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Monday Rap: Viktor Hovland's Breakthrough, Scottie's Ridiculous Week and Rose Zhang's Sparkling Debut

Keyur Khamar. Getty Images.

Neither warring entity controls the majors, the true currency in professional golf, but the PGA Tour has something that LIV Golf does not: meaningful, historic events that genuinely shift the trajectory of careers and the narratives surrounding them.

Rory McIlroy wanted to win the Memorial Tournament badly. It's one of the few big ones he hasn't picked off, and there's something special about that handshake with Jack Nicklaus just off the 18th green. It's a tournament Tiger Woods won five times. Watson, Nicklaus, Couples, Vijay, Norman—all past champions. Winning at Muirfield Village means something. So does losing there, which is why Denny McCarthy had to hold back tears after losing a playoff to Viktor Hovland. And it's why Hovland's breakthrough triumph on Sunday marks by far the biggest win of his professional career and, with two majors still ripe for the taking this summer, could well prove a springboard to true stardom. 

It's been coming for a while. Hovland has been an elite ball striker from the day he turned professional. One of my favorite stats is that he led the field in strokes gained off the tee in the 2019 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach…as an amateur. He's stayed a flusher while managing to address the glaring weakness in his game: his chipping, an Achilles Heel through his first few years on the PGA Tour. Massive improvements in the short game have turned him into a mainstay on major championship leaderboards—he's played in the final twosome in two of the last three and has finished T7 or better at three straight. Makes sense, then, that he'd be the last man standing on a week that played like a major. His winning total of seven-under 281 marks the highest winning score on tour since Scottie Scheffler's five-under 283 at last year's Bay Hill, a setup that drew harsh criticism for crossing the line into silliness. 

There were no such complaints about Muirfield Village—apart from, it should be noted, the par-3 16th, which one player called "a truly shocking hole" to me on the putting green on Tuesday. A hot microphone caught Jason Day calling it a "stupid hole" while Jack Nicklaus listened in from the broadcast booth in a deliciously awkward moment. (Jack, to his credit, took it in stride: "I think he might be right.") Hovland played it in two under for the week and played the 16-18 stretch, the three toughest holes on Sunday, in two under. He was the only player in the field to make birdie on 17 in the final round, and he credited his patience in his post-round presser. The old Viktor, he said, might've fired at the flag on 18 thinking he needed a birdie to force a playoff. He was, after all, one back of Denny McCarthy at that moment, and McCarthy hadn't made a bogey all day. Instead, Hovland played safely right of the pin on 18, knowing he wouldn't be able to stop his approach from the rough and accepting it'd likely run through the green. From there, an up-and-down par meant he needed some help from McCarthy. 

"I didn't have the short game that I have right now," Hovland said, "so when you do end up on the down slope and you need to be able to spin the ball or slow the ball down, I just couldn't do that. So it would be kind of a double whammy for me before. I would short-side myself and I didn't have any tools around the green to slow the ball down, and now I can't even keep the chip on the green. So you're just always grinding.

"But this week I told myself that when I'm out of position just play for the fatter part of the green and if I miss the green, I still have a shot where I can roll the ball up or slow the ball down enough to get it close to the pin. So I knew this was kind of going to be a competition of not making any double bogeys or making too many mistakes."

Hovland didn't make a single double bogey all week, but he needed a mistake from McCarthy on 18. He got one. McCarthy pulled his tee shot on the 72nd hole and needed a fortunate bounce to avoid the water hazard left. He opted to lay up from a juicy lie in the rough and wedged his third well right of the flag, leaving 23 feet for the victory. It flew by and trickled out to five feet, and suddenly you wondered if the world's best putter was about to three-jack-double his chance away. But he poured that one in the center and they headed back to the 18th tee to settle the matter. Hovland played first and ripped one down the left side. McCarthy flailed his out right and couldn't quite get his approach to the green, his ball tumbling down the false front and leaving a highly tricky wedge shot. He played it beautifully to give himself a 12-footer for par. It caught the low lip but didn't fall. 

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Hovland then had nearly seven feet for the fourth win of his career and the first on a non-resort golf course. Yes, the man from Oslo, Norway's first three wins came in Puerto Rico, Mexico and Mexico, and his two unofficial W's were both in the Bahamas. Now he's got one on a world-renowned, beefy golf course after a ballsy early fist pump for a putt that lipped in. I guess the golfer always knows. 

