Tony Finau closes the deal, Jon Rahm lets one go, Anna Nordqvist captures major No. 3, the U.S. Ryder Cup team takes shape, Lavner's Legends open up an early lead in our playoff fantasy challenge and more in this week's edition of Monday (err, Tuesday) Scramble:
For a player who had waited 142 starts for another trophy, what was a three-group backup on the 72nd tee and a one-hole playoff?
The payoff was extra sweet for Tony Finau, whose Northern Trust title busted a five-year winless drought and delivered the uber-talented but star-crossed American his second career Tour title.
And to think, it might never have happened had Jon Rahm sank his 10-footer on the 18th green on Saturday afternoon. That would have given the world No. 1 a one-shot lead with one round to go, but with Hurricane Henri bearing down on the East Coast (and precedent in the playoffs of reducing the first event to 54 holes, back in 2010) the Tour could have been excused for cutting short the opener.
Instead, Rahm missed, there were two tied atop the board, and with so much at stake – and the need to declare a winner, with a boatload of first-place points that would vault him to No. 1 in the standings, and the assorted moving and shaking around the top-70 cutoff – Tour commissioner Jay Monahan amended the competition rules to state they’d get in 72 holes at all costs, even if it meant dragging into Tuesday and hampering the preparation for this week’s BMW Championship.
That delay clearly benefited Finau, who overcame a few front-nine mistakes with a timely eagle on the 13th hole, a few darts with his wedges and a clutch up-and-down on the final hole of regulation to hunt down Rahm and fire a final-round 65, the best score of the day. The playoff was over just about the time it started – Cam Smith sailed his tee shot out of bounds.
Finau was a winner again, at last.
“Those are all things that will go in the memory bank,” he said, “and hopefully I’ll continue with the success moving forward.”
Finau’s return to the winner’s circle was yet another big-name entry in the Year of the Comeback, the theme of this 2021 golf year. Though he didn’t have as dramatic of a falloff as Jordan Spieth or Lydia Ko or Phil Mickelson, all of whom won this year, Finau’s was as much a mental triumph as it was physical; he engineered his own comeback from countless close calls and near-misses. In the past five winless years, he had eight runners-up and 39 top-10 finishes, but no victories. No one on Tour was even close in those categories.
And yet, he never stopped believing in himself, or his team. He handled all of the nagging questions with grace and dignity, never snapping, never growing frustrated. He kept pressing forward, insisting that better days were ahead. There’s something inspiring in that.
“It’s massive for just my sense of accomplishment for myself,” he said. “I’ve worked extremely hard, not only on my game, but on my body to put myself in these types of positions and eventually I knew it was going to happen.
“It’s hard losing, and it’s hard losing in front of the world. But that made me more hungry. That’s what it does. If it doesn’t discourage you, it makes you more hungry. You guys keep telling me: When are you going to win again? It makes me more hungry. It was time for me to win again, and I hope I don’t have to wait another five years for the next one.”
It’s hard to say what was more stunning: Rahm coughing up a late lead or Smith blowing his tee shot OB in overtime.
Let’s start with Rahm, who appeared to be on cruise control, again, as he played the delayed final round at Liberty National. He was 4 under for the day, two shots clear, when the trouble began on 15. He found the bunker off the tee, laid up and then burned the edge on a 7-footer for par.
Next came the 16th, the drivable par 4 that bit him in the third round, when he thinned a pitch shot into the water and made bogey. On Monday, he once again caught his pitch a few grooves low and couldn’t get up-and-down for birdie, keeping him one back. Two poor drives to finish cost him another shot and put him in third, a disappointing result for a player who had, somehow, led the event for four and a half days.
“I don’t know, it just hurts to think about it a little bit too much,” Rahm said afterward. “That’s the upsetting part – to come up short when I had a good chance.”
As for Smith, he found another creative way to lose. Earlier this month, he had a chance to get into the playoff in Memphis, but after a wayward drive his second shot ricocheted off a tree and landed out of bounds. This gut punch was just as swift. His heeled drive was gobbled up in the wind and never had a chance to stay on dry land.
“Just a terrible swing, mate,” he said.
Six players extended their postseason run and moved inside the top-70 bubble with their play at Liberty National.
