Monday Finish: Rory McIlroy’s coaches, costly bogeys, TV issues, Butler Cabin
Welcome to this week’s Monday Finish, where we’re listening to morose Taylor Swift songs and thinking about our golf game. Let’s get to it!
FIRST OFF THE TEE
The Tour rollercoaster.
In the summer of 2019 Martin Trainer came to New York City. He’d been planning to play the Northern Trust Open, the first event of the FedEx Cup Playoffs, but slid just far enough in the rankings that he finished the regular season outside the top 125. No playoffs. He’d won the Puerto Rico Open that February but missed 11 consecutive cuts to finish the season — and many times it wasn’t close.
“Oh man, Reno was just the absolute nadir of my career,” he told us on the Drop Zone Podcast that August. “Literally, you guys would have smoked me on Friday at Reno. I was playing so badly, and I was so lost, and it was just hard to handle, because it’s such a helpless feeling…thank goodness it was Stableford, by the way, because I picked up like, five times. I believe they told us not to pick up, because it would be sort of unprofessional — but I think my golf shots were unprofessional, so I think picking up was actually the more professional of the two routes.”
That’s Trainer, right there. Self-effacing. Kinda funny. And struggling on the PGA Tour. That was more than two years ago, and in that time Trainer has played more than 50 professional events without logging so much as a top 25. He has made a handful of cuts but only retained his PGA Tour status because of the two-year exemption that came with that win — which was mercifully extended an extra season because of Covid-19. It was all difficult. Until this week.
We’ve come far enough that I need to acknowledge my bias here; Trainer is a personal friend and I’ve caddied for him twice on Tour, so take all of this through that lens. For our purposes here that means I’m always aware of his place on the leaderboard, and you can typically find him pretty quickly if you start at the bottom and scroll up from there. But this week at the Houston Open he came out firing. Birdie at 1. Birdie at 5. Birdie at 6. By the time the weather-delayed first round paused for darkness, he was three under through 11 holes.
When play resumed on Friday, Trainer bogeyed his first hole but then picked up right where he left off, making birdies at 13, 15 and 17 to — pinch yourself — claim a share of the lead.
Maybe the best break of the week was the fact that he had no time to stop and contemplate his position; instead it was off to the 10th tee to begin his second round. Trainer makes more bogeys per round than nearly anyone else on Tour but you’d never have known it here; he backed up his first round with a matching second-round 65. Through two rounds he’d made 11 birdies against a single bogey. At the tournament’s halfway point, he was the solo leader.
It was never going to be that easy, of course. Our Michael Bamberger has written about how whoever picked 72 holes for a stroke play golf tournament got it exactly right; 54 would be obviously too few and 90 far too many. By Saturday’s end Trainer had made a handful more bogeys but kept it the wheels on the tracks in a round of 74 that left him just a shot behind leader Scottie Scheffler.
The final-round storylines were pretty funny; Golf Channel’s coverage talked about how great a story a Trainer victory would be, and they were right. But typically comeback stories are a result of concrete adversity. A player suffers an injury or a personal setback. In this case what Trainer was overcoming was just his own record of relative mediocrity.
Beginning the week he’d have taken a T5 finish in a heartbeat. Heck, on the first tee Sunday he might have, too. But that was before he poured in a 10-footer for par at No. 4, and a 28-footer for birdie at No. 5, and a 33-footer for par at No. 6, and then a 71-footer for birdie at No. 11. Suddenly Martin Trainer couldn’t miss, and he held a two-shot lead. The three other times he’d been even remotely in contention on the Korn Ferry Tour or PGA Tour, he’d won. Somehow, impossibly, it was happening again.
But that would have been too neat an ending. Too clean for a sport as unforgiving as golf. Jason Kokrak got hot, and Trainer woke up from a dream, and suddenly he was out of the lead. Then things got worse: Trainer lipped out a short par putt at No. 17. He lipped out another short par putt at No. 18. He hadn’t just fallen out of the lead; he’d slipped to solo second and then a tie for second and now suddenly to T5, where he would finish the day.
