Welcome back to the Monday Finish, where we’re wondering if Tom Brady is getting out now to give himself a few years to get ready for the Champions Tour… Let’s get to it!
FIRST GROUP OFF
There is a contingent of diehard golf fans who have a notably complex relationship with Torrey Pines. There are a handful of gripes with varying levels of legitimacy, which include the following: It’s boring. It doesn’t take advantage of its surroundings. Narrow fairways and long rough are meh. The greens are bumpy. There are a bunch of forgettable holes that generally just blend into each other. The pond on 18 is silly and makes zero sense in the context of the rest of the course. And then there’s the big one: Given the breathtaking cliffside property, it should be so much better.
I’m not saying those arguments are without merit. At last summer’s U.S. Open I even found myself thinking that a major championship should be held at a course that was less familiar and more exciting. But this week, in the PGA Tour’s third trip to Torrey Pines in 12 months, I found myself fully enjoying the viewing. What gives? A number of factors. Here are a few nice things I’d like to say about this week’s Tour site:
There is no course that has benefitted more from the widespread use of drone shots than Torrey Pines, which can look drab and scrubby from ground level but magnificent with proper perspective. It’s fun to have a PGA Tour course where bogeys lurk around every corner. Showcasing one of the greatest municipal golf complexes in the world on a yearly basis is a good thing for golf. There are a few holes in particular — 3, 4, 12 and 18 come first to mind — that make for terrific entertainment. The leaderboard is always bunched with solid ballstrikers coming down the back nine in the final round. And we’re deeply familiar with the finishing stretch, with memories dating back to Tiger Woods at Buick Opens, various national championships, crowning moments for Jason Day and Jon Rahm and more. That intimate knowledge of fairways, green complexes, drama, pitfalls — it all makes for better viewing. Maybe it’s Stockholm Syndrome. Maybe it’s the fact that all you need for a good Tour event is a close finish on a hard, familiar course. Whatever it is, the Farmers Insurance Open was fun.
Who won the week?
Viktor Hovland’s jinx
This week’s golf was chock-full of nail-biting finishes but the hottest finish came from Viktor Hovland, who seemed out of contention beginning the day six shots back and seemed further out of contention when he bogeyed No. 15 but then finished birdie-eagle-birdie to plant a flag in the clubhouse at 12 under and then deliver a top-notch jinx to his biggest threat:
“There’s some drama, there’s some water, but I mean, Rory [McIlroy] is a pretty good player, so I’m thinking he’s going to close this one off,” Hovland said as he waited. The rest is history — and more on that later.
A reporter asked Hovland if the finish was the best of his career, and he gave a curious qualifier in his answer.
“Under the circumstances, yes, for sure,” he said. What did that mean? Hovland clarified:
“I do distinctly remember a little match that I had in college. We used to do a little Ryder Cup — me and Kristoffer Ventura against Zach Bauchou and Sam Stevens. We were basically playing for dinner and it was kind of getting dark, like this, and it was pretty feisty. We all didn’t want to lose and I remember we were doing stroke-play best-ball, I think, and we were down I think three strokes with three to go, and I finished birdie, birdie, and then eagle on the last to beat them by a shot and they were so mad, and it just brought me so much joy. So I do remember that one.”
The reporter pointed out that this win — worth more than $1.3 million — was more lucrative than a dinner bet.
“It is. But the other one was pretty satisfying, too.” No wonder people like this guy.
Lydia Ko’s latest chapter
It remains hard to fathom, but Lydia Ko — winner of this week’s Gainbridge LPGA — is still just 24. That’s difficult to comprehend because she became world No. 1 at just 17, which means she has already played a lengthy professional career, but it’s also hard because that career has had so many chapters. Early success. Then some struggles. Caddie changes, coaching changes, team changes. And now, with 17 wins under her belt, Ko has validated her comeback tour and cemented herself among the top pros in the world. Since the beginning of 2021, Ko has made 24 starts, missing just one cut while logging 16 top-10s, nine top-threes and three victories. She’s solidly at No. 3 in the world behind the dueling duo of Jin Young Ko (back at No. 1 after this week) and Nelly Korda.
