Monday Scramble: Breakthrough week for both Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler?

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Rory McIlroy does Rory McIlroy things, Rickie Fowler reemerges on the comeback trail, Matt Fitzpatrick dusts himself off, the driver rule rankles Phil Mickelson and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:

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Saturday night at the Ryder Cup, Rory McIlroy thought he’d shut it down for the rest of the year. The victory at Quail Hollow began to feel like an aberration. The swing changes he’d tried to implement over the past few months were slow to take hold. And the game was decidedly less fun, never more so than that night with his European team getting thumped and McIlroy – the squad’s heart and soul – getting benched for the first time in his career and going 0-3.

But the next day, in singles, McIlroy took a new approach. Who cares if it was pretty, or flashy, or dominant? Just hit the shots and earn a point. That’s what he did, against the red-hot Xander Schauffele, and even during a lost week (and even after a teary post-match interview) McIlroy believed he’d stumbled upon a “breakthrough.” Rather than sit out the remaining three months, McIlroy decided to head to Vegas, wanting to build on his belief.

“Part of the emotion at the end was to do with that week,” he said Sunday night, “but it was also probably to do with the last few months in terms of searching to try to get better and the realization I don’t need to search for anything. It’s all right here.”

It sure was: With a 62-66 weekend, McIlroy erased a nine-shot deficit at the halfway mark and captured the CJ Cup for his 20th PGA Tour title, securing lifetime membership once he’s eligible in a few years. McIlroy also joined Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson as the only players under 55 who have 20 or more Tour titles.

This isn’t the first time that McIlroy has returned to the idea that his good is plenty good enough. He made similar remarks earlier this year, at The Players, after admitting that he had chased distance to keep up with Bryson DeChambeau. As his win rate has slowed and his major drought continued, McIlroy has naturally fallen into the temptation to add to his extensive repertoire (more cuts off the tee, tidier wedge play) rather than trust what got him to that lofty perch in the first place. It remains to be seen how long this moment of clarity will last.

The CJ Cup was a reminder of his awesome powers. Strutting around The Summit Club, McIlroy ranked second in strokes gained: off the tee and led in putting, just the second time in his career that he’s topped the field in the latter category. (The other? The 2018 Arnold Palmer Invitational, which he also won.)

“I know that when I do the things that I do well,” he said, “this is what I’m capable of. I’m capable of winning a lot of events on the PGA Tour and being the best player in the world.”

Fowler's rebuilt swing results in 'flawless golf'

The Year of the Comeback almost had another boldfaced entry.

Clad in orange, there was Rickie Fowler, two strokes ahead, trying to chase down his first Tour title after two-plus years of misery.

It didn’t happen in Vegas, not after a big miss on the par-5 sixth led to a double bogey, not after a pair of costly three-putts, not with an otherwise frosty putter. But there was still so much to like: He missed only five greens through three rounds; he equaled his second-lowest 54-hole score of his career; and he led the field in strokes gained: tee to green for the first time since the 2017 Houston Open.

Count McIlroy, Fowler’s final-round playing partner and close friend, among the believers: After seeing Fowler’s 5-iron rocket into the 246-yard 11th, he said it won’t be long before Fowler is back to where he wants to be.

Following a seven-week break and season-opening missed cut, Fowler made a sizable jump in the world rankings (from Nos. 128 to 82) but he’s not yet in a position to set his own schedule. In his current spot he’s eligible only for the PGA Championship next year. No Masters or summer Opens. No WGCs. Not even The Players, after he failed to finish inside the top 125 for the first time in his career.

“A lot of good stuff,” Fowler said, summing up his week in Vegas, where he posted his best finish since March 2019. “Obviously disappointed, but this is a big step in the right direction with where we’ve been the last two years.”

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That’s one way to get over a stinging disappointment.

Last month, in what was already a resounding defeat for the visiting team, European Ryder Cupper Matt Fitzpatrick had the unfortunate honor of being the last on the course, locked in a pillow fight for the final point against Daniel Berger. Fitzpatrick was trying to avoid two levels of infamy: 1) becoming the first player in decades who failed to earn a point in his first two Ryder Cup appearances, and 2) giving the Americans the most lopsided margin of victory in the modern era, 19-9.

Faced with that pressure ... Fitzpatrick fatted his approach into the junk short of the green and lost the hole.

It was an embarrassing moment for the classy Englishman.

But after a few weeks of reflection and recovery, Fitzpatrick dusted himself off and went back to work. Trailing by a handful of shots in Spain, Fitzpatrick took advantage of a stumbling Laurie Canter and fired a bogey-free final round to win by three at the Andalucia Masters.

It was the 27-year-old Fitzpatrick’s seventh European Tour title, putting in the trash bin any lingering sadness over what transpired at Whistling Straits. The kid has a whole lotta grit and heart.

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Though admittedly not a fix to the sport’s distance problem, the governing bodies took a preemptive step against further gains at the elite level by creating a local rule that caps driver shaft length at 46 inches, not 48.

