Quest For The Card End Is Near
Learn more about 'Quest For the Card', airing Thursdays on The Golf Channel
Going into last weeks event, it looked likely that the top 14 players on the money list had already earned enough to guarantee a top-20 finish and a diploma'a one-way ticket to next years PGA Tour. Coincidentally, the top-14 places on the money list went unchanged in order. Kyle Thompson helped his cause by jumping from 17th to 15th in earnings; however, he still trails Ted Purdy, who sits in 14th, by $20,000.
Jason Dufner was the only player to move into the top 20 after a good tournament in Ontario, Cal., and Tjaart Van Der Walt moved out, from 20th to 22nd after controversially taking the week off to compete in the dunhill links championship on the European Tour.
At this point in the season with so much at stake, few of Tjaarts peers could understand the logic of traveling to Scotland for a week, missing a valuable tournament, and returning to play this week in the Monterey Peninsula Classic after all that travel. Considering Tjaarts continued improvement in his years on the Nationwide Tour, and his proximity to securing a PGA Tour card, the cons of his decision seem to outweigh the pros.
The players on or near the bubble are sure to be tested to the very end. Each tournament, each round, each hole, and each shot takes on more importance as the end draws near. The pressure will most assuredly mount as well.
There is comfort however. Every player in the top 40, give or take a couple of places, knows that theyre guaranteed a top-55 finish, thus earning exempt status for next years Nationwide Tour. They still have another chance to earn PGA Tour status at the fall classic. But Q-School is no fun. And as tough as these last five tournaments may seem, theyre nothing like the hell of Q-School. In short, this is the time of year when covering professional golf is fun, and playing professional golf can be torture.
The Mark Christopher Charity Classic gave two players reason to breathe much easier. And it was these two specific players who were responsible for one of the most exciting finishes ever for a televised Nationwide Tour event, rivaled only by a four-hole playoff between eventual champion Matt Gogel and Jay Williamson at the 1998 Omaha Classic.
A 25-year-old Northwestern University All-America Jess Daley, and the 21-year-old former teenage professional golfer James Oh squared off in what was for all practical purposes a two-horse race. One stroke ahead of Daley and five strokes ahead of those tied for third heading into the final round, James Oh fed off of the partisan crowd, played great golf, and hit an incredible 251-yard 3-iron to the 72nd hole, and two-putted for birdie to force a playoff.
With darkness looming, Daley and Oh traded punches for three holes, both with numerous chances to win outright. The extended drama was welcomed by the large gallery, and when the Southern Californian, Oh, birdied the third playoff hole to win, it was obvious that the fans and sponsors got their moneys worth.
In winning his first-ever Nationwide event, Oh became the eighth non-member this year to earn his way onto the tour. He was also the youngest-ever winner of a Nationwide event, displacing David Duval from that title.
In doing so, Oh also validated a controversial decision to turn professional at 19-years-young after quitting school at UNLV. And last, but not least, he jumped from 225th on the money list to 43rd.
Jess Daleys career-best second place finish vaulted him from a disappointing 89th to 37th in earnings, thus greatly improving his chances to rally for a top-20 finish at years end.
With five more events remaining, three of which can be seen live on The Golf Channel (the next two weeks plus The Nationwide Tour Championship), there are still a few players outside the top 20 that I expect to make some noise.
Charles Warren III is at 23rd and has been playing some of his best golf of the season lately. Roland Thatcher, the defending champion this week in Monterey, is 24th and looking for a big jump this week. Tommy Tolles is 25th and committed to playing every tournament in hopes of getting back to where hes enjoyed much success'The PGA Tour. And Lucas Glover, at 32nd on the money list, has a lot of ground to cover, but has the game to do it.
The Quest for the Card is 30 weeks long, but with five weeks remaining, its long from over.
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Recent winner Cook contending at CareerBuilder
Patton Kizzire is currently the only two-time PGA Tour winner this season, but Austin Cook hopes to join him this week at the CareerBuilder Challenge.
Cook won for the first time in November at the RSM Classic, a victory that catapaulted him from the Web.com Tour graduate category into an entirely new echelon. Cook notched a pair of top-25 finishes over the last two weeks in Hawaii, and he's again in the mix after an opening 63 on the Nicklaus Tournament Course left him one shot behind Jon Rahm.
"Today was great," Cook told reporters. "The conditions were perfect, but I always loved desert golf and I was just hitting the ball well and seeing good lines on the greens and hitting good putts."