Alex Noren (43rd), Erik van Rooyen (45th), Tom Hoge (48th), Harold Varner III (56th), Keith Mitchell (63rd) and Harry Higgs (69th) all will make the trip to Caves Valley for the BMW.
Heading home (or, in some cases, staying home, after they missed the cut) were Matthew Wolff, Matt Fitzpatrick, Tyrrell Hatton, Martin Laird, Troy Merritt and J.T. Poston.
Mitchell’s finish Monday was the most noteworthy, with birdies on Nos. 16, 17 and 18 to move inside the number. Also, a shoutout to Hoge, whose tie for fourth at the Northern Trust came out of nowhere: He didn’t have a top-25 since mid-April and had missed the cut in nine of his past 12 cuts. Timely.
The Tour Championship field is reserved for the top 30, and making it there is important for career advancement – it allows a player to set the best possible schedule for next season, including a spot in three of the four majors.
Anna Nordqvist announced her return on the biggest possible stage.
Four years removed from her last victory, at the 2017 Evian, Nordqvist joined some elite company by capturing her third career major, this time at the AIG Women’s Open. Nordqvist’s two-putt from 35 feet on the final green gave her a one-shot victory over Georgia Hall, Lizette Salas and Madelene Sagstrom.
The Swede, who also captured the 2009 Women’s PGA, joined Annika Sorenstam and Laura Davies as the only Europeans with three or more major titles. She also ended a streak of nine consecutive first-time major winners.
Nordqvist called this one the most special.
Now 34 and married, she said she began to doubt whether she’d ever win again. She had a nasty case of mononucleosis in July 2017 that affected her for three years. It robbed her of her energy, her strength, her mental focus. "You don't have that extra gear that I've always been used to having," she said. The COVID shutdown finally allowed her to take a break, to relax and reset, and she has played better golf of late even if it wasn’t yet up to her lofty standards.
During an unusually calm week at Carnoustie, Nordqvist hit at least 14 greens each of the last three rounds and showed a deft touch from off the green, almost exclusively using the putter. It allowed her to become a winner for the first time in 1,435 days, her ninth LPGA title overall.
“I couldn’t really dream of anything more,” she said. “It was definitely worth the wait, and definitely worth a lot of those struggles and being able to push through. But it’s been a lot of hard work to get here, too.”
As satisfying as Nordqvist’s slump-busting victory was, the ending was just as heart-wrenching for Nanna Koerstz Madsen.
In a share of the lead standing on the left edge of the 18th fairway, the 26-year-old Dane hit a terrible approach, fanned short and right of the green, the ball tumbling into the back edge of the bunker. From there, she still had a chance to get up-and-down to likely force a playoff, but she shanked the bunker shot and took a double-bogey 6.
Koerstz Madsen wasn’t asked directly about the miscues in what appeared to be a brief exchange with a media official, but she did offer this: “On 18, I tried to not make a mistake, and that was the only thing I shouldn’t do.”
She will be better for the experience of major contention, but unfortunately the ignominy of a 72nd-hole shank will haunt her for a while.
The Solheim Cup teams were finalized Monday, with both captains filling out their rosters with wildcard selections.
U.S. captain Pat Hurst added Yealimi Noh, Brittany Altomare and Mina Harigae to a team that already had world No. 1 Nelly Korda, Danielle Kang, Lexi Thompson, Ally Ewing, Austin Ernst, Jessica Korda, Megan Khang, Lizette Salas and Jennifer Kupcho. (U.S. team capsules)
GB&I skipper Catriona Matthew had more work to do, selecting Leona Maguire, Nanna Koertz Madsen, Madelene Sagstrom, Matilda Castren, Mel Reid and Celine Boutier. The automatic qualifiers were Emily Pedersen, Georgia Hall, Anna Nordqvist, Sophia Popov, Charley Hull and Carlota Ciganda. (European team capsules)
Much like in 2017 in Iowa, many will expect another American blowout when the matches begin Sept. 4 at Inverness. But the belief here is that the cup will be closer than expected, with the Europeans freed up to compete.
