Weekly 18: Shock and awws

By Jason SobelAugust 22, 2011, 3:02 pm

I’ve been preaching the same message for a half-decade now, but on the eve of the FedEx Cup playoffs, it bears repeating for those who remain skeptics.

The current system beats the alternative.

As you may recall, in the last year prior to the FedEx Cup, the Tour Championship was held two months later – in November! – and the PGA Tour’s top two players sat out, because, well, they felt like it.

And now? Players care about reaching the playoffs, perhaps not as much for what they represent than what they can prompt. One great week can not only mean a big-time paycheck, it can get a player into each of next year’s four majors and plenty of other high-profile events.

So which of the rich will get even richer? This edition of the Weekly 18 begins with the idea that it’s anybody’s ballgame.

 1. FedEx Cup delivers uncertainty

Webb Simpson

Pick a player, any player. Go ahead. I dare you. Try to pick a player to win the FedEx Cup playoffs.

Even though I’ll take a shot at a prognostication in the “And the Winner Is…” section of this column, it’s only an educated guess – and light on the educated part. If you’re searching for a favorite entering the quartet of upcoming events, there are plenty of options.

It may be world No. 1-ranked Luke Donald. Or the No. 1 seed after the regular season, Nick Watney. It could be Sunday’s champion Webb Simpson (above). Or last Sunday’s champion Keegan Bradley. Might be a multiple winner such as Steve Stricker or Bubba Watson. Could be a popular pick like Phil Mickelson or Adam Scott. Or possibly a previous FedEx Cup winner in Jim Furyk or Vijay Singh, each of whom has proven to be resurgent toward year’s end.

Really, though, this year’s winner could come from anywhere in the top-125 and considering what a topsy-turvy, unpredictable season it’s been so far, nothing should come as a surprise.

Two years ago, Heath Slocum stumbled into the first playoff event as No. 124, then prevailed over a star-studded leaderboard to win The Barclays. Last year, unheralded Martin Laird reached a playoff at that same event before losing to Matt Kuchar.

What does it mean? All any competitor needs is a chip and a seat at the table in order to turn the next month into a huge success.

The current format may not be perfect, but this sentiment didn’t exist five years ago and beyond, before the FedEx Cup was put into place.

 Three Up 

2. Fred Couples

Good news for all the Freddie fans in the greater Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., area: The two-time Players Championship winner will be back on familiar turf next season.

By virtue of his Senior Players victory on Sunday, Couples earned a berth in the TPC-Sawgrass field, where he won in 1984 and ’96.

“That’s great,” he said. “I’ll get to play with the studs.”

Couples looked like a stud in his own right at times, forcing a playoff with John Cook at Westchester CC, only to miss potential winning putts on each of the first two extra holes. On the third, though, he stiffed an approach to 3 feet and converted the birdie for his first career senior major championship, tying the number he won as a flatbelly on the regular circuit.

Of course, as is usually the case with Couples, his health – or relative lack thereof – was a major part of the story, having just returned from back treatments and dealing with a sore hip throughout the final round.

“I feel great about winning my first senior major,” he said. “I just hope tomorrow when I wake up I feel better than I do now and that's the emotional part of it because I've been doing so well. It was a challenging day and it was a fun day, and to win, it's a good feeling.'

3. Long putters

There’s no way to look this up in any sort of record book, but I bounced this notion off some of my Golf Channel colleagues and we believe this is the first time in PGA Tour history that three consecutive players have won using non-standard length putters.

First it was Adam Scott at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, then Bradley at the PGA Championship and now Simpson at the Wyndham Championship. Throw in the fact that Couples prevailed at the Senior Players Championship while also brandishing one and it’s gotten to the point where a player is doing a disservice to himself if he isn’t at least trying out one.

“I think you're seeing younger guys use it, more guys use it,” said Simpson, who switched to the belly putter during his freshman year at Wake Forest. “I don't know what it is for the other guys. For me, I just like it better. I putt differently with it and I've never really found anything I like better.”

