Monday Scramble: Lilia Vu survives, Zurich delivers, and LIV drafts blueprint for future
Lilia Vu survives a wild final day in Houston, the Zurich Classic creates a pair of first-time winners, LIV Golf shows the blueprint for the future, Tiger Woods goes under the knife again and more in this edition of the Monday Scramble:
Lilia Vu’s persistence paid off, as the 25-year-old didn’t just validate her career choice but also ran off three birdies in a row to close, including on the first playoff hole, to surge past a host of contenders and nip Angel Yin at the Chevron Championship.
Vu was an eight-time winner at UCLA but she endured a trying start to her pro career. She made just one cut in nine tries in 2019 and then fell into a deeper hole with the death of her grandfather. She thought about quitting and going to law school. But encouraged by her parents to stick with it, Vu bounced back to rattle off three wins on the mini-tours in 2021, made her presence felt during a nine-top-10 season a year ago, and now already has two wins in four months this year and has yet to finish outside the top 15.
“Everything happens for a reason,” said Vu, who crashed the top 10 in the world ranking for the first time.
Vu’s story should be an inspiration for a player like Yin, who was a long-hitting darling at the 2019 Solheim Cup but has struggled mightily of late. She had posted just a single top-20 finish in the past 22 months and earned just north of $3,000 this year. Still, she was three pars away from winning the year’s first major outright, and even after consecutive bogeys, she still had a chance in the playoff before inexplicably rinsing her second shot short when she had a TOI playground behind the green.
Of course, Yin wasn’t the only one who stumbled during the first women’s major at Carlton Woods (which, it should be noted, didn’t inspire much of a “major feel”).
A Lim Kim, the 2020 U.S. Women’s Open champion, shanked her shot on the 72nd hole. Teen phenom Atthaya Thitikul rinsed her wedge on the last. Third-round leader Allisen Corpuz closed with 74. Nelly Korda’s final-hole eagle was too little, too late.
But after knocking down a 15-foot birdie in overtime, it was Vu who took the celebratory leap into the pond fronting the 18th green.
All of that potential ... now fully realized.
Promising up-and-comers Davis Riley and Nick Hardy teamed up to nab their first PGA Tour victories at the Zurich Classic.
The second-year players combined for a 65 Sunday at TPC Louisiana – including a hot streak on the back nine with five birdies in seven holes in the alternate-shot format – to shoot a tournament record 30 under par and win by two shots for their maiden Tour titles.
Save for a Masters invitation, the victory comes with the usual Tour perks: two-year exemption, 400 FedExCup points, spots at Kapalua and the PGA Championship, among others. That’s particularly important for players like Riley (33rd) and Hardy (39th), who each jumped from outside the top 80 to inside the top 40 in the points standings to position themselves for a midseason push that could solidify their standing in all of the designated events in 2024.
Both Hardy, 27, and Riley, 26, were college standouts who haven’t taken long to adapt to the Tour standard. Riley had a trio of top-5 finishes in his rookie season while Hardy, after battling a wrist injury that cost him two months, challenged deep into the 2022 U.S. Open and earned back his playing privileges earlier this year through a major medical extension.
Getting across the line in a Tour event is an entirely different matter, however, and they considered themselves fortunate that the longtime friends could join forces for their first. They’ve been playing with and against each for more than a decade, since they were 14 years old on the AJGA circuit.
“To be able to do that together, kind of rub off each other’s confidence and attitude,” Hardy said, “it was definitely special to have a partner for the first one.”
Interestingly, as of a month ago, they weren’t even listed as partners in the Tour’s official team event. Hardy was supposed to pair with former Illinois teammate Thomas Detry, but European Ryder Cup captain Luke Donald requested that Detry play with Frenchman Victor Perez as a possible partnership preview (they tied for 13th).
Needless to say, the Americans won this mini-battle.
LIV’s most successful tournament to date highlighted what the upstart league should strive to become.
It must cater to the golf-starved countries that the main tours have neglected for decades.
It has to live up to its billing – Golf, But Louder – with fan-friendly initiatives that, quite literally, pump up the volume.
Implementing the designated-events series and having a stranglehold on the golfing interest in the States, the PGA Tour has already established its identity moving forward. It’s based on history, tradition, legacy. It’s the destination for serious golfers only.
That’s why LIV would be wise to adopt an entirely different ethos, leaning into the fun and the format to create a party atmosphere that’ll appeal to A) fans more interested in entertainment than skill, and B) a certain segment of the player population eager for a change of scenery.
In short, LIV needs more tournaments like Adelaide – which no doubt benefited from Greg Norman’s enormous popularity and a golf-mad community – and fewer like the ones in Tucson and Orlando in which they’re already competing for eyeballs.
LIV Adelaide offered the blueprint: international venue, engaged players, energetic crowds, loads of birdies. As the Masters recently proved, the circuit’s top players are merely looking for reps, or ways to remain sharp, in advance and in between the majors. Make those tournaments as lively as possible – and in markets desperate for high-level golf – and it’s still possible that both tours can survive and thrive, even in a niche sport.