Nelly Korda can only be responsible for five points, max, and she can’t do it alone. Noh is a mega-talented rookie but it’ll be interesting to see how much Hurst leans on her in her debut. Harigae just shot a third-round 76 in her first time in major contention. The Nos. 7-12 Americans have a combined one win – and that was back in 2014. Outside of Salas – who has been strong in the majors but said Sunday she was so mentally exhausted she thought about withdrawing before the Open – who else among the Americans has been playing her best this summer? Hmmm.
The top 25 in the Korn Ferry Tour Finals standings won’t be determined for two more weeks, but we can already hand out a few more PGA Tour cards.
Greyson Sigg already has his card for the 2021-22 season because of his stellar play through the Korn Ferry Tour season, but he won the Finals opener in Boise. That vaulted him to the top of the combined standings and, if that position holds, would give him higher priority status.
Aaron Rai had a brutal close, sitting with a one-shot lead into the 72nd fairway but bungled the rest of the hole to make double and lose by one. His consolation: A Tour card for next season. Ditto for J.J Spaun, Lucas Herbert and Matthias Schwab, who finished inside the top 4. Like Sigg, Stephan Jaeger (T-4) already has his card for next season.
It’s a little disorienting that a top-4 finish in a single tournament can be enough to earn a Tour card – even if the eventual status won’t amount to much – but that’s the beauty of the Korn Ferry Tour Finals. Rai and Herbert (who has won each of the past two years on the European Tour and is 49th in the world) got into the field because they had accrued enough points as Tour non-members, largely through the WGCs, that they would have finished inside the top 200 in the FedExCup standings. Schwab, who competes full-time on the European Tour, took advantage of the rollover status because of the pandemic; he was exempt through his points earned in the 2019-20 season.
IT'S BUBBLE TIME!
This is the final week for players to automatically qualify for the U.S. Ryder Cup, and it's a close race:
Here’s how the standings look:
1. Collin Morikawa (clinched spot)
2. Dustin Johnson (clinched spot)
3. Bryson DeChambeau (clinched spot)
4. Brooks Koepka (clinched spot)
5. Justin Thomas (clinched spot)
6. Tony Finau
7. Xander Schauffele
8. Jordan Spieth
9. Harris English
10. Patrick Reed
11. Patrick Cantlay
12. Daniel Berger
13. Webb Simpson
14. Scottie Scheffler
A couple of notes:
With his win at the Northern Trust, Finau, who hadn’t done much all summer to warrant consideration, jumped all the way to No. 6, the final automatic qualifying spot. That bumped out Schauffele, the Olympic gold medalist, and slid down Spieth another spot.
Technically, five players can still earn the final automatic spot (Schauffele, Spieth, English, Cantlay and Berger) depending on how they play at the BMW, but if we’re captaining the U.S. squad, the first nine spots, through English, are solid.
That’s where it gets interesting.
Reed, in the 10th spot, would have thought to be a lock, but he’s currently in a Houston-area hospital recovering from a scary bout with double pneumonia. (It’s unclear the cause of the infection, or if it’s COVID-related.) That’s on top of already dealing with an ankle injury that had knocked him out of the past two tournaments. There’s no timetable for his return, but the WD from the BMW means he won’t advance to the Tour Championship ... which means that, to pick Reed next month, Stricker would be selecting a guy who was recently hospitalized and hadn’t competed since Aug. 8.
Cantlay, the world No. 10, and Berger, one of the best all-around players on Tour, should be shoo-ins for picks as well.
That leaves one spot, if Stricker decides not to go with Reed. Does he take Webb Simpson, a malleable partner and iron-play specialist? Or Scottie Scheffler, another rookie? Or Kevin Kisner, lights-out putter? Or Phil Mickelson, for his, um, experience?
THIS WEEK'S AWARD WINNERS ...
Close, But Not Quite: Lizette Salas. Despite giving up about 25 yards off the tee and having to attack par-4 greens with long irons, hybrids and fairway metals, Salas finished second in yet another major, becoming the first player since Suzann Pettersen in 2010 to place second in two majors in the same season.