On Sunday, Ko held off Danielle Kang with a clutch up-and-down from a greenside bunker at No. 18. Post-round she reminded everyone that you can’t try to be a past version of yourself; neither life nor golf works that way. And she summed up her feelings succinctly:
“Three words: Excited, cocktail, sleep,” she said. “I’m a little — I could do with sleep right now, thank you. I had a cocktail. That’s why I said cocktail. I feel like my cheeks are getting red, too.”
Luke List’s horrendous layup
This sounds like a dig but it is, in fact, admiration. Luke List came to No. 18 at Torrey Pines reeling; he’d just missed a four-footer at No. 17 to fall a shot off the lead. Then he missed left with his tee shot, forcing a layup so that he could get it close to the front-left funnel pin. But then he committed the cardinal sin of Torrey Pines: He layed up into the rough.
But then we saw the benefit of List being a terrific ball-striker and a very strong human being. Even from the rough he was able to generate enough spin that his ball landed softly on the front of the green and settled some 13 feet from the hole. He matched speed with line perfectly, making birdie to force a playoff. And in that playoff, he hit an even better layup from a worse lie (plugged in the right fairway bunker) and followed that with an even better approach shot, which he spun back to inside a foot. That made him a winner. And it was pretty clear just how much that win meant:
So close, and yet…
Danielle Kang’s tunnel vision
Coming off a win at the Tournament of Champions, Danielle Kang nearly made it two in a row — but her birdie try at No. 18 just wiggled past. Kang and Ko dueled their way down the stretch but Kang credited her charge in part to staying in her own lane.
“I wasn’t necessarily paying attention to a lot of what [Ko] was doing, to be honest, because I didn’t even know on 12 she had to hit a provisional because I got up to the fairway and there was four golf balls and I said, What happened here?”
Richard Bland, Ageless Wonder
If it’s possible for a playoff loss to feel like a win, how ’bout the runner-up finish for Richard Bland at the Dubai Desert Classic? As a quick recap: He’s turning 49 next week, he’s up to No. 53 in the world, Viktor Hovland needed 73 holes to beat him and, given the strength of the field, the finish registers as his best-ever result in terms of World Ranking points.
Will Zalatoris (and yes, his putter too)
The wobbly putting stroke of Will Zalatoris was front and center this weekend, largely on the basis of one sketchy missed shortie and two missed putts on 18 (one in regulation, one in the playoff). Let’s attempt something challenging: Let’s try to hold two thoughts in our head at the same time. Will Zalatoris’ putting woes might be real and might also be overstated.
Tee to green, Zalatoris was the best golfer in the field, gaining an extremely impressive 12.5 strokes. On the greens, he was a troubling 64th of the 79 players who made the cut, and he made nothing on Saturday, taking 29 putts on the 15 greens he hit in regulation. He actually made very little on Saturday, too, when he hit it so well he shot seven-under 65 despite losing ground on the greens. That basically never happens.
So the putting isn’t great. No doubt about that. It wasn’t great either, when Zalatoris finished the season No. 122 on Tour in putting, which is below average but well ahead of other notables like Hideki Matsuyama (who won the Masters) and Collin Morikawa (who won the Open Championship and conquered the world).
But let’s remember what Brandel Chamblee said a couple weeks ago in reference to Matsuyama:
“It’s not about who putts the best. It’s about who putts best, amongst the best ball strikers. And when [Hideki] does that he always has a decent chance.”
Zalatoris was a couple of inches from winning this week. If he keeps hitting the ball like this, he’ll have a whole bunch more chances.