Don’t be surprised if many more players are echoing those sentiments in the very near future.

4. Webb Simpson

It was only a matter of time.

No player has enjoyed a more consistent season than Simpson, whose first career PGA Tour victory at the Wyndham Championship was his Tour-leading 15th top-25 result.

After closing with a bogey-free 3-under 67, Simpson explained that it felt like the “elephant is off my back,” which must weigh a whole lot more than a monkey.

How solid has he been this season? Simpson leads the All-Around category, which compiles rankings from eight major statistics.

On a related though somewhat random note: If there was a Caddie of the Year award, my vote would go to Paul Tesori. Not sure there’s any caddie who works better and has meant more to his player than the former PGA Tour member, who has previously looped for the likes of Vijay Singh and Sean O’Hair.

 Three Down

 Charl Schwartzel

5. Charl Schwartzel

The upcoming FedEx Cup playoffs won’t include two of this year’s four major champions, since Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke don’t own PGA Tour memberships.

The first won’t include this year’s Masters champion, either, as Charl Schwartzel has elected to begin his playoff push one week later.

A rookie on the PGA Tour, Schwartzel is easily well within the top-125, but opted to forgo this week’s Barclays – the only healthy player who qualified, but failed to commit.

Of course, that doesn’t necessarily spell doom for him. 

Three of the first four FedEx Cup champions – Tiger Woods in 2007 and ’09, and Jim Furyk last year (DQ'd after missing pro-am tee time) – didn’t play the opening playoff event, but rallied to win the whole shebang. Maybe Schwartzel believes skipping this week’s festivities could only be a good luck omen.

6. Dean Wilson

While many of the FedEx Cup “bubble boys” were hard at work in Greensboro ensuring they’d have somewhere to play the next week, the 128th-ranked player in the points standings was forced to withdraw. 

Wilson WD’d just 13 holes into the opening round, reportedly due to a wrist injury.

The result concludes an uneventful regular season for the one-time PGA Tour champion, who didn’t tally a single top-10 and only had three top-25s in 22 starts.

He’s now qualified for the playoffs just once in the past three seasons, missing the cut at last year’s Barclays and failing to advance to the second round.

7. Olafur Loftsson

The truth is, Loftsson is only in the “Three Down” section because he missed the cut in Greensboro and I was a bit light in the downer category this week. 

Really, though, the rising senior at UNC-Charlotte should be applauded – not only for becoming the first native of Iceland to compete in a PGA Tour event, but for the way he played, too. 

After reaching the field thanks to a four-stroke victory at the Cardinal Amateur one week ago, Loftsson opened his first round at Sedgefield with a double-bogey on the 10th hole, but battled back with four birdies to shoot a 2-under 68. He then enjoyed a very consistent second round, with just one birdie and one bogey in addition to 16 pars, missing the cut by a mere one stroke.

“It's a little bit strange, you know, being around these guys, but I'm not intimidated by being here,” Loftsson said during a pre-tournament news conference. “It's just a lot of fun. I'm going to enjoy these few days and enjoy this experience and try to learn as much as I can because I intend to be here in the future.”

Here’s hoping we’ll see him back out amongst the elite pros soon enough.

 Three Wishes

8. I wish I could buy stock in a certain German back doctor.

Six weeks ago, Couples traveled to Germany to have his notoriously balky back worked on by a specialist.

He received six treatments over five days that involved blood work, treatments that aren’t legal in the United States, but were approved by the PGA Tour.

'I feel good, no doubt. I hope it continues,' Couples said. 'So far I haven't had any shot I've hit out there, whether it was a wedge or a putt or a driver, that's felt bad since I started playing and practicing. I know it will come. I don't think I'm healed but if it can last a while...'

Singh knows just how he feels. Literally. 

Singh had the same treatments done in Germany last week and climbed the Wyndham leaderboard while pain-free this past week.