That’s a chasmic difference. First paid $1.35 million. T2 paid $667,500. T5 paid just shy of $290,000. On the one hand, that’s an outrageous amount of money for anyone to make for a week’s work. On the other hand, if those two putts lipped in instead of out, Trainer would be all but guaranteed status for next season. Classic golf. This was the second-best showing of Trainer’s PGA Tour career, but he left with decidedly mixed emotions. Only one player ever leaves fully satisfied.
EXCITING SIDENOTE: Trainer joined the Drop Zone a couple hours after the round, when he’d had time to process. You can hear that entire interview here.
Who won the week?
Nelly Korda keeps answering the bell. Her week looked like it was over when she made a mess of the 17th hole on Sunday at the Pelican Women’s Championship, ping-ponging around the green en route to a triple-bogey 7. But then she bounced back with an ice-cold birdie at No. 18 in regulation to earn a spot in a high-powered playoff foursome — where she made birdie again to win. Nails.
That’s four LPGA Tour wins, an Olympic gold medal and the title of World No. 1 for Korda this year. Not a bad haul.
Jason Kokrak didn’t just beat out Trainer at the Hewlett Packard Enterprise Houston Open; he fended off 54-hole leader Scottie Scheffler and a hard-charging Kevin Tway by making four birdies in his last six holes to win by two. Kokrak now has three wins in his last 12 months, which is remarkable for a Tour vet who had spent most of his career safely below the radar.
And Phil Mickelson logged yet another win on the PGA Tour Champions, where he closed with a back-nine 31 at Phoenix Country Club to win the Charles Schwab Cup Championship.
“I’m hoping to use the opportunity to play and compete here as a way to keep my game sharp and have a few special moments on the regular Tour like I had this year in May. If I could have a couple more of those, that’s really what motivates me to work hard, to get in the gym in the offseason, put in the time and the effort to have those special moments. I would love to have a couple more. And then these are great, too.”
I’m not sure the senior tour will make “these are great, too” its tagline anytime soon, but I appreciate Mickelson’s candid answer. And four wins in six tries is ridiculously impressive, no matter the competition.
Moral victories all around.
Lexi Thompson, Sei Young Kim and Lydia Ko made up as high-powered a playoff as you could imagine at the Pelican. Ko and Kim missed the green with their approach shots but Thompson played hers perfectly, feeding her wedge shot off a slope just left of the flag to leave herself six or so feet. She missed, gunning it through any possible break. All she could do was scoop her ball up, grin and bear it as she congratulated Korda.
Thompson’s miss came on the heels of a missed four-footer at the end of regulation. Both misses came in the context of a season marked by close calls and big misses. Golf is a game of misses. Life is a game of close calls. The human existence is cold and hopeless.
In Houston, Sunday began as a potential coronation for Scottie Scheffler. It remained that way at the halfway mark, at which point he held the lead alone. This felt like a fitting tournament for Scheffler to win. He grew up in Texas, he’s reached an elite level of play and he just stared down World No. 1 Jon Rahm in Sunday Singles at the Ryder Cup. But life is pain and so Scheffler bogeyed 10, 11 and 14 to drop from contention. He salvaged a T2 with birdies at 16 and 18.
WHO WANTS A MULLIGAN?
Let’s figure out this TV thing.
In general if I’m complaining about something I like to have a concrete alternative proposal at the ready. Without a helpful suggestion, complaining is just whining. But indulge me for a moment. Remember that LPGA playoff we were just talking about? The one with four of the world’s best players coming down No. 18? What if I told you that moment wasn’t on television but was only covered by an on-again, off-again stream on NBCSports.com?
There’s a basic responsibility that comes with telling the stories of these tournaments, and in my view that responsibility includes showing their conclusion. I understand there can be extenuating circumstances; by the eighth hole of the Harris English-Kramer Hickok Travelers playoff everybody would have understood pulling the plug or even just canceling the tournament. But when you’re on the first playoff hole and you have the game’s biggest stars involved, you have an obligation to show the people how it finished. I know TV contracts are complex. My concrete solution only extends this far: Figure it out!
What makes a good tournament golf course? There are complex answers that involve tradition, history and course architecture. But if it can answer “yes” to two questions, I’m in:
- Is it memorable?
