Monday Scramble: All eyes on Finau, Rahm in Mexico; all ears on McIlroy in Charlotte
Tony Finau stares down Jon Rahm, Talor Gooch goes back to back, Rory McIlroy returns to the PGA Tour and more in this week’s edition of Monday Scramble:
When Tony Finau was stacking up top finishes but no trophies, he wasn’t just compiling a boatload of cash.
With each heartbreak, he was learning what it’d take to access that next level.
Finau posted just a single victory in his first 188 career starts on the PGA Tour, but now he has realized his monster potential and become one of the game’s most prolific winners – his Mexico Open title was his fourth in the past 18 starts.
Each aspect of Finau’s game has improved, especially on and around the greens. But it’s upstairs where the biggest difference lies.
“On Sundays out here I’ve learned that you just have to be aggressive, you have to make birdies,” Finau said. “So my mindset on Sundays, I think, has just changed. You never get comfortable with the lead. That’s my nature, anyway, is to be an aggressive player. I’ve always been that way, and so Sundays are starting to shape up better for me since I’ve been in contention.”
Finau is used to taking it deep – in five of his six wins he had to go at least 16 under par – and Sunday at Vidanta was no different. Especially with world No. 1 Jon Rahm chasing.
Finau carded a bogey-free, 5-under 66 and sailed to a three-shot victory during which he was in total command on the back nine. For the week he hit 75% of the fairways, ranked third in the field in greens hit in regulation and filled it up on the greens (eighth in strokes: gained putting) in one of the most complete performances of his career.
It was the kind of week Finau has been looking for, with the PGA Championship now just two weeks away. Though he has 10 career top-10 finishes in majors, he is 0 for his last 7. Outdueling Rahm – a frequent practice-round partner in Arizona – should imbue Finau with even more confidence.
“I was really put to the test and came out on top,” he said, “which feels great.”
Talor Gooch has become the poster child for LIV defectors who are still hoping to remain relevant in the game’s biggest events.
The first back-to-back winner on the LIV circuit, Gooch recently expressed frustration that he’d been kept out of the upcoming U.S. Open after the USGA decided to change its qualification criteria at the beginning of the year to award an automatic spot to players who both reached and were eligible to play in last year’s Tour Championship. That was an important distinction: Gooch finished last season inside the top 30 in FedExCup points but was ineligible to play in the Tour postseason after bolting for LIV.
The Masters and Open Championship decided not to close that loophole for this year, but Augusta National has already made that tweak for the 2024 edition.
Why does this matter?
Because Gooch missed the deadline for final qualifying, meaning that his only path into next month’s U.S. Open is to stay inside the top 60 in the world ranking by the cutoff deadline. That will prove exceedingly difficult, with Gooch’s position plummeting (he’s currently on the number) while competing on a tour that doesn’t currently offer world ranking points. His only hope: a high finish at the PGA Championship. And some help.
Yes, it’d be a bummer if Gooch missed the year’s third major; at the moment he’s playing some sensational golf, which included a playoff victory Sunday in Singapore against Sergio Garcia. And Gooch’s exclusion will undoubtedly be used in golf’s ongoing culture wars as an example of how the majors should stay above the fray and offer the best fields, period, regardless of a player’s tour affiliation.
But it’s also worth remembering that the USGA didn’t just spring this decision on the competitors – it was clearly listed in its eligibility criteria when it was unveiled to the masses on Feb. 9. That Gooch allowed the qualifying deadline to pass without submitting an application is his fault alone.
Of course, it wouldn’t be the first time that Gooch has been in the middle of a bureaucratic mess. Infamously, he signed up for the first LIV event last June believing that he could play the London event as a one-off and then return to the Tour; only later did he learn that he’d be suspended indefinitely, necessitating his move full time to the rival circuit. Last summer, he filed an emergency injunction to compete in the FedExCup playoffs, thinking that he’d earned his spot in the field and thus deserved to play – but a judge denied his request.
Aware of the furor, perhaps the USGA will bail out Gooch and offer him a special invitation … it just seems highly unlikely, given Mike Whan and Co.'s previous stance on LIV’s disruptive entrance. Moving forward, Gooch or his representatives would do well to read the fine print. His oversight may have just cost him a major appearance in the prime of his career.
The top two players of this Tour season are sitting out this week’s Wells Fargo Championship, the final designated event before the PGA.
Their absences are understandable: Rahm had little time to decompress from the Masters, returning last week for his title defense in Mexico despite playing against the weakest regular-season field of the year; and as a Texas native, Scheffler feels compelled to support his hometown tournaments, teeing it up next week at the Nelson and playing Colonial the week after the PGA. With four straight tournaments upcoming (Nelson, PGA, Colonial, Memorial), he needed to squeeze in another off-week somewhere.
The headliner at Quail Hollow, then, is Rory McIlroy, a three-time winner of the event who recently made news for his own scheduling decisions.