Cook got off to a fast start, playing his first seven holes in 6 under highlighted by an eagle on the par-5 fourth hole. He briefly entertained the notion of a sub-60 round after birdies on Nos. 10 and 11 before closing with six pars and a birdie.
Cook was a relative unknown before his victory at Sea Island earlier this season, but now with the flexibility and confidence afforded by a win he hopes to build on his burgeoning momentum this week in California.
"That was a big, proud moment for myself, knowing that I can finish a tournament," Cook said. "I think it was one of those things that I've proven to myself that now I can do it, and it just meant the world to me."
Photo: Fleetwood's phone cover is picture of Bjorn
There's phone covers and then there are Phone Covers.
Paul Casey has himself a Phone Cover, showing off the protective case that features a picture of his wife at last year's U.S. Open.
Now, it appears, Tommy Fleetwood has joined the movement.
Fleetwood, last year's season-long Race to Dubai winner, has a phone cover with a picture of Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn on it. And not even a current Thomas Bjorn. This is a young Bjorn. A hair-having Bjorn.
The 26-year-old is a virtual lock for this year's European Ryder Cup team, but just in case, he's carrying around a phone with a picture of the team captain attached to the back of it.
Mickelson starts fast, fades to 70 at La Quinta
Phil Mickelson got off to a fast start in his first competitive round of 2018 - for six holes, at least.
The 47-year-old is making his first start since the WGC-HSBC Champions this week at the CareerBuilder Challenge, and only his third competitive appearance since the BMW Championship in September. Four birdies over his first six holes indicated that a strong opener might be in the cards, but Mickelson played his subsequent holes in 2 over.
It added up to a 2-under 70 at La Quinta Country Club, typically the easiest of the three courses in rotation this week, and left Mickelson eight shots behind Jon Rahm.
"It was fun to get back out and be competitive," Mickelson told reporters. "I for some reason am stuck on 70 here at La Quinta, whether I get off to a good start or a bad one, I end up shooting the same score."
Mickelson stunted his momentum with a tee shot out of bounds on the par-4 eighth hole, but he managed to save bogey and otherwise drove the ball relatively well. Instead, he pointed to his normally reliable iron play as the culprit for his back-nine backslide on a day when more than 120 players in the 156-man field broke par.
Mickelson will now head to the Nicklaus Tournament Course with the Stadium Course on tap for Saturday's third round. While there were several low scores Thursday at La Quinta, Mickelson remains bullish about the birdie opportunities that still lie ahead.
"This isn't the course where I go low on," Mickelson said. "I feel more comfortable on Stadium and Nicklaus. Neither of them are nearly as tight and I tend to score a lot lower on those other two than I do here, historically."
Rahm (62) shoots career low round at CareerBuilder
After a banner year in 2017, Jon Rahm found a way to add yet another accolade to his growing list of accomplishments during the opening round of the CareerBuilder Challenge.
Rahm got off to a fast start at La Quinta Country Club, playing his first seven holes in 6 under en route to a 10-under 62. The score marked his career low on the PGA Tour by two shots and gave him an early lead in an event that utilizes a three-course rotation.
La Quinta was the site of Adam Hadwin's 59 during last year's event, and Rahm knew full well that a quick start opened the door to a memorably low score.
"Any time you have that going for you, you get thoughts come in your head, 60, maybe 59," Rahm told reporters. "I knew that if I kept playing good I was going to have more birdie opportunities, and I tried not to get ahead of myself and I was able to do it."
Rahm birdied his first two holes before an eagle on the par-5 fifth hole sparked him to an outward 30. He added four more birdies on the inward half without dropping a shot.
The Spaniard is the highest-ranked player in the field this week, and while many players opted for a two-week stint in Hawaii he instead came home for some practice after opening the new year with a runner-up finish at the Sentry Tournament of Champions. That decision appears to have paid some early dividends as Rahm gets set to defend a PGA Tour title for the first time next week at Torrey Pines.
Low scores were plentiful on all three courses during the opening round, and Rahm remained pleased with his effort even though he fell short of matching Hadwin's sub-60 score from a year ago.
"That's golf. You're not going to make every single putt, you're not going to hit every shot perfect," he said. "Overall, you've got to look at the bigger picture. I birdied the last hole, had a couple of great sand saves coming in, shot 10 under par. There's not much more I can ask for."