Mud balls, splash-dunks, Tiger’s dogs: 10 sights from the Hero | Monday Finish
Welcome back to the Monday Finish, where we’re slicing ’em into the woods and telling our buddies we’re “cutting down a Christmas tree.” Seasonal golf jokes, gang. Make ’em while you can!
FIRST OFF THE TEE
’tis the season.
One of my buddies asked a simple question the other day.
“When does the PGA Tour season end for the year?”
It sounded like a simple question, at least. I started to tell him that it ends at the Tour Championship; that’s the conclusion of the 2021-22 PGA Tour season.
Nah, I figured — better include the Presidents Cup. That was a big deal, and the Ryder Cup will be even bigger next year.
Or is it the RSM Classic? That’s the last full-field event of the fall season, after all.
Hmm, but then there’s the Hero, with its limited but star-studded field. That really marks the beginning of the offseason for most of the top guys…
…except the ones who are playing in the Match next week. And don’t even ask me to explain where the QBE Shootout fits in.
Ah, but now Tiger Woods plays the PNC Championship with his son Charlie. Nelly Korda plays, too, and Justin Thomas, and this year will be Jordan Spieth’s debut. That’s basically the fifth major at this point, so… yeah.
“Never,” I told him.
HERO WORLD CHALLENGE SIGHTS AND SOUNDS
About that Hero World Challenge, though. I spent last week in the glorious Bahamas. Here are 10 things I heard — and saw — at Albany. (Sidenote: It’s not Albany Country Club. Not The Albany Golf Club. Not Albany Resort. Just Albany. Cool, I guess, but can make things confusing as hell.)
1. Viktor Hovland, Norwegian Vacationer
This week’s big winner was Viktor Hovland, who defended his title at Albany with a two-shot victory over Scottie Scheffler. Hovland is notably from Norway but plays his best golf in conditions that are anti-Norway. His five PGA Tour-sanctioned wins (we can argue another time about the Hero’s validity) have come in the following locations:
-Playa del Carmen, Mex.
-Playa del Carmen, Mex.
He’s had plenty of success near the equator these last couple years — but also launched a 22-hour summer road trip to Norway’s northern tip, where he set the course record at Lofoten Links. In other words, Hovland defies easy categorization. But I liked what he said in his winner’s press conference about his countrymen. While he lives in the U.S. and doesn’t spend much time on social media, he appreciates Norwegian patriotism.
“We only have five, six million people, but it seems like when Magnus Carlsen is winning, everyone tunes in and starts playing chess, or if it’s Thor Hushovd in Tour de France, everyone just started biking that summer, or, you know, what Erling Haaland is doing [in soccer] is incredible and obviously with Casper Ruud in tennis. People love their sports and I think they root for their fellow countrymen when they do something well.”
He did well.
2. Tiger Woods, dog-“walker”
It was an all-around bummer that tournament host Tiger Woods wasn’t able to play this week. By all accounts — including his own — he’d been playing well in the lead-up to the event. Ripping up under-par rounds. Upping strength and swing speed. And working to progress his walking, both via 18-hole rounds on foot and extra “beach walks” with Albany’s sandy terrain in mind. Turns out, he overdid things. Hopefully he’ll be fine for the golf-cart worlds of the Match and the PNC.
But although Woods was clearly frustrated not to play, he also seemed … happy. Happy to dish out some takes at the podium in his pre-tournament press conference. Happy that the best in the world had come to his tournament. Happy to hit the gym each morning, mingling with contestants and Albany members. Happy to bop through the scene with his 13-year-old son Charlie. And happy cruising the course with his two dogs, Bugs and Lola.
The last bit was the quickest and happiest Tiger sighting from my week. It came during Wednesday’s pro-am and involved Woods sailing past one pro-am group, cackling in his high-speed cart while Bugs and Lola sprinted down the fairway alongside him. As far as dog-walking goes, this seemed like a pretty good scene.
The line from Woods that resonated as the most genuine, though, came in his Saturday appearance on NBC’s telecast. He was talking about the mission of the TGR Foundation, which began as a golf-based foundation but has focused on educational opportunities for underserved communities for the last two decades.
Woods said he feels it’s his responsibility to help underserved kids. And then he said something with real wonder. “It’s amazing how a little bit of support, of guidance, and they thrive.”
3. Mud ball practice
The Hero played with preferred lies on Thursday and Friday to combat muddy conditions from a rainy lead-up to the tournament. On Saturday, however, tournament organizers decided to introduce a little chaos and played the ball down, which resulted in a series of horrific ball flights as mud balls cruised wildly off-line.
Scottie Scheffler was asked after the round if it made things a little exciting, knowing the ball could go anywhere.
“Exciting’s definitely not the right word for it,” he said. Agree to disagree, Scottie!
On Sunday they elected to play the ball down for the final round, too. As a result, players were doing something on the range that I’ve never seen: actually practicing with clumps of mud on their golf ball. Jon Rahm, Jordan Spieth, Max Homa and others were experimenting, trying to figure out how to predict what might happen to his ball’s flight. No word yet on what they learned.
4. OWGR skepticism
Among the takeaways from Woods’ press conference was his criticism of the Official World Golf Ranking. Echoing Jon Rahm’s comments from the DP World Tour Championship, Woods called out a “flawed system” particularly in the way it rewards limited-field events.
“It’s a flawed system,” he said. “The field at Dubai [for the DP finale] got less points than Sea Island and more of the top players were there in Dubai, so obviously there’s a flawed system.”
The debate continued online with Justin Thomas and Bubba Watson joining the fray…
Let’s just agree to unpack this another time, okay?
