Monday Finish: The ‘cheater’ label, CBS surprises and Jason Day’s beard
Welcome to the Monday Finish! This is where we’ll tally the scores for the week that was and tee you up for the week to come.
On Saturday, two of the PGA Tour’s highest-profile golfers took relief from what they each said were embedded balls in the rough. Video evidence later showed that each ball had bounced once upon landing, making an embedded ball far less likely, but the Tour’s rules officials cleared each player of wrongdoing.
To the general public, the rulings were received far differently. We greeted the drop taken by Rory McIlroy, who is known as a particularly good sport, with a general shrug. The video of Patrick Reed, on the other hand, was immediately reviewed with Zapruder-like fascination. Accusations of cheating lit social media ablaze. CBS opened its Sunday coverage with several minutes focusing on that drop and its implications for the tournament leader. There were slight differences in the details of their situations, but the biggest difference was this: The golf world believes McIlroy. Reed? Not so much.
For his part, McIlroy gave his Ryder Cup rival the benefit of the doubt. Before seeing the video, he said, he thought the whole thing was “a bit of a storm in teacup.” (Note to self: add ‘storm in a teacup’ to go-to phrases.) But he acknowledged that the public response was different for each player for a reason.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had an issue before with the rules, or if I have, it’s been a long time,” he said. Then he referenced a ruling from the 2009 Masters, when McIlroy was nearly penalized for kicking the sand after duffing a bunker shot. The implication was clear: The scrutiny of that moment stuck with him these dozen years.
By contrast, McIlroy referenced a more recent major championship, last year’s PGA at Harding Park, where he insisted on giving himself a worse lie upon replacing his ball after someone had stepped on it, “to just try to be fair to the field and the tournament in general.” It was a sporting gesture, and a helpful one to have on your resume for moments like this one.
“You’d rather be on the wrong side of the rules than the right side of them, just because that’s just what our game’s about. Our game is about integrity and it’s about doing the right thing,” he said. Then he got to the crux of the matter, that perception is everything:
“It’s the worst thing in golf to be labeled as someone that tries to get away with something or labeled a cheater,” he said. “And that’s just not how you want your reputation to be.”
He’s right, of course. And that’s the reason we see two different players taking the same knee-high drop and have distinctly different reactions.
Who won what?
-Reed won the Farmers Insurance Open by five shots, a margin so comfortable that it eliminated any question of the tournament being decided by questionable drop. Five players finished T2. The happiest of those players was likely Ryan Palmer, who was apparently playing in the golf tournament, though you might not have known it from the broadcast nor the leaderboard. The least happy of those players was surely Viktor Hovland, who was in contention all day before playing the final five holes in three over par, including a missed two-footer on 17 that cost him roughly $350,000.
–Paul Casey closed out the Dubai Desert Classic, holding steady as his top competitors faltered on Sunday to win what appears to be some sort of enormous tea kettle. In doing so, the 43-year-old jumped to No. 16 in the world. He’ll be on the European Ryder Cup side come September.
ON THE CUT LINE
Who’s in and who’s out?
The line between paycheck and not is always filled with intrigue, but the Farmers Insurance cut, which held at 1 under par in challenging conditions on Friday, had a particularly compelling cast of characters on each side of the line.
First there was Jordan Spieth, making his much-scrutinized first start of 2021, who was nearing the first page of the leaderboard after an eagle on No. 6 on Friday but started leaking bogeys on the way in and shorted a wedge shot on No. 18, depriving himself of the chance at one final birdie look. He and 14 other players finished the week where they started — even par — and missed the cut by one shot.
The other side of the coin was unofficial tournament spokesman Phil Mickelson, who was standing on the 17th green two shots outside the cut line when play was halted for inclement weather. After a lengthy break, he made his 13-footer for birdie and then nearly holed his wedge shot at 18, spinning it back past the cup all the way to 12 feet. He poured that in for a birdie 4 and a Saturday tee time. Even though a T53 is hardly going to affect Lefty’s legacy, the moment showed us something about the 50-year-old’s desire.
Mickelson wasn’t the only one to make the cut on the number. Rickie Fowler stumbled on Friday but posted one under, ensuring that Farmers Insurance’s top golf spokesman would be in the field for the weekend, and not just during commercial breaks. Tain Lee, a Canadian Tour player (and the 2010 DIII national champion) who Monday qualified into the field, made it on the number. So did Michael Kim, who made his second cut in three starts after missing more then 40 in a row these last few years. Tyler McCumber birdied four of his final six to join them.
And Xander Schauffele, who was in danger of missing yet another cut at his hometown event, got up-and-down for par at 17 and made birdie at 18 to make the cut with one shot to spare. He took full advantage: 68-69 on the weekend got him into that tie for second. Sometimes all you need to do is make the weekend to give yourself a chance.
One noteworthy performance from the other side of the cut line belonged to Willie Mack III, a last-minute sponsor’s exemption who filled in when his friend Kamiau Johnson tested positive for Covid-19. Mack, a 32-year-old Black golfer from Flint, Mich., had already accepted the Sifford exemption into next month’s Genesis Invitational. He showed signs of strong form in his two days at Torrey Pines, but finished his first round with three consecutive bogeys and struggled off the tee on Friday to miss the cut. Here’s hoping the two rounds were just the warmup he needed to get game-ready for Genesis.
Finally there was Brooks Koepka, who, as we learned early in the week, split with his coach Claude Harmon III three days after the Masters. (Harmon also coaches Masters champ Dustin Johnson, adding an extra wrinkle to the split.) Koepka shot 76 on Friday to miss the cut by five shots. It was his third missed cut in a row, a career first. For comparison, Koepka missed three cuts combined in 2018-19, per Justin Ray.