- Is it challenging?
Memorial Park‘s challenge spoke for itself; anytime 10 under wins a PGA Tour event, the course clearly provided sufficient obstacles. But this was a challenge infused with variety. Think of the holes down the stretch: No. 13 is a drivable par-4 with devastating consequences if you miss in the wrong spot. No. 14 is a brutal par-4 and arguably the toughest hole on the course. No. 15 is a short par-3 that played just 115 yards on Sunday. No. 16 is a risk-reward par-5 that demands a bold tee shot to get home in two. No. 17 is a short, awkward par-4 with a terrifying green and water lurking on every approach shot — and even plenty of chips. And No. 18 is the last of several of Memorial Park’s long, demanding par-4s. If you make birdie to win, you’ve earned it.
What’s particularly cool about Memorial Park is that it’s a park! Tom Doak’s redesign vaulted this into the conversation of the country’s best municipal courses. His bold vision ensured we wouldn’t have a dumbed-down golf course. Tournament organizers’ commitment to showcasing public golf ensured a high-level muni not named Torrey Pines would pop up on the Tour schedule every year. So far, so good.
Rory McIlroy has been working hard on getting back to his roots. There was his emotional interview at the end of the Ryder Cup, which came on the heels of his first point of the week and a blowout defeat at the hands of the Americans. The power of the moment was its fleeting nature; McIlroy has experienced enough Ryder Cups to know they mark the passage of time, specific markers every two years.
It was easy to draw a through-line from that moment to McIlroy’s win at the CJ Cup just weeks later. He talked about how he needed to get away from being perfect so he could be good enough instead.
“I need to play golf. I need to simplify it. I need to just be me,” he said afterwards. “I think for the last few months I was maybe trying to be someone else to try and get better, and I sort of realized that being me is enough, and I can do things like this.”
Enter this week’s report from Golfweek‘s Eamon Lynch, which highlighted McIlroy’s return to his lifelong coach Michael Bannon. McIlroy grew up down the street from Bannon and the two began working together when he was eight; if McIlroy is trying to recapture some youthful magic, it makes sense that he’d reconnect with the man who helped him make that magic in the first place, rather than Pete Cowen, who had become McIlroy’s full-time swing whisperer of late.
“Yes, Michael and I are back working together,” McIlroy told Lynch via text. “I’ve always had a relationship with Pete and I’ll ask for his input if I feel I need it. But now it’s Michael and me.”
Refreshing. Simple. Clean. That is, until Golf Digest reached Cowen and he provided a different version of events.
“That is not the deal I have done with Rory. And I only did the deal on Friday of last week,” Cowen told Digest’s Daniel Rapaport via text.
This didn’t mean anyone was lying, necessarily — there was ample wiggle room in McIlroy’s statement to Golfweek that he could still have Cowen on call for specific situations. But clashing over coaching relationships in the media is a decidedly different vibe from the simplicity, freedom and essentialism McIlroy is chasing.
NEWS FROM SEATTLE
Monday Finish HQ.
We’re deep in it, folks. It’s always rainy here but right now it’s extra-rainy. The cold is here to join the rain. Russell Wilson doesn’t look quite right. On the bright side, Interbay Golf Center is open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day of the week. The hot dogs are warm and the roof blocks the rain. And I’ve convinced myself that speed is the answer, so I’ve acquired the Stack System to chase a few more mph this winter. I’ll keep you posted.
Three things to watch this week.
1. The finale.
The LPGA Tour crescendos to this week’s CME Group Tour Championship in Naples, Fla., where the $5 million purse and the final Nelly Korda-Jin Young Ko showdown of 2021 should determine Player of the Year honors.
2. The other finale.
If you’re a fan of fall FedEx Cup points, bad news: Just one chance left! The RSM Classic is this week and Scottie Scheffler enters as the favorite, just ahead of Webb Simpson.
3. The anniversary.
Happy one-year anniversary to Dustin Johnson’s Masters title and to the latest in a series of delightfully awkward Butler Cabin exchanges.
We’ll see you next week!