Spieth on Spieth, PGA Tour drama, one sad story | Monday Finish
Welcome back to the Monday Finish, where you’re all still tied for first in my mind. Let’s get to it!
FIRST OFF THE TEE
What a Sunday.
An exhausting discourse tailed the PGA Tour all week.
A pre-tournament announcement confirmed that in 2024, eight of the Tour’s “designated events” will feature limited fields and no cuts. This was the logical extension of the Tour’s trajectory over the last year; its changes have sought to award more money to the Tour’s top performers and ensure its stars go head to head more often, too. Eliminating a cut for these 70-80 player fields felt, to me, like a miss — a Friday cut to 50 players plus ties would trim the fat and bring some urgency to the first two rounds — but the businesspeople involved in its planning believe guaranteeing weekend appearances from top stars is a game-changer for sponsors.
Several pros spoke to the media about the new tour-within-a-tour, the VIP section, where money and glory and drama await. They gave insight. They also faced backlash. I get why it’s not everybody’s bag; watching Rory McIlroy play golf is a spiritual experience, but hearing Rory McIlroy talk about the PGA Tour as a “product” is slightly less romantic. (For what it’s worth, I think the changes are exciting and make a lot of sense, even if they’re imperfect.)
All that is to say it was a relief when the action got underway at Bay Hill. Stern conditions took over after the first round and a strong leaderboard emerged over the first three days. Then on Sunday we were reminded why we care so much about all of this in the first place. Six different pros held at least a share of the lead. Control of the tournament Ping-Ponged from star to star. Out-of-bounds stakes loomed. Short putts proved treacherous. A handful of the best players in the world set off on a pressure-packed survival test and we, the viewers, reaped the rewards.
Jordan Spieth was hottest off the blocks on Sunday morning, making every putt he looked at including four birdies in his first five holes to draw within a shot of the lead. McIlroy’s bogeys at 1 and 2 seemed to doom his chances, but a stellar run of six birdies in 10 holes super-charged his Sunday. World No. 2 Scottie Scheffler lurked all the while, going backward and then forward, refusing to disappear. The Tour’s name-brand competitors hung around all day trying to assert themselves over 54-hole leader Kurt Kitayama, who was chasing his first PGA Tour victory. There was a moment that he seemed doomed, too, when his tee shot at No. 9 finished O.B. by three inches and he went on to make triple. But that would prove to be the last blemish on his card; Kitayama closed hard and wound up the deserving winner by one.
The new-look elite level of the PGA Tour is designed to pit the best players against each other all while mixing in the hottest players, ensuring the fields would reflect the Tour’s meritocratic ideals. Kitayama leapt to World No. 19 with the victory, by far the highest of his career. If the first three designated events highlighted thoroughbreds in form — Jon Rahm at Kapalua and Riviera, Scheffler at the WM Phoenix Open — this week’s winner highlighted the accessibility of these big-time events. There can still be life-changing wins at this level. Those are the stories that give the Tour character and texture and depth, after all. Kitayama’s win was a happy reminder that isn’t going away.
Who won the week?
When I think back on Kitayama’s victory, my mind will first wander to the 18th green and arguably the shortest winning putt in PGA Tour history. Next I’ll ping back to his challenging approach shot from the rough left of the 18th fairway, where Kitayama was faced with a tall task and executed to perfection. But I’ll think most of all about the putt he poured in at No. 17, a 14-footer that hit the middle of the back of the cup.
This putt was just nails. Nobody had made anything in about an hour. Greens crispy as hell. Kitayama tied for the lead with half the Ryder Cup. Hit a bold tee shot to get here — and then absolutely buried it. Great golf day. pic.twitter.com/QS1TGyoxpY— Dylan Dethier (@dylan_dethier) March 6, 2023
Jin Young Ko had a different type of breakthrough win. The former World No. 1 has been battling injuries for the better part of a year but stormed back with a win at the HSBC Women’s World Championship, where she shot 17 under. The win was her first since taking time away in an attempt to heal her ailing wrist. Given the circumstances, she called the win her “most important.”
Nico Echavarria earned his first career PGA Tour win, too, in the opposite-field Puerto Rico Open. He called himself “happy with life right now” after bouncing back from four missed cuts with the surprise victory.
And in an intriguing tournament start, LIV golfer Carlos Ortiz won the V Copa Prissa, an event on the Mexican pro tour Gira de Golf Professional Mexicana. The tour plays 54-hole events with cuts after two days and started getting OWGR points last year. Ortiz moved up just 11 spots with his win, from No. 275 in the world to 264. But a win’s a win!
Of the pros most disappointed about walking away from Bay Hill without a win, Jordan Spieth may be No. 1. He got to 10 under with a birdie at the 13th — a number that would have been good enough to win outright — before missing a five-foot putt at No. 14, a four-footer at No. 15, a six-footer at No. 16 and an eight-footer at No. 17. The greens were baked out and basically frictionless by that point in the day, which is why everybody seemed to be missing shorties, but Spieth missed more than his fair share.
Rory McIlroy may come second on the “most disappointed” list; he was in the lead standing on the 14th tee and then appeared to slip on his tee shot, a swooping hook that led to bogey. He made another bogey at 15. He had a chance to take the outright lead with an 11-foot birdie putt at No. 18 but that just slid by, depriving us of what would have been a compelling playoff.
Scottie Scheffler seemed to be in the driver’s seat as he stood in the 18th fairway, staring down a wedge shot with a share of the lead. But he shorted his approach, failed to get up and down and wound up a misleading T4.