Tiger Woods’ major season is most likely over after he revealed last week that he underwent another surgery, this time a fusion procedure in his right ankle that should help alleviate the arthritis from a broken bone.
Woods didn’t offer a timetable for his recovery, but most medical experts expect the procedure to sideline the 47-year-old for at least the rest of the major season, if not longer. It’s yet another setback after he sustained serious right-leg injuries during his 2021 car accident.
Woods has played just five official events since his return last April, making the cut in four of them. But that has mostly been a testament to his grit and perseverance. Never in those tournaments has he finished better than 45th, each time wearing down on the weekend when the pain of walking four consecutive days (not including practice rounds) began to take its toll. Earlier this month, he was well on his way to his highest-ever score at the Masters when he opted not to return for the resumption of third-round play.
This was particularly hard to watch:
Ankle surgery should – hopefully – lessen some of that discomfort.
THIS WEEK’S AWARD WINNERS ...
The Good Stuff: Scott Gutschewski. In a playoff with a guy half his age, the 46-year-old Gutschewski buried a 47-foot birdie putt to earn his third-career Korn Ferry Tour title – and first in 15 years, the second-longest gap between victories in tour history. This teary interview afterward should hit you right in the feels. At an age when players are either slowing down or looking ahead, this grizzled veteran is still giving it his all. Moving to No. 9 in the points standings, he’s once again in line for a return trip to the big tour (he was 158th during the 2021-22 season). Awesome.
Left Wanting: Nelly Korda. This was a prime opportunity for one of the game’s biggest stars to take the next step, sitting two shots behind heading into the final day against a list of contenders who were largely in that rarefied air for the first time. But Korda failed to take advantage of the par 5s and made only a single birdie before arriving at the home hole with no chance to win. Her closing eagle gave her a better score (71) and finish (solo 3rd) that masks what was an otherwise disappointing day.
Not Ruled Out: LIVers on the U.S. Ryder Cup team. For now, at least, players like Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka could still don the red, white and blue this fall in Italy. American skipper Zach Johnson said no decisions have been made about whether the LIV defectors are eligible to compete in the biennial competition, and Johnson and Koepka are still earning points toward team qualification. Barring a major championship victory, they’re highly unlikely to nab one of the six automatic qualifying spots, but Captain Johnson left open the possibility that he could still select one or both of those players with his six wildcard picks, should he receive the blessing of the other would-be team members. The American squad is insanely deep, but Johnson may prefer to add a DJ- or Brooks-type instead of talented but unknown commodities like Kurt Kitayama or Sahith Theegala.
Never Again: Suspect Zurich teams. With the Tour leaning into its ultra-competitive roots, it’d be a surprise if we again saw the back-end teams that we had this past week in NOLA. Michael Thompson partnered up with Paresh Amin (a 43-year-old military veteran who can’t even cut it on the mini-tours), while John Daly and David Duval – who have been uncompetitive for years on the senior circuit – finished in last place by a dozen shots. Never has FedExCup currency been more valuable than it is this year, with only the top 70 being exempt for the playoffs. So it’s a bad look that the Tour, with its pages-long exemption criteria, is wasting spots on guys who no longer harbor any grand ambitions. This can’t (and, we suspect, won’t) happen again next year.
Cutest Moment of the Week: Sungjae Im becoming a huge Georgia fan, thanks to Keith Mitchell. Now that he’s an Atlanta resident, the South Korean, in our opinion, has little choice but to root wholeheartedly for our beloved Dawgs. Try and tell us you didn’t crack a smile while watching Im say, “Bulldogs!” *Swoon*.
So Studly: Rose Zhang and Caleb Surratt. It’s college golf postSZN, and the biggest names are already stepping up. Zhang, the All-Everything Stanford star who is still riding high from the win at Augusta, tied the Pac-12 tournament record and won by seven shots. Over on the men’s side, Surratt, the dynamite freshman at Tennessee who has already splashed on Tour, rolled to a six-shot win at SECs in one of the country’s most difficult conferences. This next generation is so, so good – and fun to watch.
Unexpected Social-Media Feud: Eddie Pepperell vs. Richard Bland. Tweeting under the influence remains an occupational hazard, as Bland found out Sunday while debating LIV Golf and the DP World Tour after a T-35 finish in Australia. After Bland tweaked Pepperell for only being on tour for “15 minutes,” Pepperell shot back that he has won more in that relatively short time than Bland did in his 22 years on the European circuit. Ouch! Blandy eventually apologized for his intoxicated musings and wished Pepperell well, proving yet again that, at any age, alcohol and social media do not mix.
Where to start…— Eddie Pepperell (@PepperellEddie) April 23, 2023
Suppose it’s simple; in my 15 minutes I won more events than you did in 22 years.
What the Tour has done (just to name a few);
Heineken hole at Himmerland
Beat the Pro in Holland
The Tour, which you spent 22 years on did ok for you mate.
Weekend Plans: NOLA in Nocatee. To celebrate the final round of the Zurich, we ordered a 41-pound sack of crawfish, imported straight from Louisiana. Your trusty correspondent mowed through at least 20 pounds and probably developed an ulcer in the process. But no regrets.