Jason Day’s chase for No. 1
Even as he has dropped steadily in the world rankings, Jason Day has continued to talk about the goal of returning to World No. 1. I’ve admired his ability to think big, given he entered this week at World No. 129. But his game was solid through the bag, he turned in a vintage putting performance and contended until the end, finishing one shot outside the playoff and posting his first top-three finish since 2018.
Jon Rahm’s grip on World No. 1
All week, Jon Rahm looked, uhh, unsatisfied with his game.
He still had a putt on the 72nd hole to get into a playoff. I’m starting to think he’s pretty good.
Maybe next week?
Not laying up
Rory McIlroy seemed destined for victory when he stepped to the 17th tee on Sunday tied for the lead with a drivable par-4 and reachable par-5 in front of him. But a messy tee shot on 17 left him scrambling for par and then he laid back with 3-wood off the tee on 18, forcing a difficult decision: From 267 yards, should he pull 3-wood and go for the green? Or should he lay up, try to wedge it close and, if he made par, get into a playoff?
After the fact, the wise golf minds of the internet seemed unanimously incredulous that McIlroy went for it (and dumped it way short, at least 10 yards shy of clearing the water). I actually think his decision to go for it was reasonable, at least at the outset. If he clears the water, he’s very likely making birdie and leaving with the win. If he lays up, birdie is in play, but it’s far less likely — plus par means a three-man playoff and bogey is still in play, too, given McIlroy’s occasional misadventures with a wedge. Plus, McIlroy still had that same wedge shot to get up-and-down for par and force a playoff, so the back-door win was still available.
Instead, I’d say the mistake was in the execution as much as it was the decision to go for it. Perhaps there was mud on the ball that affected its flight. Perhaps he and caddie Harry Diamond misjudged the wind. Either way, you just can’t hit the high, slicey soft one there. He did, and it cost him the tournament.
Justin Thomas’ weekend
On Friday, we seemed destined for a Jon Rahm-Justin Thomas duel in the final round. But that never quite materialized. Yes, Rahm stayed in the hunt, but Thomas disappeared in a peculiar way, making seven bogeys against just three birdies in his final 27 holes to finish T20. It’s tough to pinpoint one issue in particular, because Thomas hit some loose tee shots in the third round while his short game seemed the main culprit on Saturday, losing three shots to the field around and on the greens. Thomas’ weekend isn’t cause for worry — he entered the week with five top-six finishes in his last seven starts — but it does feel like a missed opportunity.
I’m a big fan of Brooks Koepka’s new hair color and his general willingness to do something people will make fun of him for doing. But I think if you go hard on the bleach-blond hair you have to make the cut, right?!
Koepka went all Marshall Mathers before Wednesday’s opening round, but come Friday he shot 74 in his second round to miss the weekend by three. The good news for Koepka: He had plenty of company! Bryson DeChambeau, Jordan Spieth, Tony Finau, Rickie Fowler and Phil Mickelson were among the list of big names to miss the weekend.
NEWS FROM SEATTLE
Monday Finish HQ.
I escaped Seattle for San Diego for a couple days to gather interviews and sunshine. I returned to an important benchmark: The sun now sets after 5 p.m.! Every day we’re closer to the summer dreamland of dry ground and nonstop sunshine. Time to get the golf game in order to keep pace…
Three things to watch this week.
1. Xander Schauffele’s interview on the Drop Zone.
Xander Schauffele joined us to debut a segment called “Golf Advice” on this week’s podcast. It was very fun, even if it ended in a devastating roast…and you can watch it below! You can also watch on YouTube or listen on Spotify or Apple Podcasts.
2. Saudi International press conferences
If there are announcements coming from the proposed Saudi-funded rival tour, you’d think this would be the week to make them. Plus there’s the matter of the attending players and what they’ll say…
3. Golfers in flip-flops and snowboard boots
Fun stuff from our James Colgan, with some help from Danielle Kang and Joaquin Niemann:
We’ll see you next week!