First, a disclaimer: The tragic loss of NBA legend Kobe Bryant overshadowed all of the golf that finished Sunday. The final-round scene at Torrey Pines, in particular, was eerie as fans, players and caddies processed the unimaginable and heartbreaking news. Tiger Woods didn't learn about Bryant's death until after the round; the entirety of Woods' post-round news conference was dedicated to talking about Kobe, not his own play. As colleague Rex Hoggard wrote in this must-read piece, there are few people on the planet who can understand what goes into being a superstar like Tiger Woods – and Kobe was one of them.
Still, we have a job to do, and so we'll recap the golf news of the week in this space. Thanks for reading.
1. Marc Leishman fired a final-round 65, coming from four shots behind to win the Farmers Insurance Open, the fifth PGA Tour title of his career.
TAKEAWAY: There are many different ways to win at Torrey Pines, but it starts – or so we thought – with driving it in the fairway. The course is too long, the rough too penal, to be out of position all day.
But Leishman bucked that trend Sunday at the Farmers, finding only three of 14 fairways on his way to an eight-birdie 65. How’s that happen? How does a guy who was 70th in strokes gained: off the tee card such a low round?
Well, he said, “I’ve never had a week like that on the greens.”
Leishman found a good feel on the practice putting green earlier in the week, then he holed more than 150 feet worth of putts in the final round. Overall, he gained more than eight strokes on the field on the greens, tops in the field. He told caddie Matt Kelly that the putter felt as good as when he won in Malaysia in 2018. “It’s nice when it happens like that occasionally,” he said. “I wish it could be like that every week.”
2. Healthy and with a new driver in the bag, Tiger Woods began his 2020 campaign with a tie for ninth.
TAKEAWAY: No longer are there questions about his swing; it looks as good as ever. No longer are there questions about his short game; he played a number of delicate touch shots around the green to save par. No longer are there questions about when he'd uncork a big miss; he ranked first in distance from the edge of the fairway (8 feet, 9 inches).
The only question is whether Woods, at age 44 and with a surgically repaired back and knee, can remain healthy, and he showed plenty of examples at Torrey Pines that he’s physically fit.
In the second round, his ball barely trundled into a fairway bunker on the 12th hole. With the ball well below his feet, Woods needed to stand outside the bunker, flex his knees and maintain his angles to avoid hitting the lip. With a 3-iron from 220-plus, he hit a missile that scared the flag and bounded over the green. No wincing afterward.
On Saturday, he kept his body warm despite a two-hour fog delay, then went out in 32. Later in his round, on the 13th hole, he laid up into a thick lie in the rough. From 135 yards to an uphill green, Woods muscled a short iron out of the rough and into the middle of the green. Again, no wincing.
It’s a long season, but, physically, Woods looked as good as ever in his first start of the new year. We won't have to wait long for win No. 83.
3. Jon Rahm was unable to convert his 54-hole lead into victory, rallying late to salvage a final-round 70 and finish one stroke shy of Leishman.
TAKEAWAY: At 25 years old, Rahm is already a prolific winner, a 10-time titlist around the globe. But he’s won just three times on the PGA Tour, one of those in a two-man team event, and his final round at Torrey Pines showed what might be missing in the uber-talented Spaniard’s game.
Here’s Rahm’s best 54-hole positions on Tour, and his eventual finish:
- 2020 Farmers: 1st ... 2nd
- 2019 Players: 1st ... T-12
- 2017 Wells Fargo: T-2 ... 4th
- 2018 Phoenix: T-2 ... T-11
- 2016 Quicken Loans: 3rd ... 2nd
- 2019 Farmers: 3rd ... T-5
The Farmers was particularly curious. Four over after five holes, he battled back and was lights-out coming home, his 50-foot eagle to tie coming up just short.
Perhaps they’re just off rounds at inopportune times. Or maybe there’s something deeper, as the third-ranked player in the world learns how to handle himself with a lead. Right now, like most players, he's clearly more comfortable in pursuit. Never has he shot worse than 68 in a final round and gone on to win.
4. Tied for the lead, Bryson DeChambeau finished with four consecutive bogeys to finish in a tie for eighth in his title defense at the Dubai Desert Classic.
TAKEAWAY: It was a stunning finish for a player who showed markedly improved form over the past few days. But the final hour also exposed DeChambeau’s current weaknesses.
In challenging conditions, DeChambeau needed to find the fairway to give himself the best chance to make a final birdie and nudge ahead of the other two co-leaders. That’s been his trouble spot so far with his new, beefed-up physique; he’s still trying to harness all of that newfound power. Instead, DeChambeau missed his last three fairways, his ball sinking into the thick, juicy rough and making birdie unlikely.
