Monday Finish: Jordan Spieth lessons, the ‘other’ Brooks Koepka and Tiger’s Super Bowl
Welcome to the Monday Finish! This is where we’ll tally the scores for the week that was and tee you up for the week to come.
FIRST OFF THE TEE
Something you might have missed.
Every PGA Tour pro dreams of qualifying for the Masters. But far fewer have a personal connection to the place like Matt NeSmith.
NeSmith grew up just 15 minutes from Augusta National, and his father worked as a caddie at the club on weekends. That meant bringing home a little extra money for his family — but it also meant getting special access to the biggest tournament in golf.
“I went every year probably from the time I was 6 to probably 19 or so,” NeSmith said at this week’s Waste Management Phoenix Open. “I mean, it’s my favorite event of all time.”
If you’re getting invited to PGA Tour press conferences, that’s generally a sign that you’re playing well. And if you’re getting asked about qualifying for the Masters, well, that’s an even better sign. NeSmith opened the Waste Management with an eight-under 63 to share the first-round lead. That’s when the Augusta questions started. He took them willingly but recognized that they were premature, too.
“Yeah, it’s a goal. But you’ve got to let things take care of themselves. You’ve got to play tomorrow’s round, play Saturday and Sunday and you’ve got to keep doing the things that I’ve been doing that I did well today,” he said.
NeSmith plays out of Palmetto Golf Club in Aiken, S.C. with Tour mentors Scott Brown and Kevin Kisner, each experts in the flatline mentality that you need for a sustained career on golf’s biggest stage. They’ve rubbed off on NeSmith. After he came back to earth with a second-round 71, he hung in with a Saturday 68 and then played his final six holes in four under on Sunday to post 66 and finish T7. On a day when some of the biggest names in golf — Jordan Spieth, Brooks Koepka and Xander Schauffele, among others — stole the headlines, NeSmith quietly posted his best result as a PGA Tour player. The quickest way to get invited to Augusta National is by winning an event. But the best way to keep getting invited is by contending, over and over.
NeSmith actually has played Augusta once before, catching an invitation from family friend Fleming Norvell in March of 2017. It was surreal.
“I was so nervous just standing on the first tee there with nothing going on. I had watched that place for so long when I was a kid, and I knew every hole and all the shots and I just watched all the time. It was really cool.”
He didn’t play very well. It didn’t much matter. He’s hoping his next round there will have more consequence attached. In the meantime NeSmith will plod on hoping, tournament by tournament, that he’ll get closer to being invited back to that place his dad used to work at.
Who won what?
Brooks Koepka’s week in Phoenix reminded us that when this guy gets his eye on a trophy, it’s tough as hell to get in his way. But his post-win comments reminded us of something else, too: There are really two different Brookses. First there’s curmudgeonly Koepka. He’s the guy who insists that everything is fine when it clearly isn’t and downplays how much he practices — and even how much he cares about golf. He’s the same guy who can be snippy with the media and occasionally logs on to Twitter to snipe one-liners at trolling followers.
But then, in moments of vulnerability, Koepka shows us a different side. That’s the Koepka who admitted during an injury layoff in 2018 that he was sad at how easily golf continued on without him. It’s the Koepka who told Golfweek last year that he didn’t really have any friends on Tour. And it’s the Koepka who opened up after his win just how hard he’d been working and just how much this meant to him.
“There was a period maybe for about two months where I just questioned whether I was ever going to be the same,” Koepka said post-win. “Whether I was even going to be somewhat remotely the same golfer that I ever was.”
He spoke of the pain he’d been in while trying to play through injury last summer. He described tearful moments during his recovery. He explained how hard he’d been working to get back. Pain, emotion, effort — this was Koepka taking down his shields. It’s telling that he did so when his game finally looked strong again.
Meanwhile, Dustin Johnson took down a strong European Tour field in Saudi Arabia, adding a $583,330 first-place to what was no doubt a very lucrative trip to the Middle East. In winning his second Saudi title in three years, Johnson widened the chasm between him and World No. 2 Jon Rahm. At the moment, there’s no doubt about it: Dustin Johnson is the best golfer in the world.
Who came up short?
This week, golf’s also-rans were just as intriguing as its champions. In Phoenix, the week appeared to be shaping up for a final-round showdown between Jordan Spieth and Xander Schauffele, each of whom desperately wanted a victory. But they stumbled out of the gates — each was two over through seven holes — and several water balls down the stretch sealed their fate. Their reactions were telling:
“I was debating not even playing this week and dropping out on Friday afternoon last week,” Spieth said. “So I just wanted to potentially go home, and felt like I was really far from where I needed to be and this golf course in general isn’t a great golf course for me historically, so I thought I could then go in to Pebble a little fresher.
“Boy, I’m glad I came.”
Schauffele, who now has eight runner-up finishes since his last win, was optimistic about his form — but undeniably frustrated with his finish.
“You know, it is what it is,” Schauffele said. “Just going to try and lick my wounds. I think Brooks is a great example for me. He hasn’t been in great form, missed few cuts, and comes out and wins. So there is something to that, something to his recipe, and he’s definitely figured it out.”