The rule, which will be adopted by the tours on Jan. 1, will be a non-issue for most pros who use a shaft somewhere in the 45-inch range. But there are a few exceptions. LPGA star Brooke Henderson is one of the players who will have to adjust, since she typically chokes down, way down, on a 48-inch driver. Reigning PGA champion Phil Mickelson is another player who went to a 47 1/2-inch shaft in an attempt to squeeze every last yard out of his 51-year-old body.

In recent years Mickelson hasn’t been shy about slamming the USGA – he’s grown increasingly critical of the PGA Tour as well – and tapped out this missive in the wake of the announcement:

Except, of course, it was wholly untrue.

Mickelson didn’t know of “any player who had any say” ... but the Tour’s 16-player Player Advisory Council had reviewed the topic for months and voted to adopt the local rule. PAC chairman Rory McIlroy confirmed as much.

So that means either Mickelson will have to tweak his equipment to play by the new rules, or perhaps take his talents elsewhere ...

THIS WEEK'S AWARD WINNERS ...

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Home-Course Advantage: Collin Morikawa. Much was made in the run-up to the CJ Cup about the fact that Morikawa was one of the few players who actually had experience at The Summit Club, where he’s a member. And for a while, he looked like a non-factor. Then came Sunday, when the two-time major champ went out in 29 and rammed home a 6-footer for eagle on the last to shoot 62 and put some late heat on McIlroy. “I pretty much knew the course like the back of my hand,” he said. After an un-Morikawa-like stretch, it looks like he’ll be able to close out another stellar year with plenty of momentum.

Profitable Fortnight: Sungjae Im. With a win at the Shriners and then a T-9 at the CJ Cup, he banked more than $1.5 million during his two weeks in Vegas. That’s a pretty healthy chunk of change, so hopefully he got out of town scot-free and avoided a detour to the Strip.

These Guys Are Good (And Perhaps Summit Club Wasn’t a Proper Test): CJ Cup field. In his first week with Jim “Bones” Mackay officially on the bag, Justin Thomas racked up 29 birdies and an eagle ... and barely finished inside the top 20 (T-18). Shooting 15 under got these guys only a T-38. “It’s probably a little benign for a PGA Tour event,” said McIlroy, the tournament winner, but with the event unable to be played in South Korea because of the pandemic, well, having a defenseless desert shootout beats the alternate of having it canceled.

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He’s Human After All: Jon Rahm. After a disappointing weekend at the Spanish Open in his bid for a three-peat, the world No. 1 had an even more head-scratching appearance at Valderrama, where he shot 10 over at the claustrophobic course and missed the cut by a bunch. Full credit to Rahm, who returned home to a hero’s welcome and eschewed free world-ranking points in Vegas, but perhaps soon he can get a full reset. We want him to see him in full flight in early 2022, not with any carryover fatigue from a long, strange super-season.

It’s Not How You Start ...: Robert Streb. The Strebber began the CJ Cup birdie-birdie-eagle-birdie-birdie – matching the best start to par in the ShotLink era – on his way to a first-round 61. He wasn’t able to keep up the pace all week long, but a third-round 65 helped him salvage a T-9 finish, his first top-10 on Tour since his RSM win last fall.

Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: Rose Zhang. The transition to college apparently is no big deal, as the Stanford freshman breezed to her third win in as many starts to begin her career. Not even the school's most famous alum – that TW guy – accomplished that feat.

This Week in Golf (May 25 - May 31)
This Week in Golf (May 25 - May 31)

Get Well Soon: Casey Martin. The Oregon coach and former PGA Tour player reportedly underwent surgery to amputate his right leg – the limb that has caused him issues since birth and led to him successfully suing the PGA Tour for the right to use a cart in competition. Born with a circulatory disorder, Martin broke his tibia in fall 2019 and feared that it was only a matter of time until he’d need to have his leg amputated above the knee. Here's hoping for a full and speedy recovery.

Cool to See: J.R. Smith. The former NBA player’s second act began last week, where he teed it up with his fellow teammates at North Carolina A&T at the Elon Phoenix Invitational. In many ways it was a nightmare debut – he opened with 83 and needed medical attention after getting stung by bees in the final round – but Smith brought a lot of attention to a niche sport, even if he struggled to fit in by driving his Bentley to the course.

Persistence Paying Off: Lee Janzen. After claiming his first PGA Tour Champions title in 2015, the two-time U.S. Open winner had to wait another six years to do it again. He defeated Miguel Angel Jimenez in a playoff to capture the SAS Championship, ending a streak of 28 consecutive events without a top-10. “Hang in there, keep going, and good things happen sometimes,” he said.

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Dustin Johnson. If you expected DJ’s unconscious form from the Ryder Cup to carry over to Vegas ... well ... you’d be wrong. The world No. 2 opened with a first-round 74 and never recovered, finishing T-45 during a week in which a win would have returned him to the top spot in the world. Maybe he was rusty after the lusty Ryder Cup celebrations, or perhaps he was distracted with his upcoming nuptials. Whatever the case: Sigh.

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