Tyrrell Hatton held a share of the lead on the back nine and was also dismayed to finish T4.
“It’s just so disappointing after I’ve worked so hard today and I come off the golf course and I see that I’ve only earned 110 FedExCup points, which I don’t think moves us up very high,” he said. By way of comparison, the runner up in a lesser field in Puerto Rico received 165. Speaking of which…
Akshay Bhatia earned Special Temporary Membership on the PGA Tour thanks to a second-place finish in Puerto Rico. Bhatia birdied the final four holes to finish off a round of seven-under 65 — and gave an emotional post-round interview.
“I can’t believe I’m crying,” Bhatia said Sunday after taking a second to compose himself. “It means a lot. Worked really hard; it’s been a crazy journey, for sure.”
Nelly Korda didn’t win in Singapore but she did the next best thing, finishing the week two shots behind Jin Young Ko. That makes three starts and three top-six finishes for Korda in 2023. Seeing Ko and Korda 1-2 on the leaderboard felt like a flashback while also a potential sign of things to come.
What a strange weekend for the World No. 1. Jon Rahm entered the week the unquestioned hottest player in the world. When he birdied the first three holes on Thursday, the feeling was clear: Here we go again. When he birdied the final three holes on Thursday to post seven-under 65 and take a two-shot lead, the discussion skipped past Rahm’s chances to win the event and leapt to Rahm’s place among the all-time greats. Where would this next win fit in the context of his all-time great run?
But it didn’t work out that way. Not at all. He followed his opening 65 with a second-round 76, and then a third-round 76, and battled on Sunday just to post a final-round 72 and settled in a share of 39th.
A T39 result doesn’t seem particularly noteworthy except that we’re talking about Rahm, who hadn’t finished worse than T8 in his last 10 worldwide starts. Still, he maintained his standing atop the OWGR at 9.50 points, slightly ahead of No. 2 Scheffler (9.18) and No. 3 McIlroy (9.04).
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
Spieth on Spieth.
I loved hearing Spieth talk about his mentality hitting high-risk shots. Here’s the escape artist on himself:
“I appreciate my ability to not give up and to see a shot where others may not see it and go ahead and go for it to pull it off. Because I have that luxury in my career given what I’ve accomplished that I feel like I may as well risk the shot that has the highest reward, even if it bites you a few times.
“But that’s how you continue to win out here.”
ONE SAD STORY
As the years go by, competitors at the Arnold Palmer Invitational have fewer and fewer memories of the King. That’s just how these things go. But there are still plenty that do, including Chris Kirk, who spoke to the media early in the week following his win at the Honda Classic. As it turns out, Kirk played with Palmer in the famed Seminole Pro-Member a couple years before he passed.
I think Kirk meant it as a fun, entertaining story. I heard it and my first instinct was to feel deeply sad.
“I just remember, obviously, being nervous to play with him, but I just could not believe — at the age that he was at that time, I mean, the guy just hit it on the middle of the face all day long.
“I remember playing number 7 at Seminole. It’s a par-4 downhill tee shot and the second shot’s over a pond, and he’s got probably 200 yards in or something like that. Like I said, he hit it on the middle of the face, but he hadn’t flown one more than 160 all day. So there was no prayer of him making it over this pond.
“He pulls out 3-wood and just absolutely flushes it right at it, lands dead in the center of the pond, and he’s just, Damn. Like, he thought he had it still. Like, he absolutely smoked it.”
I think there’s something inspiring in there, underneath the inexorable realities of aging and their accompanying existential dread. Water be damned: Palmer went for it until the end.
Bay Hill on the brink.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Sunday was the most fun day to be a golf fan thus far in 2023. But getting there required pushing Bay Hill to the brink — and perhaps beyond. High scores are fun. A mix of birdies and bogeys is fun. But one of the reasons guys made bogeys on Sunday is because the greens were losing their green. Five-footers looked like crapshoots. Tentative strokes had no chance of keeping their line. Guys putted defensively — or they soon regretted it.
Scheffler described it well: “There’s so little friction there. Especially where they put some of the pins today. It was very challenging. But it’s a lot of fun. It’s a fun test of golf.”
McIlroy was slightly less sure how fun it was: “It’s hard because the lead’s changing hands with guys making bogeys, not really making birdies. So I don’t know how people find that entertainment value.”
Rest easy, Rory — people absolutely love it. They revel in it. What’s uncomfortable for you is delightful for viewers at home.
The final word goes to Harris English, who loves U.S. Opens and loved Bay Hill, too:
“I love this style of golf. It’s really difficult. You got to play chess out here and pick your spots to be aggressive. Man, it was a lot of fun.”
NEWS FROM SEATTLE
Monday Finish HQ.
This week’s Monday Finish has been completed on minimal sleep thanks to a redeye from Seattle to this week’s Players Championship. There are many perks to a Seattle lifestyle, but proximity to the Sunshine State is not one of them. I’m still working that part out — but if I’m gonna say something nice about Florida it’s that most of the airports have rental car centers that don’t require a shuttle to get to. It’s the little things, gang.
3 things to watch this week.
1. Jay Monahan.
The Commish addresses the media at 11 a.m. on Tuesday, sandwiched between Rahm (10 a.m.) and Justin Thomas (1 p.m.). We don’t hear from him often — and my, how things have changed since this championship last year.
2. Cameron Smith.
What’s the defending champ up to this week, anyway?
3. Geno Bonnalie.
Netflix’s caddie has a fantastic story for you to hear:
We’ll see you next week!