“[I’ve] been getting out of bed and crawling on to the ground first,” Singh said. “It makes a big difference. It freed up my whole back. Now I can hit the way I want to do it, my swing, and I can work on my golf swing the way I would like to and working a lot better. I feel like, you know, it's good.”

9. I wish the Presidents Cup points system could be revised – now. 

Officially, the points system for U.S. players works thusly: “The top 10 U.S. players who have earned the most official PGA Tour money beginning with the 2009 Wyndham Championship through the 2011 BMW Championship, weighted as follows: 2009-2010 = 1 point for every $1 earned; 2011 = 2 points for every $1 earned.”

Unofficially, it makes zero sense.

Crunch the numbers all you’d like, but any format which shows Bradley – with a Byron Nelson Championship victory in addition to last week’s PGA Championship title – in just 18th place with three events left to be played is in need of a serious overhaul.

Granted, the rookie didn’t earn any points in the first year-plus that the current cycle was in place, but it’s not like his competition was tearing it up prior to his arrival. Only one other American player has won a major during this time frame – and Phil Mickelson ranks third on the points list.

Instead, Bradley finds himself below such players as Bill Haas, Brandt Snedeker and Bo Van Pelt – each fine players in his own right, but none have come close to Keegan’s recent accomplishment.

And therein lies the greatest problem with the system. Because the Presidents Cup is run by the PGA Tour, essentially all events are treated equally, rather than weighing the majors with more importance, as is done in advance of the Ryder Cup.

Until those who run the Presidents Cup understand and acknowledge that some tourneys should be held in higher regard when it comes to placing players on the team, we’re always going to have the possibility that a guy like Bradley can win two events, including a major, and still be on the outside looking in.

10. I wish I could find fault in Rosie Jones’ two Solheim Cup captain’s picks.

The U.S. captain certainly didn’t go chalk in naming Vicky Hurst and Ryann O’Toole to the team on Sunday night. Instead, she should be commended for not only looking outside the box, but keeping an eye on the future of the team by adding a few young players to the roster.

The truth is, she didn’t have many great candidates from which to choose. The half-dozen players from 11-16 on the points list have combined for exactly five top-10 finishes this season, with none posting more than one.

While the selection of O’Toole in particular, who doesn’t even own full-time LPGA status, will raise some eyebrows, in seven starts this season she owns two top-10s – which is two more than fellow captain’s picks contenders Natalie Gulbis and Kristy McPherson had combined.

In a year when nobody really stepped up for consideration to be named to the roster, Jones essentially used this past weekend’s Safeway Classic as a de facto qualifying tournament. Hurst and O’Toole each finished in a share of fifth place; no other candidates were in the top-20.

They may not have been the popular picks, but the last two additions to the Solheim Cup team were smart ones, because they rewarded strong performances when it mattered and they should prove beneficial to the long-term future of the team.

 11. Stat of the Week:

There are some interesting numbers that have surfaced in the aftermath of Bradley’s victory at the PGA Championship to close the year in majors.

The ages of this season’s four champions at the time of their wins were: 26 (Schwartzel); 22 (McIlroy); 42 (Clarke); and 25 (Bradley). That’s an average winner’s age of 28.75, a year-and-a-half younger than last year’s major champions and the youngest average age since 2000, when a 24-year-old Woods won three of the four in addition to Singh, who was 37 at the time.

Even more quixotically, this was the first year since 1963 that a single player in his 30s failed to win a major.

That year, Jack Nicklaus won two of the four at age 23, while Julius Boros and Bob Charles won the others at 43 and 27, respectively.

 12. From the Lunchbox

I hosted GolfChannel.com’s 90-minute “Lunch Break” chat on Friday afternoon. The entire transcript can be found here. As promised, though, here is part of the Q&A – and yes, you may sense a recurring theme.

12:10 p.m. ET

TheMassHacker: Jason, what are the odds Tiger actually adds an event to his schedule to play on the President's Cup? I have it at less than 10%.

Jason Sobel: I think it's greater than that, but I have no idea when/where he might play.

