Tiger’s Masters warm-up, Koepka’s admission, Rory’s round with Brady | Monday Finish
Welcome back to the Monday Finish, where we’re headed to Augusta National to stockpile Masters gnomes for resale on eBay — and maybe cover some golf in the process. Let’s get to it!
FIRST OFF THE TEE
Tom and Rory.
We knew that Rory McIlroy had spent some time at Augusta National the week after a disappointing week at the Players Championship. What he failed to disclose was the high-wattage group he was a part of. Luckily McIlroy’s good friend Shane Lowry was there at the same time and let it slip as part of a terrific interview with The Independent’s Paul Kimmage: McIlroy was there with his father Gerry, golf’s best-connected man (and Augusta National member) Jimmy Dunne and newly retired NFL quarterback Tom Brady.
This is hardly the first time Brady and McIlroy have teed it up at Augusta; they’ve played together regularly since a first rendezvous in 2015. Brady revealed during last year’s all-QB Match that he and his father have a standing trip to Augusta with Rory and Gerry plus Jimmy Dunne and his sons Seamus and CJ.
“We’ve had a great friendship over a long period of time. Rory and his dad Gerry are great people, we love our time together with them,” Brady said following that trip, which also included a stop at Ohoopee Match Club, where McIlroy is a member.
As for Lowry? He was part of the crew, too, alongside his father Brendan, his brother Alan and powerful corporate attorney — and Augusta National member — Ed Herlihy.
“We all played and had dinner together,” he said. “It was an amazing trip. My dad hasn’t stopped talking about it.”
Lowry’s group played as a foursome Monday morning before he and Alan joined Brady and McIlroy for an additional afternoon 18. How’d that go?
“My brother is a big NFL fan and he was starstruck. It was pretty cool. It’s not every day you get to hang out with one of the greatest sports people of all time.”
Who took the money?
(The whole Lowry interview is worth your time here.)
There’s plenty for any committed competitor to learn from Brady. But for McIlroy, there’s something beyond that, too: a career blueprint. Brady won the Super Bowl in the 2001 season, his first year as a starter. He won two more Super Bowls in the next three seasons. He had plenty more chances in the years that followed — as a New Englander I still shudder thinking about nightmare near-misses in the 2007 and 2011 seasons — but endured a decade-long drought, even though he’d become a better quarterback. But then, at last, he broke back through in the 2014 season, kicking off a second act of his career that yielded four more Super Bowls.
McIlroy has the first part down, of course. One major in 2011. Another in 2012. Two more in 2014. And none since. Brady is evidence that droughts can be broken. There’s still plenty of time to build a second act. Maybe this week will be the week McIlroy does exactly that.
Who won the week?
Corey Conners won the Valero Texas Open. It’s his second win on the PGA Tour — and the other one came at the Valero Texas Open, too, in 2019. Conners began the day one shot back and steered it home like a seasoned closer, shooting a bogey-free four-under 68 to win by one. He was reflective post-round:
“I mean, just getting to the PGA Tour was beyond my wildest dreams and getting that first win here four years ago was really, really special. It’s amazing to have my second.”
The good news continues for Conners, who is one of the Tour’s best ball-strikers: he’s coming in red-hot to Augusta National, where he’s finished inside the top 10 in two consecutive starts.
Ruoning Yin won the LA Open at Palos Verdes Golf Club, bouncing back after three consecutive bogeys on the front nine to shoot 1-under 70 and eke out a one-stroke win. The 20-year-old’s victory was the second in LPGA history for a Chinese player after Shanshan Feng‘s 2012 victory at the Women’s PGA Championship.
“I mean, I can be the second Chinese player [after Feng], that means a lot,” she said. “I think maybe I can push more little Chinese kids to play golf and push more people to focus on China golf, which is good.”
Brooks Koepka won LIV’s Orlando event. The timing and scoring of the event’s conclusion reinforced the weirdness of the current professional golf landscape; the PGA Tour and LIV events finished within a few minutes of each other, with Koepka — like Conners — wrapping up a one-shot win at 15 under par.
It’s no secret that Koepka has been battling injury. Doubts about his health breed doubts about his game. Winning disrupts that cycle, particularly given it’s Koepka’s second LIV win in his last six starts, particularly given it’s the week before the Masters.
“I like where I’m at. I feel great,” said Koepka, projecting some percentage of his old swagger. “I’ve got no doubt in my mind that I can do it again, and I think this just solidifies it, so there’s even more confidence there.”
Koepka’s most revealing post-round remark was just how excited he’ll be to compete in a tournament as competitive as the Masters. Earlier in the week he’d shot down rumors about regretting his decision to join LIV, but there’s no question he’s eager for a showdown.
“It’ll be great just to see all the good players back in one field again, right? It’s the first time we’ve seen it in a long time. That’ll be exciting,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it, just to see everybody and compete against them, because at the end of the day, I’ll be honest, I do miss playing against Rory, I do miss playing against Scottie, and I’m sure they miss playing against us, as well. That’s a fact; you always want to play against the best. That’s going to make Augusta even more special.”
He also echoed commissioner Greg Norman‘s comments to the Telegraph that, should a LIV pro win, each of the 18 LIV players in the field will be at the 18th green to cheer them on.