There was plenty of intrigue down the leaderboard, too. It feels like a fever dream now, but James Hahn held a three-stroke lead at one point on Sunday before fading with four bogeys in his final eight holes. Steve Stricker — 53-year-old Ryder Cup captain Steve Stricker! — hung in for a T4 finish. And if Koepka’s incredible pitch had just lipped out, K.H. Lee would have found himself in a playoff.
By the shores of the Red Sea, Tony Finau posted yet another runner-up finish of his own, with two late bogeys dooming his chances at the win. I can’t help but think that both he and Schauffele would actually derive more praise from the general public if they were racking up T6s instead of all these second-place close calls. In golf, raising fans’ expectations is a dangerous game.
Who wore what?
It’s now been a few weeks since Ralph Lauren‘s public split with Justin Thomas. So what’s he going to wear next? He shed some light on his current sartorial thought process in Phoenix.
“If you’ve got any extra shirts, send them my way because I currently can wear whatever I want,” Thomas told reporters with a smile. “But it’s been enjoyable to try different clothing products and really just wear what I’m most comfortable in. If I go to the mall and I see something I like, I see a shirt I like, I go home and I just get it embroidered with the Citi logo on the sleeve. It’s definitely a bizarre and odd time and my closet is as empty as it’s ever been, but at the same time it feels right because it’s a fresh start, and hopefully will be like that.”
Meanwhile, in Florida, one forty-something arrived at the Super Bowl dressed for a workout.
Tiger Woods‘ Tampa Bay look showed me three things:
1. He has fully committed to the backwards hat being his look. For several years, he’s made this his thing while he’s walking into tournament rounds (see below), but it’s clearly an off-the-field vibe now, too.
2. He’s leaning into tennis-player style. This is just a theory, but I think his whole vibe — the backwards hat, the athletic windbreaker hoodie, the gym shorts and sneaks — all lends itself to a Rafael Nadal vibe. We know Woods is a tennis fan, we know he’s into blade collars and we know he was a large part of the movement that shifted golf-shoe style closer to the tennis world. Tough to blame him. Tennis players generally look super cool.
3. He’s really into the gaiter-as-facemask look. When he first returned I wrote about how SA Fishing was shocked to see Woods rocking their facemask; it’s clear he’s turned the mandatory face covering into a fashion accessory.
The 15-time major champ caught some heat on social media for showing up to the suite so dressed down. But he’s Tiger Woods — he can dress any way he damn well pleases.
Finally, Rory McIlroy debuted a new logo on his bag, switching from repping GolfPass to Peacock, NBC’s new streaming service. As I understand it, GolfPass will be a channel on Peacock, and McIlroy will continue to be a content partner with NBC. Logo looks clean, though.
WHAT WE’RE WATCHING
Jordan Spieth on No. 17 at TPC Scottsdale. On Thursday, he made one of the most outrageous pars you’ll ever see, snap-hooking his tee shot left of the left hazard and hacking one out of a cactus that served as reminder of why we love the Spieth Show:
And on Saturday Spieth made his 10th birdie of the day and appeared to dedicate the made putt to a man dressed as Borat:
Welcome back, Jordan. It’s good to have you.
WHAT WE’RE HEARING
Some good news!
The Symetra Tour announced its purses are going way up this year, jumping to an average of $190,000 per event. Golf’s minor leagues aren’t built to make people rich, but if the women’s game can facilitate more dreamers giving it their all while providing a bit more financial stability for those on the rise, well, that’s fantastic news.
I especially love the Tour’s commitment to stops in mid-sized Midwestern cities. It’s easy for any golf tournament to get swallowed up by a giant city, but it makes sense that the Symetra Tour would thrive in communities that will rally around their being in town.
See it to believe it.
I’ve never seen a scorecard like Patrick Reed dropped in Saudi Arabia. No bogeys and no birdies — but one eagle and one double-bogey?! It’s unsettling.
But feel free to try.
What’s the conversion rate from Dustin Johnson’s 15-under Saudi Arabian winning total to what he would have hypothetically shot at TPC Scottsdale? Would Spieth rather have shot 66-67 on the weekend than 61-72? And are pros happy or sad that there are no amateurs at Pebble Beach this week?
NEWS FROM SEATTLE
Monday Finish HQ.
The par-28 slice of perfection just a short drive from my apartment, Interbay Golf Center, may have the greatest hot dogs in the world. For better or worse I’ve developed a Pavlovian reaction to playing golf there — the moment I pull into the parking lot I start craving that sweet, salty goodness. And only $4! Aspirational.
Three things to check out this week.
1. How does Spieth respond? This week was a blast. But if Spieth is really going to be back, it won’t just be one wild week at a time. Can he sustain the top-shelf ball-striking that got him into the 54-hole lead in Phoenix?
2. How does Pebble Beach look without amateurs? We love coming back to the Monterey Peninsula, but finding the right balance of fun celebrity moments and serious competitive golf is always a challenge for the tournament coverage. Will we enjoy more creative golf coverage this week?
3. How does the king look? Dustin Johnson is playing his first full-field PGA Tour event since winning the Masters in November, and he’s doing so at one of the most iconic sites in all of golf. And even though Johnson currently has nothing to prove to the world, the cool thing about being World No. 1 is that you’re always expected to prove it, week after week.
The Monday Finish will keep proving something to the world, too. See you next week!