So far, at least, he’s the lone star who has skipped two designated events. His withdrawal from the RBC Heritage (following his shocking missed cut at the Masters) cost him $3 million, or a quarter of his Player Impact Program bonus. (A reminder: Commissioner Jay Monahan has total discretion over the allocation of the funds.)
McIlroy is expected to meet with the media before the tournament (no time set), and it promises to be revealing. Not so much for his personal rationale – he was well-aware of how much the WD could cost him, and how it’d be perceived by the public and his peers – but rather what that decision could mean for the rest of the year, and for the 2024 schedule at large.
Next year’s Tour schedule won’t have the same rule that affords players just a single excused absence from the elevated tournaments. That means the Tour will be asking sponsors to pony up roughly twice as much as they used to, but with no guarantee that Rory and Rahm and Scottie and Spieth will show up. The Tour is assuming that the designated-event schedule will prove so appealing – big names, huge purses, massive points, a heightened importance on the top 50! – that it will keep stars interested and invested in the product. But for the elite tier, for the guys who are virtually guaranteed to be Player of the Year contenders anyway, they’re more likely to skip if they don’t like the course or the timing, or if they simply need a break during the new eight-month sprint.
How McIlroy views his second skip against that larger backdrop will be very interesting to hear.
THIS WEEK’S AWARD WINNERS ...
Big Bag: Jon Rahm. With a solo second in the non-elevated Mexico event, Rahm has cleared more than $14 million in official money this season, breaking Scottie Scheffler’s record that stood for, oh, eight months. Rahm has done it in just 12 Tour starts, aided largely, of course, by those bloated $20 million purses. Though he was outlasted by Finau, Rahm was looking to become the first player since Johnny Miller in 1974 to claim five Tour events before the calendar flipped to May. There hasn’t been a five-time winner on Tour since Justin Thomas in 2017. So, appreciate it – this dude is in the midst of something truly special.
Horses for Courses: Brandon Wu. The former Stanford product clearly has a thing for Vidanta. A year after tying for second in the Mexico Open, Wu was once again a significant factor throughout, briefly tied for the lead before an untimely double bogey on the 10th hole Sunday doomed his chances. With a couple of bounce-back birdies on the back nine, he wound up third, behind Finau and Rahm. Maybe next year is his year.
Gut-Check Time: Max Homa. Let’s see if the tournament’s defending champion can get right at Quail Hollow, as it’s been a bit of a flat stretch for Homa, who didn’t contend again at the Masters (T-43) and now has missed two consecutive cuts (including the team event at the Zurich with Collin Morikawa). This is supposed to be his prove-it year in the majors. It’d be helpful if he saw an uptick in form heading into Oak Hill.
Welcome Back: Hannah Green. Thanks to a 25-foot birdie at the par-3 18th, Green earned a spot in a three-way playoff at the inaugural JM Eagle LA Championship. She then birdied the 18th to stay alive in the extra session and then made par the third time around to knock off Xiyu Lin (Aditi Ashok bowed out after the first sudden-death hole). It was Green’s third career LPGA Tour title and first since 2019.
Not So Fast: Phil Mickelson. With the LIV bots frothing on social media, Lefty sat only a handful of shots off the lead heading into the final round in Singapore. On the heels of his out-of-nowhere performance at the Masters, he could have proved himself prophetic when he woofed at Augusta that he was about to “go on a tear.” Instead, he backed up with a Sunday 72 to tumble down the individual leaderboard (T-13), his team also posting the worst final-round score to drop all the way to eighth place. If the soon-to-be 53-year-old still has something special in the works, it’ll have to wait.
Top-5 Material: Brooks Koepka. We’re officially declaring King Koepka a top-5 favorite for the upcoming PGA, just like old times. His recent hot streak shows no signs of slowing down, what with his LIV Orlando victory, his 54-hole lead at the Masters and now another top-3 finish in Singapore. After his second round he said his game feels “about the same” as it did when he was ruling the golf world a few years ago. With that said …
MIA: Dustin Johnson. Last year’s LIV leader hasn’t even been the best player on his own squad this year. Having taken more time off than he ever has at the start of the year, DJ also suffered a back injury in early February that has slowed his progress. He wasn’t about to make excuses – he said at Augusta that he’s prepared as much as usual – but his game hasn’t been nearly as sharp this year, which included a T-23 last week while you were asleep. The clock is ticking to make it count this major season.
Oh, It’s Happening: Ludvig Aberg. The Texas Tech star, who sits atop the PGA Tour University rankings and could have his Tour card in a month’s time, blew away the Big 12 field by eight shots to capture the conference crown. Of this graduating class, he’s the most ready to compete right away. Last week on the Golf Channel Podcast with Rex & Lav, this correspondent predicted the big Swede could be a darkhorse candidate to land on Luke Donald’s Ryder Cup squad. Yep, he’s that good.