I do have a conspiracy theory, though: Fred Couples recently spoke out and said Tiger needs to play more in order to be considered as a captain's pick. Knowing that Freddie is buddies with Tiger, I wonder if he only made that statement knowing that Woods is already planning to play a few times, so he's not in effect making him look bad by going on the record with that.

Like I said, just a conspiracy theory - but it's as good as anything we've got to go on so far.

12:23 p.m. ET

Rick1V: Will Freddie actually be pressured into picking Tiger for the team as many have suggested?

Jason Sobel: Very good chance of it. I think the inclusion or exclusion of Tiger will tell us a lot about what the Presidents Cup really means. If this was the Ryder Cup, he wouldn't be anywhere close to getting picked, because he's not playing well.

So why is this different? Because the Presidents Cup has always been more about making money and garnering attention than its more famous cousin. You'd better believe that two years ago, Greg Norman named Ryo Ishikawa and Adam Scott as his captain's picks not only because he thought they could help the team, but because they were big names who would draw eyeballs to TV sets around the globe.

The same could happen with Woods this year - and if it does, it tells us everything we need to know about the event.

12:25 p.m. ET 

Alex_D: If Tiger doesn't make it, should Bradley get that spot?

Jason Sobel: I keep hearing the 'Tiger or Keegan?' debate, but the truth is, Couples has two picks and can name both of them if he so chooses. Of course, as of right now, that would mean leaving guys like Rickie Fowler, Zach Johnson and Gary Woodland off the team. 

If I had to choose today between those five players, I'm taking Bradley and Fowler, though I'd love to see Woodland in that format, as well. I think he's America's next big star.

 13. Tweets of the Week

One reason to love Twitter: Instant reactions from players to a victory from one of their own. As evidenced by the following tweets, Webb Simpson’s win was a very popular one.

@Streels54: Thrilled for my boy @webbsimpson1 and @dowdkeith. Amazing stuff lil brother! Proud to call u my friend!

@bubbawatson: congrats to @webbsimpson1 on his win today

@RickieFowlerPGA: Congrats on the win @webbsimpson1...enjoy!!

@GaryWoodland: Congrats to Webb Simpson couldn't be happier for somebody to win. Well done brotha

@TROYMERRITT_PGA: Great win @webbsimpson1!!!! Fun to watch - great golf!!

 14. Fact or Fiction

Keegan Bradley

Players who have never won a major should be encouraged by Bradley’s PGA Championship victory.

This one’s a fact – and it’s also fiction. All depends on which players we’re talking about.

When it comes to the rank-and-file or journeymen or however you’d like to classify the non-elite players, they are no doubt encouraged by what unfolded in the Atlanta heat. Bradley once again proved that on any given week, any player in the field can get hot and play better than everybody else. That should serve as motivation to every player who tees it up in an upcoming major championship.

As for the top competitors without a career major – whether it’s Luke Donald or Lee Westwood or Steve Stricker – the latest result should be very discouraging. Whereas there used to be maybe 25, 30, even 50 players who had a chance to win entering a major, there are now quite literally 100-125 at the year’s final three of ‘em.

That doesn’t mean the world’s best players without a major will pack it in and stop trying, but the depths of current fields prove their chances aren’t nearly as good as they once were.

 15. Photo of the Week I

Some people give high-fives. Some people give fist bumps. Communication is key, people. Click here.

 16. Photo of the Week II

It only takes one second to forever capture a goofy face. Click here.

 17. Quote of the Week

“That was my first goal - to make sure I made the playoffs and it looks like I'm going to sneak in by the skin of my teeth. You can't win the FedEx Cup sitting at home next week. At least I've given myself a chance.” – William McGirt

If I had told you before the season that McGirt, a PGA Tour rookie, would make the playoffs but Woods would be sitting home, you would have been more than a little skeptical.

That’s exactly what happened, though, as McGirt snuck in at the 125th and final position, without exactly tearing it up in his debut season.

The 32-year-old from Fairmont, N.C., made the cut in exactly half of his 26 starts, with a best finish of T-19 at the opposite-field Mayakoba Golf Classic.

