Tony Finau capitalizes, Brooke Henderson delivers late, Henrik Stenson lets down the European Ryder Cup team and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:
As the PGA Tour player known for coming thisclose to a boatload of wins, Tony Finau knows how difficult it is to close out tournaments.
But even this ending had him doing a double take.
Finau trailed by five shots midway through the final round Sunday at the 3M Open. By the time he glanced at the leaderboard off the 16th green, he was three shots clear.
“My heart almost skipped a beat,” he said afterward. “I couldn’t believe it. I said, ‘Wait a second here.’”
Finau couldn’t possibly have known that Scott Piercy was imploding behind him.
Searching for his first individual title since 2015, Piercy had an ominous end to his third round when he rinsed his approach on the par-5 finishing hole and made bogey, cutting his 54-hole advantage to four shots at TPC Twin Cities. Though he jumped out with two early birdies Sunday, he came unraveled at the end of his front nine with back-to-back bogeys. He dropped two more shots on Nos. 11 and 13. Then came the disaster at the 14th: His tee shot plugged near the lip of the bunker, he couldn’t advance it out of the sand, and then he fatted his third shot into the water. He walked off with triple bogey, not just squandering his huge lead but now trailing by two shots.
Finau, meanwhile, kept on chugging, his goal to reach 20 under par. A birdie on 11, plus three in a row on Nos. 14-16, got him to 18 under. That was plenty low enough.
“The experience that I have,” he said, “you just have to keep playing. Anything can happen, and that’s what I did.”
Once the tournament was in Finau’s hands, well, he nearly fumbled it. Feeling nervous on 17, he double-crossed his tee shot and ricocheted his ball off the grandstand 15 yards behind the green. His ball nearly caromed back into the water, but it hung up on the grassy edge. From there, he deftly saved par. On 18, he put his tee shot into the drink, leading to a bogey, but by that point he had a massive cushion. Finau eventually won by three shots; Piercy, after a closing 76, tied for fourth.
Piercy was among the first to congratulate the newest champion – they go back 15 years, to the Ultimate Game in Vegas that Finau played when he was 17 – and Finau empathized with his pal’s plight, having waited five years for that elusive second title.
“I’m about as good an example as any of how tough it is to seal the deal,” Finau said.
Still, Piercy's collapse helped deliver an important title for Finau, who earned his third Tour victory and first since his drought-busting win in the playoff opener last fall. Until recently this season had been a disappointing follow-up, but a setup change at the Match Play shored up Finau’s ball-striking and has had his game trending for a while; this was his fourth top-5 in the past three months.
The 3M also represented a stark departure for the player who, given his upbringing, is used to playing the role of the underdog.
Finau won as the highest-ranked player in the field, as the tournament favorite.
“To play like I did and to win, that breeds a lot of confidence for me,” he said.
Brooke Henderson is a major champion once again, ending a six-year drought in the game’s biggest events by rolling in a 10-foot birdie putt on the final green to win the Amundi Evian Championship.
Henderson captured the 2016 Women’s PGA at the age of 18 but had failed to recapture that magic despite being the winningest player, male or female, in Canadian golf history.
Now 24, Henderson had to dig deep in the final round, her three-shot deficit erased early. At one point there was a seven-way tie for the lead on the back nine, but Henderson birdied three of the last five holes to prevail by one over Sophia Schubert.
“I was playing poorly, and I was still in it,” she said. “That was really an important message to get through my head.”
On the final hole, Henderson snap-hooked her drive into the left trees, but her ball took a fortuitous bounce away from trouble. She laid up to 107 yards, then stuffed her approach to 10 feet. She rolled in the putt to shoot 17-under 267.
The victory was the 12th of her LPGA career – and validation after that long-ago breakthrough.
The European Ryder Cup team is looking for a new captain after Henrik Stenson’s bold reversal.
The move that had been rumored for weeks became official last week when Stenson was stripped of the 2023 captaincy because he had signed with LIV Golf.
Stenson, who years ago had been swindled out of a sizable portion of his fortune, was deep in negotiations with the Saudis prior to agreeing to become the next captain. When Phil Mickelson’s controversial comments seemed – at the time – to torpedo the rival tour, Stenson committed full-time to the role. Only once LIV became a reality (and, surely, once a significant signing bonus was thrown his way) did Stenson begin to have second thoughts.
His about-face was shocking only in the sense that a player chose personal gain over one of the game’s greatest honors. It’s a significant coup for LIV CEO Greg Norman, who now can claim that his upstart venture is more enticing than even the Ryder Cup, the game’s premier showcase.
A cup veteran and popular among his peers, Stenson had the makings of a tremendous captain as the Europeans looked to avenge last year’s historic defeat and extend the Americans’ now-three-decade run of misery across the pond. Instead, Europe’s five-man selection committee will look to Stenson’s replacement, with victorious 2018 captain Thomas Bjorn, Luke Donald and Paul Lawrie thought to be the leading candidates.
Barring a détente between LIV and the DP World Tour, the 2023 European team figures to have an entirely new look. Gone, in any capacity, will be stalwarts Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter – even if only Garcia was likely to be on the active roster. Paul Casey and Bernd Wiesberger will be excluded, as well, though neither was projected to make a significant impact. Europe’s backroom of Stenson, Graeme McDowell and Martin Kaymer will need to be replaced, too.
And yet, there remains reason for European optimism.
