Brendan Steele defends, Phil Mickelson comes close, Tony Finau uses a backboard, Rory McIlroy wraps up his year and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:
Brendan Steele went back-to-back at the Safeway Open, but it was Phil Mickelson who injected some excitement into what was an otherwise sleepy opening to the PGA Tour season.
Lefty pulled within a shot of the lead heading into the final two holes before eventually finishing in a tie for third, his best finish on Tour in 15 months. But the close call validated what he had said a day earlier: “I’m going to win [soon]. It’s a matter of time.”
That’s bold talk for an arthritic 47-year-old who hasn’t won since the 2013 Open Championship – or a longer victory drought than Tiger Woods. And yet it isn’t totally unrealistic. His putting has been solid for a few years. His short game still has plenty of magic. And his iron play has remained sharp.
Phil is right: It now seems like just a “matter of time” before he wins again.
1. Steele knows all about fast starts, winning the Tour's season opener for the second consecutive year. (In 2015, he held the 54-hole lead there before a closing 76.)
Over his last eight rounds at Silverado, Steele is a whopping 33 under par. This time, he used a final-round 69 in difficult, windy conditions to pass rookie Tyler Duncan and win for the third time on Tour.
2. Steele used last year’s Safeway victory to propel him to his best season on Tour. Inside the top-30 bubble for much of the season, he was bumped out of a spot at the Tour Championship (33rd) with a poor playoff performance, where he didn’t finish better than 44th in three events.
Looking back on a season that ended three weeks ago, Steele said he played too conservatively in trying to accrue as many FedExCup points as possible.
“I wasn’t trying to win,” he said. “I wasn’t trying to play my best. I was just trying to get whatever points I could, and I played to that level where you could just barely miss. I’m definitely going to try not to do that this year.”
3. Those in Napa had a scare after the final round, after several massive wildfires burned out of control in Napa and Sonoma counties and forced the evacuation of the surrounding neighborhoods and those staying at Silverado Resort.
It was a frightening situation, with 30-40 mph winds and a hell storm of smoke and ash.
4. Mickelson might have scared the leaders, but he couldn’t finish off his Sunday charge.
Trailing by one heading into the final two holes – a short par 4 and a reachable par 5 – Mickelson hit his iron tee shot into the left rough, where he was blocked out by a tall tree. His approach shot expired in the greenside bunker, and he failed to get up and down, missing an 8-footer – the kind of sloppy, unforced error he’s made too many times over the past four-plus years.
Mickelson rebounded with a birdie on the home hole, but his chance to win was gone.
5. That said, it was remarkable that Mickelson even had a shot, what with his putrid driving performance last week at Silverado.
For the week, he hit only 15 of 56 fairways – tied for the worst in the field.
At least he kept his sense of humor about it. After finally finding the fairway on the 16th hole, he turned to the gallery and joked, “Let’s take a moment to admire the fact I just hit a fairway.”
6. The reigning Player of the Year unwittingly thrust himself into a debate about player integrity Sunday night.
During the final round, Tony Finau, who was only two shots off the lead, used playing partner Jason Kokrak’s ball as a backstop as he played a difficult bunker shot from a plugged lie. With no chance to get it close – even Finau admitted that his ball would have scurried well past the cup – he played his shot before Kokrak, who had chipped from 30 yards away, marked his ball.
“It was a bonus to hit his ball,” Finau said afterward. “I used the rules to my advantage, I guess.”
But it was seen by many as the latest example of Tour players who are more interested in being chummy with each other than protecting the field. Yes, it required incredible accuracy to hit Kokrak’s ball, but not everyone who played from that bunker last week had the benefit of a ball sitting 2 feet from the cup.
Had Finau gone on to win, the controversy would have marred the outcome.
On Twitter, Justin Thomas said that it was “ridiculous” that these types of situations are even scrutinized, that it's more of a pace-of-play issue, and that “if I want to rush and hit a shot for that reason” – to use the ball on the green as a backboard – “it’s my right.”
Except that’s not true. According to Rule 22-1, a tournament committee can disqualify any player(s) they determine agreed not to lift a ball that might assist another competitor.
Will Tour officials start cracking down on the buddy system?
7. See you in January, Rory.
In a round that epitomized his entire year, McIlroy wrapped up 2017 with an even-par 72 and a tie for 63rd at the Dunhill Links. He finished the year with seven top-10s in 18 worldwide starts … but no victories, and in a year when Thomas asserted himself as golf’s newest star, Dustin Johnson held onto the No. 1 ranking for much of the year and Jordan Spieth added another major, there’s no other way to describe McIlroy’s 2017 campaign: It was wildly disappointing.
It was his first year since 2008 that he didn't win at least once.
“Even though I haven’t won and the results haven’t been what I wanted," he said, "I can still salvage something from the rest of the year, even though I am not playing.”
And so now comes a three-month break, where McIlroy will shelve the clubs and focus on resting and rehabbing his injured rib, which has affected him since January.
Was that the only reason for his relative struggles this year? Of course not. He was one of the worst wedge players on Tour last season, ranking 190th in approaches from 125-150 yards, and he was the 140th-best putter.
Those are weaknesses that the other top players in the world don’t have. If he doesn’t improve in those areas by the time he returns in January, it could be another underwhelming year.