 18. And the winner is ...

FedEx Cup

Trying to predict the FedEx Cup playoffs may be a more difficult task this year than ever before.

There’s the fact that the opening round is being played at a new venue for the first time; there’s the fact that no one has separated himself as a favorite; there’s the fact that the guy who has won two of the first four – Woods – didn’t even qualify this year.

So, who’s going to win? Keep an eye on some really good players who have yet to peak so far this season.

Jason Day, Matt Kuchar and Dustin Johnson all fit the profile – and all three have played well in these four events in the past.

The pick here, though, is Hunter Mahan.

While he hasn’t won this year, one-third of his starts (7-of-21) have resulted in top-10 finishes and he’s also played well at each of these tournaments, finishing 17th or better at all four in past years.

In what has been a parity-filled season, expect more of the same over the past month, with some of the better players who have yet to find the winner’s circle stepping up during the playoffs.

Getty Images

Wise wins first Tour title at AT&T Byron Nelson

By Nick MentaMay 21, 2018, 1:22 am

On the strength of a final-round 65, 21-year-old Aaron Wise broke through for his first PGA Tour victory Sunday, taking the AT&T Byron Nelson at Trinity Forest. Here's how Wise beat the field and darkness following a lengthy rain delay:

Leaderboard: Wise (-23), Leishman (-20), Branden Grace (-19), J.J. Spaun (-19), Keith Mitchell (-19)

What it means: This is Wise’s first PGA Tour win in just his 18th start as a member. Tied with Leishman to start the final round, Wise raced ahead with six birdies in a seven-hole stretch from Nos. 4-10 and never looked back. He'd make eight straight pars on his way into the clubhouse and the winner's circle. The 2016 NCAA Division I individual champion just locked up Tour status through 2019-20 season and guaranteed himself a spot in the PGA Championship.

Best of the rest: Leishman reached 20 under par but just couldn’t keep pace with Wise. This is his second runner-up of the season, following a solo second in the CJ Cup in October.

Round of the day: Grace carded a 62 – where have I heard that before? – with eight birdies, an eagle and a bogey to end up tied for third, his best finish of the season on Tour.

Biggest disappointment: Adam Scott looked as though he had done enough to qualify for the U.S. Open via the Official World Golf Ranking when he walked off the golf course. Unfortunately, minutes later, he’d drop from a four-way tie for sixth into a three-way tie for ninth, narrowly missing out on this week's OWGR cutoff.

Break of the day: Wise could very well have found the hazard off the tee at No. 9 if not for a well-placed sprinkler head. Rather than drop a shot, he took advantage of his good fortune and poured in another birdie putt to extend his lead.

Quote of the day: "It's a dream come true to win this one." - Wise

Getty Images

Otaegui wins Belgian Knockout by two

By Associated PressMay 21, 2018, 1:20 am

ANTWERP, Belgium – Adrian Otaegui beat Benjamin Hebert by two shots in the final of the Belgian Knockout to win his second European Tour title.

The hybrid format opened with two rounds of stroke play on Thursday and Friday, before the leading 64 players competed in nine-hole knockout stroke play matches.

Otaegui and Hebert both finished three shots off the lead at 5 under after the first two days and worked their way through five matches on the weekend to set up Sunday's final at the Rinkven International Golf Club.

Full-field scores from the Belgian Knockout

''I'm very happy, very relaxed now after the last nine holes against Ben that were very tight,'' Otaegui said. ''I'm just very proud about my week.

''I just tried to play against myself. Obviously your opponent is just next to you but I just tried to focus on my game.''

Scotland's David Drysdale beat James Heath of England by one shot in the playoff for third spot.

Herbet said he was ''just a little short this week.''

''Adrian is a very good player, especially in this kind of format,'' he said. ''He's already won one tournament in match play last year. This format is fun, it puts you under pressure almost every hole because everything can happen. I think it's a great idea.''