Rory McIlroy and Jon Rahm aren’t going anywhere. Matt Fitzpatrick (though winless in the Ryder Cup) has elevated his game to another level. Viktor Hovland is world-class. The Hojgaard twins lead the wave of next-gen talent. And, yes, there's history on their side: The Americans haven't won an away Ryder Cup since 1993.
THIS WEEK'S AWARD WINNERS ...
Senior Double: Darren Clarke. The burly Northern Irishman joined some illustrious company on Sunday by capturing The Senior Open to go along with his claret jug from 2011. Clarke made birdie on the final hole at Gleneagles to defeat fellow Open champ Padraig Harrington by a shot in the year's final senior major. With the victory, Clarke joined Bob Charles, Gary Player and Tom Watson as the only players to accomplish the rare double dip as men's and senior Open winners.
Next to Defect: Henrik Stenson, Charles Howell III and Jason Kokrak. The trio will tee it up this week at Trump Bedminster, the third event on the LIV schedule. Kokrak's departure wasn’t surprising – he had previously been sponsored by Golf Saudi – but social media was ablaze at the addition of Howell, who had banked $42 million in on-course earnings despite just three Tour titles. It’s hard for us to muster any outrage at what many perceived as disloyalty; Howell is 43, with a few nagging injury concerns and his best earning years behind him. He has supported the Tour since 2000, never playing fewer than 26 events a season in his prime. Let him cash in on what has already been a long, fruitful career.
Major Splash: Sophia Schubert. The 2017 U.S. Women’s Amateur champion has had a rough go this year on the LPGA, failing to record a top-10 and totaling just $82,796 in earnings. That’s why her performance in France was so surprising, as she comported herself like a seasoned veteran as she shot all four rounds in the 60s and pushed Henderson until the final hole. Schubert’s good look on the 72nd hole dribbled left of the cup, but the runner-up helped lock up her card for next year. “I want to cry,” she said afterward. “I want to cry tears of happiness. I’m proud of myself, proud of everyone that’s helped me get to this point.” Good stuff.
Not What She Wanted: Nelly Korda. It’s been a frustrating major season for the world No. 3, who missed the first major of the year because of a blood clot in her arm. In the U.S. Women’s Open and Women’s PGA, she fared no better than joint eighth. Her latest disappointment came Sunday at the Evian, where Korda stormed into a share of the lead with an eagle hole-out on the ninth hole. But from there, she played 1 over to the house, including a bogey on the par-5 15th, and afterward she was seen getting worked on by a physiotherapist because of back spasms. The AIG Women’s Open begins next week.
The Big Question: World-ranking points for LIV golfers. LIV’s application to the OWGR board is currently being reviewed, and it’s vital to these players’ competitive futures – as noted below by social handle Nosferatu, all of the LIV players (even DJ!) are projected to drop outside the top 50 in the world ranking by the end of the year. Why does that matter? Because that’s the major cutoff for the Masters and Open (the U.S. Open, for now, is top 60). Only a handful of LIV guys are currently exempt into the 2023 majors.
Pro Moves Only: Cam Champ. It would have been easy for the defending champ at the 3M to pack it in. He began his title defense by playing the first seven holes in 6 over, but he never stopped fighting. He steadied himself with 10 straight pars before eagling the par-5 finisher to salvage an opening 75, then he turned around the next morning and signed for a 68 (with four birdies in his last five holes) to make the cut. On the weekend he carded consecutive rounds of 67 and finished inside the top 20. It’s been a tough year for Champ – he entered the week at No. 157 in points – but perhaps this week (and his professional persistence) is something to build on.
Golfers-Are-Athletes Crowd: Scott Piercy’s blister. For much of the third round Piercy dramatically hobbled around with only one shoe because of a painful blister on his heel. The ailment received so much attention you’d think he was playing on a broken leg, even though it turned out to be a non-factor – he shot 66, after all. If nothing else, it made for some semi-entertaining late-night viewing in what, at least at the time, looked like a runaway. Or not ...
Willing to Listen: Mollie Marcoux Samaan. The LPGA commissioner told the London Times last week that she’d answer if LIV CEO Greg Norman phoned to discuss a women’s LIV league. That’s already been on Norman’s mind – he told the Palm Beach Post recently that he “100%” wants to be involved – and Golf Saudi is already entrenched in the women’s game, with six Ladies European Tour events backed by Aramco that feature purses three to four times a typical event. Marcoux Samaan said it’s her “responsibility to evaluate every opportunity” and that everyone involved with the tour – players, sponsors, various partners – needed to be on board before any talks progressed. Intriguing, to say the least.
Domination: David Kocher. The former Maryland standout certainly didn’t look like his best finish this year was a tie for 21st. In a torrid display at the Price Cutter Championship, Kocher torched the field with a four-day total of 28-under 260, good for a six-shot victory. Entering the week at No. 114 on the points list, Kocher was more concerned with keeping his card than a promotion to the big tour; now he’s up to 30th in the standings with five events left. Game-changer.
Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Hideki Matsuyama. Slim pickings this week at the 3M, but seeing Matsuyama – one of the pre-tournament favorites – bow out early certainly registered as a surprise. The Japanese star dumped three in the water on the par-5 18th hole, leading to a nine and an opening 77. He withdrew later that day citing wrist soreness. It’s been a bizarre past few months for Matsuyama, who has been one of the marquee names linked to LIV. Other than his fourth-place showing at the U.S. Open, he has a WD, a DQ and three finishes outside the top 60 – this on the heels of what was some of the best golf of his career. Sigh.