stricker. Soon after his team’s historic Ryder Cup victory, the American captain was admitted to a Wisconsin hospital with a serious and mysterious illness that he said was non-COVID related. During his weeks-long stay, Stricker said he lost 25 pounds and was diagnosed with inflammation around his heart, which sapped his energy and will delay the start of his 2022 competitive schedule. A harrowing episode, but it’s good to hear Stricks is on the road to recovery.
And In His Final Appearance ...: Phil Mickelson. Playing at Kapalua for the first time in 21 years, Mickelson tailed off late in each of his rounds and tied for 30th, a whopping 20 shots behind Smith. He wasn’t making his first start in paradise because he dearly missed the Plantation Course; no, he needed to add a new event to collect his PIP money, and this one (low-key setting, easy course, limited field) made the most sense. Can’t imagine we’ll see him back there again, though it’d be a remarkable achievement if, during his age-51 season, he could win another event to become eligible.
Mo’ Money, Less Problems: U.S. Women’s Open. The purse for the biggest women’s event of the year is set to nearly double, to $10 million, with the USGA announcement last week that ProMedica is signing on as a presenting sponsor. That prize fund will grow to $12 million over the next few years, setting the standard for all of women’s sports. The event will also head to some of the crown jewels in the U.S.: Riviera (2026), Inverness (2027), Pinehurst (for another back-to-back with the men in 2029) and Interlachen (2030). Exciting news, all around – and another reminder that new USGA CEO and former LPGA commish Mike Whan gets. Things. Done.
King Cooker: Justin Thomas. Nobody in golf cooks like JT. That’s what we tweeted after his course-record 61 in the third round, and the statement stands up even after Rahm tied the mark just 90 minutes later. Since 2015, when he burst onto the Tour, Thomas has more rounds of 61 or lower – five – than anyone on Tour. It's a skill, being unafraid of going that low, when the human tendency is to start protecting. But not JT. When he gets hot, he gets Steph Curry-hot.
Hate to See It: Brooke Henderson’s driver. The LPGA confirmed to Golfweek that, like the PGA Tour, it is set to adopt the local rule that limits the length of a driver shaft from 48 to 46 inches. Seven players reportedly had a driver longer than 46 inches at the season finale, none as notable as Henderson, the 10-time LPGA winner who has used the longer stick since she was 15. How she adapts to the new rule (which will go into effect in mid-March, a few weeks before the year’s first major) will be a critical storyline to watch this spring. She ranked ninth on tour last season in driving distance, at 274 yards a pop.
Oh, Bless Their Heart: Joel Dahmen and Geno Bonnalie. Player and caddie were on their way to Kapalua for the (ahem) winners-only event when this volunteer harmlessly stepped in it, over and over again.
Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Viktor Hovland. Nobody – and we mean nobody – beats Hovland these days on a resort course, as he’s already nabbed titles in Puerto Rico, Mayakoba and the Bahamas. Kapalua seemed like the next logical step, except his clubs were late arriving and he never came close to keeping pace, especially with a third-round 73 on a day when the scoring average (67.71) was the lowest in tournament history at that venue. Of the 38 players in the field, he tied for 30th. Sigh.