“I think if one of the LIV players does win, I think it’ll be definitely a huge statement for LIV,” Koepka said. “All 18 of us want to win. I think if one of the guys does, I would be shocked if all of us aren’t there.”
Temporary winners, you might say.
Nicolai Hojgaard and Ryan Gerard each did enough at the Valero to earn Special Temporary Membership on the PGA Tour.
Gerard, 23, jump-started his Tour season when he Monday-qualified for the Honda Classic, where he went on to finish T4. He didn’t earn nearly as many points this week, but he didn’t need to: his T56 was good enough to get him over the line.
“Did I think I was a good enough player to play out here? Absolutely. I mean, you’ve got to have the confidence that you can go out there and perform,” he said after receiving the good news. “But I would have never imagined that standing there on Tuesday grinding in the third hole of a playoff of a Monday qualifier [at the Honda] that I’d be on the PGA Tour playing five, six weeks later. So that is really, really special and a bit unexpected. We’ll take it.”
Gerard plans to take full advantage of his status, which grants him solid conditional status and will allow him to accept as many sponsor exemptions as he can get. That option will now be available to Højgaard, too, after he finished second in the Dominican Republic last week and T28 in San Antonio. The Danish 22-year-old has been a loyal DP World Tour player and has his sights set on this fall’s Ryder Cup team, complicating his schedule composition. But the PGA Tour has a higher profile, higher purses, higher field strength. There’s no question it’s appealing.
“We definitely have to, when I get home, try and figure out what we’re going to do from now,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity and I think we’ll definitely chase it over here going forward. It’s been two good weeks and looking forward to the rest of the season.”
Sam Stevens is a PGA Tour rookie and nearly became a PGA Tour winner, too, when he made his second eagle of the day at the drivable 17th. (He also missed a five-foot eagle putt at No. 14.) Georgia Hall finished runner up on the LPGA Tour for the second consecutive week, missing a six-footer at No. 18 that would have forced a playoff. And Sebastian Munoz — who shot 60 twice on the PGA Tour last season — flexed his ability to go crazy low with a 62 in Orlando, marking LIV’s lowest round ever.
Patrick Rodgers entered Sunday’s final round with a one-shot lead over Conners. It was his fourth 54-hole lead on Tour and Rodgers has logged six podium finishes — but the much-heralded Stanford grad is still chasing his first victory. That chase is ongoing after a final-round 73 left him in fifth.
“Honestly, hats off to Corey,” Rodgers said. “He was clearly quite a bit better than I was today, but definitely something I’ll learn from and bounce back stronger.”
Tiger and friends.
I’m finishing this from the D Terminal at the Atlanta airport, where I’m about to catch a flight to Augusta. (Tony Finau’s dad is sitting across from me and another chatty Delta customer just asked him, after some deliberation, if he was Tony Finau. “I wish,” Kelepi Finau responded with a smile.”) But several pros beat me to the National, including Tommy Fleetwood (and his hair), Sungjae Im (and his smile) and Jordan Spieth (and his green jacket), each among the cadre of pros patrolling the course during the chaos of Sunday’s Drive, Chip and Putt.
Tiger Woods was there, too, performing his customary pre-week ritual of a driving range session followed by nine twilight holes with a wedge and a putter. There’s something appealing in the minimalism of Woods and caddie Joe LaCava circling the front nine by themselves on a quiet Sunday night. The approach worked in 2019.
How’d Woods look? Based on one local news video, his swing looks good. Based on a series of Getty Images in which he’s testing the limits of a black Nike shirt, he’s found some time to get to the gym, too. (Woods has the fashion preferences, the clout and the biceps to take the sleeves off his green jacket, an exciting prospect just two days out from the Champions Dinner.) The question mark, this week and forever into the future, will be how well he can walk. We’ll know a little more about his swing and his form each day. None of it will matter, of course, until they start counting strokes on Thursday.
Monday morning update: Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Fred Couples and Tom Kim teed off the back nine. Kim’s Masters debut is off to a memorable start…
3 things to watch this week.
1. Rory McIlroy’s first round.
His final-round 64 catapulted him into second place, but Rory McIlroy’s first-round 73 at the 2022 Masters made the rest of the week an uphill battle. Thursday at Augusta National seems like a particularly strange and tough test, especially for someone who covets the green jacket as much as McIlroy. He’s been one guy on Thursday and another guy the rest of the week. Time to see if that second pro can show up one day earlier this year.
2. Scottie Scheffler.
He’s the best golfer in the world. He just won the Players Championship. He won in Phoenix. He could have won in Austin, too. Oh, right, and he’s the defending champ. Scottie Scheffler will fly under the radar this year, again, because of Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy and LIV vs. the PGA Tour and just because that’s how he rolls. But don’t lose track of the World No. 1 or he’ll be slipping the jacket on himself by week’s end.
3. Golf’s Great War.
I don’t expect much conflict between LIV players and PGA Tour pros. Not between the actual players, at least. But there will be plenty from the sidelines regardless. Koepka vs. Scheffler down the stretch? McIlroy vs. Cam Smith, again? Rahm vs. Dustin Johnson? It seems likely we’ll have a mix of Tour pros and LIV guys somewhere in the mix. Every one of ’em will be well aware of the stakes. So yeah, we won’t see punches thrown. We should get chaos anyway.
See you all week, from Augusta!