He'll now enter the U.S. Open at Los Angeles Country Club as a bonafide top-five favorite given his recent pedigree in majors, his newfound patience and his remade short game. 

Scottie Scheffler's hard-to-believe week

So Scottie Scheffler's putting is officially a thing. A thing that needs addressing, quickly, for it would be a shame if he didn't capitalize on this historically good ball striking run. I tweeted last week in amazement that Scheffler was contending at the Charles Schwab Challenge despite losing nearly five shots to the field with his subpar putting. 

He leaned into the bit this week at Muirfield Village. His statistical profile for those four rounds is unprecedented: he led the field in strokes gained off the tee (4.826), strokes gained approach (11.839) and strokes gained around the green (4.022). Add those up and Scheffler gained 20.705 shots on the field tee-to-green, the second-best mark in a single event in the ShotLink era. 

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Which brings us to our next point. Scheffler lost over 8.5 shots to the field with his putting, dead last among the 65 players who made the cut. Think about that for a moment. The man finished one shot out of a playoff despite spotting the field 8.5 shots with Edward Scissorhands putting. It's hard to wrap your head around—both how well he's hitting it and how poorly he's putting. 

"I feel like I'm making progress," Scheffler said of the flatstick. "Like I said at the PGA, I can start feeling the ball coming off the blade again, which is good. I felt like at the Masters and was it Hilton Head? It didn't feel as good….I used a putter with a different lie angle in the first round, and then I guess it was after Friday I had two putters out there, because I went back to my original putter on Friday. You may have seen me testing more, but I was putting with a lob wedge as well just for practice. It's something that I've been working on. It helps me release it and I do that from time to time, yeah."

That's an old-school practice method that Tiger Woods is a big fan of. That, plus experimenting with different putter setups, shows that Scheffler's fully aware of his shortcomings on the greens. And while he's said a few times that he's frustrated, it takes serious mental strength to not let the continued putting struggles bleed into his swing. He said on the CBS broadcast that he feels like he's had to elevate his ball striking to compensate for his putting. Usually when you press like that it has the opposite effect: you get impatient, fire at flags and everything begins to spiral. Scottie's in such deep control of his swing that he's done exactly what he said he needed to—improve his ball striking to have a chance. Not letting past mistakes cause future ones is one of golf's chief challenges, and Scheffler's mastered it. In some roundabout way, the putting struggles—and the continued ball striking greatness—makes me even more confident about the rest of his season. 

One does not win at Augusta National without being able to putt, and smart money says this is just a blip on the radar. And the only stat that truly matters in this game is your score, and Scheffler's now finished in the top 12 in 15 consecutive starts on the PGA Tour. And it's not like he's playing a cupcake schedule. If he putted at field-average level for the past two weeks he'd have won in Dallas by three and in Ohio by seven. Things are just fine in Mr. Scheffler's world, and he'll be the bookmakers' favorite at the U.S. Open. 

Rose Zhang's star debut

She was, without exaggeration, the most decorated amateur golfer since Tiger Woods. She won everything there is to win in amateur golf. She turned professional because there was literally nothing else for her to win. U.S. Junior? Check. U.S. Amateur? Yup. Augusta National Women's Amateur? You bet. NCAAs? Back-to-back, the first woman ever to do it. World No. 1 amateur? For three straight years.

The golf world held (understandably) sky-high expectations for 20-year-old Rose Zhang in her pro debut at the Mizuho Open at Liberty National outside New York City. Her first order of business was making the cut, which she accomplished easily. A third-round 66 gave her a two-shot lead heading into a final round that was difficult to get through. Not because of Zhang, of course, but because of a horrifically slow pace of play. The final group—consisting of Zhang, Atthaya Thitikul and one player from the American Junior Golf Association, which held a tournament concurrent with the pros—needed 5 hours and 45 minutes to play 18 holes. As a threesome! Watching Zhang wait for 10ish minutes on the 72nd hole for the group in front to finish —with a fairway bunker shot left to play and needing a par for the win—was downright agonizing, as was her par putt that slid by on the low side. That meant a playoff between her and the first-ever winner of the ANWA, the now-major champion Jennifer Kupcho. 

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Both missed the fairway right on the first playoff hole, the 18th, both played their seconds short of the green, and both got up-and-down for par. With daylight likely only permitting one more hole, Zhang emerged victorious when Kupcho made a mess from the center of the fairway. 