WHAT WE’RE WATCHING
And how we’re keeping score…
CBS debuted its new broadcast this weekend to largely positive reviews. The tournament itself was set up for success — it was a star-studded leaderboard on the first football-free weekend in months — but some tweaks under the direction of Sellers Shy paid off, too. A few that jumped out to me:
-A bunch of cinematic shots that highlighted Torrey Pines’ most striking qualities, showing off the very best angles of one of America’s most storied munis.
-A translucent scoreboard bug in the bottom right of the screen that kept viewers up-to-date without hitting us in the face. It even updated in real time and scrolled to the next page based on the player currently being shown! Sometimes the simplest additions are the best.
-An eagerness to challenge the Tour’s party line on the Reed controversy. On Sunday, Jim Nantz opened the broadcast by shifting its entire focus to the day’s biggest story. This actually went too far as they failed to show any golf shots for the first several minutes on air (split-screen it, fellas!) but that editorial independence was an encouraging sign for things to come.
–Amanda Balionis got an upgraded “cart” to assist with mid-round analysis and post-round interviews.
-New theme music. Any new theme music takes a little while to get used to, so I’m keeping an open mind here. My first impressions were generally positive; the new track elevated the moment and made me pay attention. But the melody itself got overpowered and overcomplicated by the other pieces of the music. I want to be able to hum it! A few tweaks and we’ll be there.
WHAT WE’RE HEARING
Loud and clear.
Xander Schauffele has a reputation for being chill and relatively soft-spoken. But don’t discount his bluntness. Of all the players asked about Patrick Reed, his words rang out the loudest:
“I would not put myself in and create a situation like that,” he said. “If my ball’s embedded, I usually will wait and call someone and kind of wait until everyone’s on the same page, wait to look at video. So, I try to avoid situations like that just for that reason.
“You can put a tee in the ground and check your ball. I mean, he did everything by the book according to the official and everyone stood by there. Obviously the talk amongst the boys isn’t great, I guess, but he’s protected by the Tour and that’s all that matters, I guess.”
That last line is particularly stinging. If you’re on Tour, you don’t want to be a target of “the talk amongst the boys.” Nor do you want to have to be “protected” by anyone. But Schauffele’s giving us a little window into the driving-range chatter, and the consensus doesn’t sound great for Captain America.
-Reed’s entire look has changed dramatically from a year ago. A “Titleist” logo has replaced the Nike Swoosh on his hat and he’s swapped in a G/Fore shirt — a striped scarlet number on Sunday — for the Nike shirts you’re used to seeing him wear. The small-shop Japanese company that makes his irons, Grindworks, is now emblazoned across his bag (which was where “Ultimate Software” lived until 2020) and because he’s free of the restrictions of the Nike apparel deal — which generally procludes any other logos from appearing on a player’s shirt — the Grindworks logo now lives there, too, along with a “Hublot” logo on his collar.
-Jason Day showed up looking like a completely different person than when we last saw him at the Masters in November. He’s gone the Tony Finau route (grow the beard + add a Nike flatbrim) and even though he missed the Farmers cut, I’m extremely into the hibernation vibe to the whole thing.
POSTS OF THE WEEK
The posts are coming from inside the house!
If you’ve spent much time in the depths of the golf internet you may have stumbled on @useGolfFACTS, an “anonymous” pro-Reed Twitter account that periodically sticks up for him or takes unprovoked shots at other Tour stars including Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm and Xander Schauffele. But after the account posted an all-caps message on Saturday and then Patrick Reed’s official account posted the same thing just minutes later, our guesses about the identity of said poster are getting much more educated.
More on this to come in a standalone story, but in short: Beyond being just some dumb internet minutiae, this stuff actually matters! I’ll refer you back to the Rory vs. Reed contrast I referenced at the beginning. If Team Reed sought to build trust with fans, communicate honestly and let the outside world in, they’d receive a far more charitable reaction than all-caps posting about another player. Patrick, if you’re reading (feels like a longshot, I know) I would like to officially extend an offer to revamp your social media strategy.
First step: unblock me.
NEWS FROM SEATTLE
Monday Finish HQ.
The entire Monday Finish team (that’s just me, so far) got out for a round on Saturday afternoon with buddies Pat, Mitch and Tomas at Riverbend Golf Complex in Kent, Wash. for $28/person. About half our tee shots embedded and half the others found casual water, but without any rules officials around to consult we made do as best we could.
The thing I’m learning about Seattle-area winter golf is that you can always play, if you’re willing to force it. While 43 degrees and drizzle might not sound ideal, put on a couple layers, bring a change of socks and some waterproof shoes and you’ll be happier than ever.
Riverbend was flat, soggy and ideally-suited for our purposes. We finished in the pitch-black, a surefire sign of a successful afternoon round.
Three things to check out this week.
1. The Waste Management Phoenix Open. While the loudest event in golf will be missing the fans that define the tournament, which is a big-time bummer. As a consolation prize, they’ll get McIlroy, who has never played Phoenix but will tee it up this week as his third tournament in a row. He’s planning to play seven out of eight weeks, which will get him through the Players Championship. Can he finish on a Sunday?
2. The Saudi International. This week’s European Tour stop features some of the more controversial appearance fees in golf — and it also features a field that includes world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, U.S. Open champion Bryson DeChambeau and Reed, among others.
3. Meghan MacLaren‘s blog. This week, the thoughtful LET pro navigates the maddening, exhilarating contradictions of the golf world. “I don’t know why so many of us struggle to acknowledge the only thing golf yells at us over and over,” she writes. MacLaren posts semi-regularly — I enjoyed her dispatch reviewing and making sense of 2020, too. An insightful follow if you like getting inside the thoughts of a touring professional.
We’ll see you next week!