8. Tyrrell Hatton won the Dunhill Links at 24 under, but the biggest drama Sunday was whether golf’s magic number would be shot on one of golf’s most famous courses.
Prior to Sunday, the lowest round ever recorded on the Old Course at St. Andrews was a 10-under 62 (by Curtis Strange, in 1987).
Victor Dubuission was the first to challenge that mark in the final round (before settling for a 63), and Ross Fisher later breezed through with a bogey-free 61 in which he three-putted for par on the final hole from the Valley of Sin.
There have been 13,146 professional rounds played on the Old Course. Fisher now owns the lowest score.
And not everyone was pleased.
Whilst delighted for all the players, it’s quite sad to see The Old Course of St Andrews brought to her knees by today’s ball & equipment.— Gary Player (@garyplayer) October 8, 2017
9. With the sports world focused on a wild college football Saturday, Tiger Woods couldn’t help himself, teasing fans with a slow-motion video of a "smooth" iron shot.
Woods said at the Presidents Cup that he was only able to hit 60-yard shots, per his doctor’s instructions, but he clearly was given the green light for some heavier lifting.
Smooth iron shots pic.twitter.com/v9XLROZnfW— Tiger Woods (@TigerWoods) October 7, 2017
We’ll leave the swing analysis to our Golf Channel colleagues, but it’s an encouraging sign, given his uncertain future. The Masters is only 177 days away, you know …
10. The European Tour will reportedly test a 40-second shot clock at an event next summer.
The Austrian Open will be the first event with a shot-clock system that will immediately penalize any player who takes longer than 40 seconds to play a shot. An official will follow every group in the reduced field.
It likely won’t become the norm, because it’d be unrealistic with a full field and major stakes, but it’s a worthwhile experiment to see how much of a difference it can make.
11. Marc Leishman’s American wife Audrey posted some thoughtful comments on the boorish fan behavior at the recent Presidents Cup.
Taking exception with the 7 a.m. drinking, cheering for missed putts, heckling of the wives and girlfriends, and even the overly aggressive tone from the American players and commentators, Leishman concluded that the week was “hard on her heart” and golf fans did themselves no favors at Liberty National.
There was similar disappointment expressed from those who attended the Ryder Cup last fall at Hazeltine, and it’s not hard to imagine how insane the experience will be at Bethpage Black in 2024.
It makes for a huge home-course advantage, but the PGA Tour and PGA of America executives might want to consider a limit on alcohol sizes or crowd size.
12. There are fewer spots available for the men’s and women’s U.S. Open qualifiers, after the USGA offered two more spots to the previous year’s U.S. Junior and Mid-Amateur champions.
While that’s two fewer spots for someone who could actually win the tournament, it was a no-brainer for the USGA, as this move helps validate those big-time tournaments.
It never made sense that the Mid-Am champ got into the Masters but not the USGA’s own premier event.
13. Leading by nine with one round to go, Cristie Kerr completed a wire-to-wire victory at the French Open, her first on the Ladies European Tour.
Afterward, though, she broke down in tears, after losing a friend from back home and Ladies European Tour player Cassandra Kirkland to cancer. Kerr made a $5,000 donation to the charity in Kirkland’s name.
“I’m sorry, but f--- cancer,” she said. “I played for them, and I played for myself. I’m so sorry to say the F-word, but I’m so sick of losing people to cancer. … I’ve been having an angel on my shoulder all week. I was on a mission and I got it done for them.”
There’s so much to take in here, from the facial expressions to the golf-themed dance moves. But it’d be a miracle if any of us move this well at age 81 …
This week's award winners ...
It’s Not That Easy: Tyler Duncan. Taking the 54-hole lead at the Safeway in just his second career Tour start, the rookie crashed back to reality with three consecutive bogeys to start his final round and a closing 75. The tie for fifth was still a good start in helping him try and keep his card for next season.
Easy to Root For: A.J. McInerney. The Web.com Tour player recounted last week his harrowing experience of attending the country music concert in Las Vegas. Fortunately, he and his friends survived the shooting.
Honest … To A Fault?: David Howell’s caddie. On the bag for the first time with his new boss, Howell’s looper informed him while playing the 18th hole that he committed a rules violation by playing in front of the tee markers. Perhaps the caddie should have piped up earlier, but Howell wasn’t upset: “I patted him on the back and told him he’s just done a good honest thing. It’s not easy doing that when it hurts your own pocket.”
At Least One Tiger Event is Fine: Hero World Challenge. Woods’ D.C.-area event is in a world of trouble, with Congressional backing out and no title sponsor for 2018, but he’s had little trouble attracting stars to the Bahamas in December for an exhibition with world-ranking points. Fourteen of the top 20 players in the world are expected to tee it up at the Hero.
Signs of Life: Hunter Mahan. Lost for the past few years, he lost his PGA Tour card and will be playing this season on the Web.com circuit, but he continued to show signs of progress with a T-13 in Napa. That followed a T-16 in the regular-season finale in Greensboro.
Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Sam Saunders. Riding high after earning his Tour card at the Web.com Tour Championship (where he opened with a 59 and tied for second), he couldn’t keep the momentum rolling on the West Coast. With rounds of 74-70, he missed the cut in the season opener. Sigh.