DeChambeau has always struggled the closer he gets to the hole. That’s partly because of his setup – his wedges are single-length, 37 ½ inches (standard is 35) – but also because of his technique, which appears wooden and devoid of feel. Added bulk won’t increase his touch around the greens, and DeChambeau misplayed a couple of shots down the stretch when he needed to scramble for par.
Another aspect: DeChambeau received a bad time on the back nine. Under the new rules he would have been subject to a one-stroke penalty had he taken more than 40 seconds to play a shot. It’s unknown how much the timing pressure affected him; he didn’t speak to reporters after the round.
Big picture, DeChambeau should be encouraged that he so quickly thrust himself into contention with his new body and swing – especially after how lost he appeared over his past few starts. He likely gained plenty of information about how his swing now reacts under pressure.
5. The No. 1 ranking is up for grabs this week across two tours.
TAKEAWAY: World No. 1 Brooks Koepka is playing the European Tour event in Saudi Arabia, but suddenly there are two challengers to his throne.
Rory McIlroy had a chance to become No. 1 for the first time since September 2015 with a win at the Farmers, but a sloppy start ended his bid and he eventually tied for third.
Now, fresh off a runner-up finish in San Diego, Rahm has a chance to ascend to the top spot for the first time. Rahm will become the top-ranked player if he wins the Phoenix Open and Koepka finishes outside the top 4 in Saudi Arabia.
Koepka has held the top spot since his PGA victory last May. A year ago, he tied for 57th at the Saudi International.
This week's award winners ...
The WTH? Moment of the Week: Premier Golf League. Rumored for years, details of the alternative pro tour began to leak last week, with a proper amount of skepticism accompanying it. The tour can’t survive without stars, and it remains to be seen whether today’s top players – who are already fabulously wealthy – will be drawn to what amounts to a watered-down WGC. Even if it fails, the Premier Golf League could compel the PGA and European tours to evolve.
Quote of the Week: Lucas Herbert. Asked what he’s capable of after earning his first European Tour victory, Herbert responded: “A hangover tomorrow.” So good.
Work In Progress, Still: Jordan Spieth. In his first start of 2020, Spieth exhibited some of the same issues that plagued his past few years: Poor weekend scoring (73-74), erratic driving (59th in strokes gained: off the tee) and not enough greens hit (75th in GIR). Add it up, and it was a tie for 55th. He’s now out of the top 50 in the world for first time since August 2013 – his rookie season.
First Time for Everything: Madelene Sagstrom. Holding a 54-hole lead for the first time, the 27-year-old Swede made birdie on the 71st hole, holed a clutch par save on the final green and then watched as Nasa Hataoka missed a shortie to force a playoff. Sagstrom earned the breakthrough victory, while Hataoka was the runner-up for the second straight week.
Not a Match: Rickie Fowler and the Farmers. You actually gotta feel for the guy. Fowler so desperately wants to play well in one of his main sponsor’s events, and yet he’s struggled mightily at Torrey Pines – since 2013 he has five missed cuts and two finishes outside the top 60. Ouch!
Tip(s) of the Cap: Collin Morikawa and Tyler McCumber. Historically, Woods' playing partners have been disadvantaged, but Morikawa (Rounds 1 and 2) and McCumber (Round 3) not only acquitted themselves well in their first rounds with the living legend, but they beat Woods head to head. What a valuable learning experience for two newbies.
Going Nowhere Fast: Phil Mickelson. Despite his relentless optimism, Lefty’s pledge to hit bombs and find a “pinch-cut driver” has been a massive fail. He hit just seven of 28 fairways, which will not work anywhere, and certainly not at a punishing venue like Torrey Pines. Mickelson says he’s playing the long game – he’s giving himself six months to sort it out – but if this continues (including this week in Saudi Arabia) he might be back to the drawing board even sooner.
It’s a Sprint, Not a Marathon: Sebastian Soderberg. The European Tour pro played alone in the final round, racing between shots and needing only a tour-record 96 minutes to card his 75. This sums up his day, at least from his caddie’s perspective:
What’s Up With ...?: Ariya Jutanugarn. After a last-place finish in the LPGA season opener, the former world No. 1 was again a mess in Boca, finishing in a tie for 67th out of the 71 players who made the cut.
Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Justin Rose. The defending champion at the Farmers – and a top-10 finisher in 2017 and ’18 – Rose was coming off a runner-up in Singapore. With an extra day to recover, he should have been ready to go ... but instead he opened with 75 on the tougher South Course and missed his first cut since the Masters. Sigh.