Generation Next: LPGA Q-School. Duke senior and amateur stud Gina Kim medaled at the first stage of LPGA qualifying, pacing a field of advancers that also included Houston’s Karen Fredgaard, Vanderbilt’s Auston Kim, Amelia Garvey (USC), Swing Liu (Wake Forest) and Kennedy Swann (Ole Miss). Alexa Pano, the ballyhooed teenager also got through, but her celebration was muted after learning that her age waiver has been denied by the LPGA and she won’t be able to compete in the third and final stage to earn her card. Missing out, after a final-round 78, was Hailey Davidson, who was trying to become the first transgender player to earn a tour card.
Sleeper: Alex Noren. With no European player distinguishing himself from the pack of would-be captain’s picks, Padraig Harrington would be wise to take a hard look at Noren, who tied for fourth at the Northern Trust and now has three top-16s in his past five Tour starts. He also represented Europe at the 2018 Ryder Cup, going 2-1 and beating DeChambeau in singles. At this point we'd take Noren over Justin Rose or Robert MacIntyre, to go along with Sergio Garcia and Ian Poulter.
Round of Applause: Jon Rahm. Even though he's No. 2 in the FedExCup standings, Rahm spoke out against the format for determining the season-long champion, saying plainly: “I don’t like it.” His reasoning is sound, the same one we’ve used here for the past few years: A player could win 15 times and sweep all of the majors but lose his (checks notes) two-shot lead on the opening hole if he snap-hooks his tee shot out of bounds at East Lake. The best path forward is to crown the regular-season champ as the true FedExCup winner – with a heftier bonus than the Comcast Business Tour Top 10 – and then turn the “postseason” into a big-money, free-for-all with a match-play finish.
Ouch: Henrik Stenson. It’s been a rough go of late for the 2016 Open champion, who has tumbled all the way outside the top 200 in the world. And with a chance to win late at the European Tour's Czech Masters, he dumped his tee shot into the water on the 70th hole, taking a double bogey and opening the door for Johannes Veerman to earn his first European Tour title. Close for the first time in forever, you can see the pain etched on Stenson’s face:
The Timing ... Not Ideal!: Collin Morikawa. Nagged by a back issue since the final day in Tokyo, Morikawa, who entered the playoffs in the No. 1 spot, said he pinched a nerve in his back during practice and almost didn’t tee it up in the opener. He missed the cut at Liberty National and had his swing coach flying to Maryland to figure out a workaround and get his body right for this finishing stretch.
Victory Lap: Stefan Schauffele. Seems the Olympic gold medalist had only about a week to celebrate with the medal. Instead, it’s in the safe possession of his father/swing coach Stefan, whose striking pose here may haunt your dreams. Keep stuntin’, King:
On Second Thought ...: Kevin Kisner. All those pumping up Kiz for the Ryder Cup after his slump-busting victory at the Wyndham had to go quiet last week. Admittedly needing a postseason push to warrant a pick, he threw up rounds of 76-74 and nearly finished last at Liberty National. Yikes.
Tip o' the Cap: Liberty National grounds crew. Sure, the SubAir system aided their recovery, but these unsung heroes somehow got the course playable after a whopping 9 inches of rain fell in a 48-hour span. Well done to all involved.
FANTASY TEAM UPDATE
Loyal podcast listeners (subscribe here!) will recall that on last week’s episode, Rex Hoggard and I drafted our seven-man teams for the FedExCup playoffs.
But in this battle, we might be more interested in not losing than we are in winning. The losing owner has to wear a sign that reads I SUCK AT FANTASY GOLF for one hour Thursday at the Ryder Cup, preferably during the captain’s press conference, when they pick the opening-day lineup, or maybe even the opening ceremony in front of tens of thousands of fans. That’d be especially humiliating.
It wasn’t a great week for the good guys, even though we had all seven players make the cut, but it’s always nice to play from in front.
Let’s get after it this week, boys.
Rahm (3): $655,500
Cantlay (T-11): $203,775
Schauffele (T-16): $144,875
Koepka (T-31): $48,925
Scheffler (T-43): $32,775
Berger (T-56): $21,470
Spieth (73): $18,905
Thomas (T-4): $399,792
English (T-31): $48,925
McIlroy (T-43): $32,775
Hovland (T-43): $32,775
Matsuyama (T-43): $32,775
Morikawa (MC): $0
D. Johnson (MC): $0