5. Sam Bankman-Fried
I wrote about this earlier in the week but the most bizarre subplot of the entire tournament was the fact that cryptocurrency’s man of the moment (and not in a good way) Sam Bankman-Fried was in residence just a mid-iron from the action. Most pros I talked to were curious as to his whereabouts, while at least a couple pro-am contestants had seen him out and about in Albany. One described him as barefoot and looking furtively over his shoulder as he walked outside.
From what I could tell, this wasn’t a crowd of pros who’d been personally invested in FTX. But several had buddies who were and wished ill upon SBF, who broke his silence via a New York Times interview on the eve of Hero World Challenge battle.
6. Fitzpatrick’s splash
There was an exhibition called the Hero Shot on Tuesday afternoon during which seven golfers from the field — Woods, Thomas, Fleetwood, Homa, Billy Horschel, Tom Kim and Matthew Fitzpatrick — hit wedge shots at a floating target in the pond by No. 18.
It was immensely satisfying watching the tempo with which each player hit his wedges. But it was even more satisfying watching the final shot of the competition, in which Fitzpatrick hit the 87-yarder into the hole (an enlarged bucket a couple feet in diameter) on the fly, sending up an impressive splash in the process. He was dialed in.
7. Tom Kim, certified try-hard
The runner-up in the competition was Tom Kim, who wastes zero motion in his glorious golf swing.
But the best part about Kim’s appearance was the way he lived and died with every shot. He’d told me before the wedge-off that he was seriously nervous to hit shots in front of Woods. Once the competition started he looked anything but nervous. He looked 100 percent himself. He eagerly lobbied for points when his shots landed at the edge of the red and black targets. He even called for video review.
“V-A-R, V-A-R!” he yelled, World-Cup style.
And he also advanced to the finals, where he might have won if not for Fitzpatrick’s splash. We’ll see plenty more of Tom Kim, and soon.
8. Jon Rahm, leader
I asked Jon Rahm if he could pinpoint the moment he’d become a leader in the pro golf world. He laughed.
“Oh, there was a clear moment, very clear,” he said. “The second I won the U.S. Open apparently I got all the credibility I needed. Before that, nobody cared. I got Covid, Memorial happened, then I win the U.S. Open and all of a sudden my opinion matters. That’s kind of how it went.”
That’s a funny thing that happens to professional athletes. Until we know their stories, we don’t necessarily find them interesting. But until we find them interesting, we don’t necessarily find out their stories. Good golf begets good questions. And into the question-and-answer cycle they whirl.
9. Justin Thomas, learner
Thomas was talking about how much he’d learned on his path to the PGA Tour, a path that included a trip to Q-school and through the Korn Ferry Tour. I asked him what he’d learned this year — an up-and-down year that nonetheless included golf’s biggest prize, a major championship.
“What did I learn this year? Probably to not be so hard on myself,” he said. “I felt like at the beginning of the year I was playing as good or better than anybody and I just had no wins to show for it.
“I felt like when you’re in those rolls, those rhythms like Scottie [Scheffler] got on last year, like Rory’s on right now, you see Rahm get on them, like I was on however many years ago, winning comes easier than it should and sometimes you just feel like that should happen every time, and that’s just not the case.”
His instinct, Thomas said, was to label 2022 as an average year. But his mentor Tiger Woods would say that his PGA Championship trophy changes everything about that calculation. Woods once said if you won a major, regardless, it’s been a great year.
“If he says it, then yeah, it’s a great year,” Thomas said. “He’s done it all, so it was a great year. It wasn’t just average, it was great.”
Mark on your scoresheets at home!
10. Tom Hoge, numbers guy
There’s plenty of mingling that happens in and around the lobby and casino floor of the Baha Mar, the resort destination that’s a 20-minute drive from Albany and serves as the social hub all week. That’s where I ran into Tom Hoge, a fine PGA Tour pro in his own right whose services had been called in to fill out the pro-am field on Wednesday even though he wasn’t in the main event. (This happens every year; this year’s crop of supplemental pros included Lexi Thompson, Morgan Pressel, Luke Donald, Hoge, Justin Leonard and more.)
We got to talking about his schedule, because Hoge plays…a lot. He cracks 30 worldwide starts nearly every year and is still game for add-ons like the Hero pro-am or this week’s QBE Shootout. So why play so much? He had a logical explanation.
“I’ve got nothing else to do,” he said with a shrug and a smile. “I go home and play every day for 40 bucks. I may as well play for 1.5 mil out here.”
NEWS FROM SEATTLE
Monday Finish HQ.
Nothing says “welcome back from the Bahamas” like landing in a blizzard in the wee hours of the morning and inching towards home in a Lyft until about a half-mile from home where the driver drops you off to trudge up the hill on your own, balling your hands into your sweatshirt sleeves and dragging your golf clubs behind you the rest of the way. The snow was beautiful, though.
Three things to watch this week.
1. The 9-9-9 Challenge
Skiing, golf, baseball, beer, hot dogs — all in one day? We just posted a fun expedition to our newly launched Drop Zone YouTube channel featuring our quest for 9 runs, 9 holes, 9 innings, 9 beers and 9 hot dogs all in one day. Get excited for ski season and get excited for a spring expedition of your own along these same lines…oh, and subscribe!
2. Ze Match
C’mon. It’ll be fun!
3. The QBE Shootout — for years to come!
According to the AP, the QBE is going to become a PGA/LPGA Tour crossover event. We’ve been clamoring for this sort of thing for years, and while the format of last week’s Australian Open was extremely cool (men and women at the same venue the same week, like tennis tournaments do) I’m eager to hear more about the QBE setup.
We’ll see you next week!