"What is happening right now?" is how Zhang summed up her emotions right after the final putt dropped. It was just two weeks ago that she won the NCAAs with her teammates. What is happening right now is the emergence of an American superstar, the precise jolt of energy the LPGA needed. She's the first player in 72 years to win an LPGA event in her first professional start and the first playerever to win the NCAA title and an LPGA event in the same season. 

It's a sample size of one, but I was glued to the action all day Saturday for one reason and one reason only. When you have a generational, prodigal talent in your sport, people are going to watch, if for no other reason than to see if she's as good as advertised. For Zhang to win her professional debut only adds to her legend and, hopefully, to her standing within the game at large. 

Predictably, Golf Twitter lost its mind. It's understandable. Winning your pro debut isn't something people do very often. And Zhang clearly knows her game inside and out. She never beats herself. The one question I have about her game going forward is her length. Or, more specifically, the lack thereof. She sits in the low-to-mid 140s in ball speed, which would be right around average on the LPGA Tour, but well slower than the Nelly Kordas and Lexi Thompsons of the world. She likely didn't play many long courses in amateur golf but she'll face stiffer tests in women's major championships moving forward. This isn't to downplay her accomplishment, but my job is to analyze golf rather than just heap endless praise. It's obviously a dream start to her career and a very exciting time for the women's game. That doesn't mean she's going to win every tournament she plays. 

Elsewhere…

—20-year-old Tom McKibbin notched his first win on the DP World Tour at the Porsche European Open, where he carved a high-draw onto the par-5 18th green for a macho closing birdie. McKibbin grew up playing at Holywood Golf Club in Northern Ireland, the same course where Rory McIlroy developed his game, and like Rory he eschewed college golf in favor of turning professional at 18. He's long been considered one of Europe's most promising prospects and McIlroy was thrilled to see him get the W. 

"I watched every shot this morning," McIlroy said after his T7 finish at the Memorial. "I was really happy for him. For 20 years old he showed so much composure. And, yeah, look, he's been, we've all known from back home the potential that he has, but I think to break through and win for the first time at 20 years old is, there's a bright future ahead of him. And, yeah, just so happy and so proud of him, really. I've known Tom since he was 10 years old. And to see his progression and see where he is today and get that first win in Europe is, was really cool to see."

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—Saudi club Al-Ittihad will reportedly sign Real Madrid legend Karim Benezema to a three-year deal that will see him earn $200 million. Al-Ittihad, just like its rival Al-Nassr which signed Cristiano Ronaldo, has deep ties to the Saudi government, and there were multiple reports in the soccer world that the Saudis have turned their attention toward beefing up their domestic league. They're willing to vastly overpay aging superstars—Benzema is 35—to make that happen. 

Sound familiar? It's the same playbook as LIV Golf, and a reminder that LIV will continue as long as they're willing to fund it. It's all Monopoly money at this point.  

—With the Memorial getting the designated-event purse bump, Jack Nicklaus' tournament gave out $3.6 million to its winner and $20 million overall. This, then, is your reminder that perhaps golf's greatest champion made a total of about $5 million during his PGA Tour career. He was asked about all the money in pro golf these days and he could've well waded into bitter old man territory. But he did nothing of the sort. 

"My largest tournament win on the Regular Tour was the Masters in 1986. $144,000. And then I won, my last tournament I won was the Tradition on Senior Tour and that was $150,000. 3.6 million? You guys are way overpaid. (Laughing.) No. I think it's great to see what's happening in the game. I have no regrets for it. I love seeing that we were the guys that were the forerunners that helped make that happen. We always had to go win golf tournaments to make a name to go make a living outside. The guys today can make a living on the golf course. And it's not just 10 or 15 guys, you got, I don't know what you got, a couple hundred guys can make a living, or 300 guys, all make a living, don't you. And the tours that you got? I think it's fantastic. I hope next year we pay him 7.2 million."

—A picture surfaced Sunday night showing Hideki Matsuyama in line to board a Spirit Airlines flight. Hideki Matsuyama, Masters champion, with a gazillion dollars, flying Spirit. The reason? Columbus airport is pretty small, and a bunch of the direct flights to major markets are Spirit. Still, between this and Tyrrell Hatton's admission on last week's Fore Play that he flew Spirit, we have a curious phenomenon going of very rich golfers flying the very cheapest airline. 