Getty Images

Spieth looking forward to Colonial after T-21

By Will GrayMay 21, 2018, 1:10 am

DALLAS – Jordan Spieth finally got a few putts to drop at the AT&T Byron Nelson, but after a frustrating week he’s looking forward to heading across town.

Spieth shot a 4-under 67 amid soggy conditions at Trinity Forest Golf Club, his lowest score of the week but one that still left him in a tie for 21st at 11 under par. His frustrations had a common theme throughout the week, as he ranked seventh among the field in strokes gained: tee to green but 72nd in strokes gained: putting.

“Felt like I played better than I scored,” Spieth said. “Just burned the edges or barely missed, and I misread a lot of putts, too. Overall just struggled a little bit matching line and speed and kind of getting it all together out here.”

Full-field scores from the AT&T Byron Nelson

AT&T Byron Nelson: Articles, photos and videos

Spieth remains in search of his first win since The Open in July, but his results in the interim haven’t exactly been a struggle. This marks his seventh top-25 finish in his last nine starts as an individual.

Spieth is in the midst of a busy part of his schedule, and will play his third of four events in a row next week at the Fort Worth Invitational. With runner-up finishes in 2015 and 2017 sandwiched around a victory there two years ago, Spieth did little to contain his excitement for a return to venerable Colonial Country Club.

“It’s one of those courses where whether I have my A game or not, I seem to find my way into contention, which is really cool,” Spieth said. “It’s one of four or five places I go into, no matter where the game is at, I’m excited to get started and feel like I have a chance to win.”

Getty Images

Razorbacks, Fassi scrambling to recover in NCAAs

By Ryan LavnerMay 21, 2018, 12:56 am

STILLWATER, Okla. – We’re not even halfway through this NCAA Championship, and the top women’s player in the country is already worn out.

Indeed, it’s been three rounds of hard work for Maria Fassi as she tries to claw herself and second-ranked Arkansas back into contention at Karsten Creek.

“I haven’t been able to create momentum of any kind,” she said after a third-round 73 left her at 16-over 232, 23 shots off the individual lead and outside the top 90. “I’ve been fighting every single hole. It’s just been exhausting.”

It’s been that way for her teammates, too.

Arkansas entered nationals as one of the pre-tournament favorites. The Razorbacks won the SEC Championship for the first time. They won seven events, including a regional title in which they shot 26 under par on the University of Texas’ home course. They were comfortable knowing that they not only had Fassi, the top-ranked player and a six-time winner this season, but also a strong supporting cast that includes Baylor transfer Dylan Kim and Alana Uriell.

And then the first two rounds happened. The Razorbacks had shot a team score in the 300s just once all season, but they posted two in a row here at Karsten Creek (308-300).

Fassi’s play has been even more of a mystery. In the opening round she shot 81 – with two birdies. She followed it up with a second-round 78, then birdied her last two holes just to shoot 73 on Sunday. She thought she had a smart game plan – taking fewer drivers, putting the ball in play on arguably the most difficult college course in the country – and it just hasn’t worked out.

“I just need to stay really patient, be true to myself and keep fighting,” she said. “I know what I’m capable of doing, and if I play my game it’s going to be plenty good.”

So what’s been the conversation among teammates the past two nights?

“It involved a lot of cuss words,” Fassi said. “We know this is not Arkansas golf. We know this is not the game that we play.”

The top-15 cut line should have been an afterthought for a team as talented as the Razorbacks, and yet they needed a 1-over 289 just to play Monday’s fourth round of stroke-play qualifying.

“Backs against the wall, they had to go get it done and they did an awesome job,” said Arkansas coach Shauna Taylor. “In our locker room we call it ‘Do the Possible.’ It’s doing what you’re capable of doing.”

And now the Razorbacks sit in 11th place, just six shots off the top-8 cut after their two worst rounds all season. They still have a chance to advance.

“You can’t panic,” Taylor said. “We’ve played great golf all year. We’ve put ourselves in a hole and it was time to go to work and dig yourselves out of it.”