—Phil Mickelson simply won't quit the Twitter machine. Back at the PGA Championship I asked him why, when he could just coast on being an all-time great, he chooses to repeatedly step in the social-media mud. 

"Because I know things that other people don't," he said. "And I want to make sure people are held accountable."

This week he continued to hammer Brandel Chamblee and Eamon Lynch but also added a new target: Rory McIlroy, who notably said "fuck you Phil" on Netflix's Full Swing. Lefty, it seems, hasn't forgotten. 

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It's schoolgirl stuff, from both sides, and Phil knows this. I guess some people truly can't help themselves. 

—Loved this raw emotion from Billy Horschel, who's taken his fair share of heat throughout the years. I've always found Billy to be extremely friendly and personal, and he came off great in his Fore Man scramble appearance. He bounced back from that embarrassing opening-round 84 with a very respectable even-par 72. 

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—There seems each week to be a new LIV-adjacent question that makes appearances throughout interviews. A few weeks back we went through a how would you react if a LIV guy wanted to return cycle. This week it was about the Ryder Cup. Jon Rahm was asked about Sergio Garcia not being on the team later this year and reiterated his stance that the Ryder Cup should be the 12 best Americans against the 12 best Europeans, full stop. 

"I'm going to miss him," Rahm said. "We had a great partnership at Whistling Straights. I'm going to mention history again one more time. A Spanish duo in the Ryder Cup I think to me is embedded into the roots of the Ryder Cup. Look with Seve and Ollie were able to do throughout their partnership, right. So it's a little sad to me that politics have gotten in the way of such a beautiful event. Again, it's the best Europeans against the best American, period. And whatever is going on, who is playing LIV and who is not playing LIV to me shouldn't matter. It's whoever is best suited to represent the European side."

Patrick Cantlay shared a similar sentiment when asked about LIVers in Rome: "I just want the best 12 Americans on the team."

Then there's Rory McIlroy, who echoed those guys…but only for the American side? I asked Rory if he'd changed his stance that LIV golfers shouldn't be allowed at the Ryder Cup. Despite what the internet might lead you to believe, smart people change their minds with new information all the time. It's not a sign of weakness or of hypocrisy, and we don't want to live in a world where we're glued to our initial viewpoints. Anyways, Rory seemed to take a step back from his hardline policy. At least, for his opponents. 

"I mean, I certainly think Brooks deserves to be on the United States team. I think with how he's played, I mean, he's second in the U.S. standings, only played two counting events. I don't know if there's anyone else on the, you know, on the LIV roster that would make the team on merit and how they're playing. But Brooks is definitely a guy that I think deserves to be on the U.S. team. But I have different feelings about the European team and the other side and sort of how that has all transpired and, yeah, I don't think any of those guys should be a part of the European team."

He's referring to the older European guard that all went to LIV: Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood, Paul Casey, Ian Poulter, Graeme McDowell, Henrik Stenson. What this tells me: it's absolutely personal between McIlroy and that group. How else do you explain being okay with LIV guys on one side and not the other? 

He's entitled to that opinion. We don't know the full extent of what's gone on behind the scenes, and it's true that the Europeans have been mouthier about the schism than Brooks or Dustin Johnson. Still, it's certainly an interesting line to draw. 

My two cents: I'm with Cantlay and Rahm. It could well turn out that only one or two LIV guys make the Ryder Cup, but that should be based on merit alone rather than politics. I understand that for the last few decades players have had to be members of the European Tour in order to make the European side. But those rules were made in a different golf ecosystem, before the emergence of LIV. And I understand that the Ryder Cup is a huge revenue driver for the DP World Tour…but how does having some LIV guys in the event make them any less money? Surely it would only bring more attention to the week? And it's not like the DP World Tour would have to pay the LIV guys to play; that's not part of the Ryder Cup. 

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Luke Donald, the European captain, could well get lucky by not having to address the issue. No European on LIV is playing so well that it'd be conspicuous to leave him off, as it would with Brooks Koepka. But should someone emerge, I do believe the game would be better off if we opted for an olive branch over a pitchfork. At least for one week. 

—Ludvig Aberg, the recently graduated top collegiate player and world No. 1 amateur from Texas Tech, makes his professional debut at this week's Canadian Open. He's the first college player to benefit from the new PGA Tour U direct pathway to the PGA Tour, and he's exempt through the end of next season. The Swede impressed with a T-24 at the elevated Arnold Palmer Invitational and also made the cut at the Valspar Championship.