Golf’s latest drama played out differently from an Irish pub | Monday Finish
Welcome back to the Monday Finish, where we’re on vacation — but couldn’t resist. Let’s get to it!
GALWAY, Ireland — It was just before 11 p.m. on Sunday night when a TV in the back room of the Front Door Pub flashed a graphic across the screen.
NEXT UP: MIZUHO AMERICAS OPEN, ROUND 4
One member of a group of four women in a corner booth stirred, catching a glimpse of the screen over the shoulder of a navy-shirted man standing mostly in the way. She gestured at the Stanford-hatted young woman whose photo had just appeared on the Sky Sports broadcast.
“There’s that girl,” she said, voice rising above the pub’s delightful din. “Rose.”
SUNDAY IN GALWAY was early-summer Irish perfection, the type of late-sunset June night where good weather and good times feel like they’ll last forever. It was the kind of night that makes you want to bring some friends down to a patch of grass by the banks of the River Corrib, toss your phone in the water and just be.
The professional golf day had begun with good news for local golf fans: Tom McKibbin, a 20-year-old rising star from Northern Ireland (which is a very different country than Ireland, though the two play their golf under the same umbrella), had earned his maiden DP World Tour victory at the 2023 Porsche European Open. Better yet, Rory McIlroy — who’s known McKibbin since he was 10 — held a share of the lead at the Memorial Tournament.
That was the event I’d spotted through the Front Door’s front window on the way home from dinner. I’d just arrived in West Ireland for a long-awaited family vacation and had every intention of skipping the final-round broadcast, but the sight of Sky Sports at a proper pub on a picturesque evening? It was the perfect excuse for a nightcap. Neither my wife nor my mom have long histories as golf fans but both had volunteered to join. In Ireland, American golf becomes primetime entertainment.
By the time we’d found our seats McIlroy was in the process of eliminating himself from contention with bogeys at 12 and 13; before we’d taken second sips he’d made another at No. 14. Most pub patrons were relatively oblivious to the goings-on but this latest imprecise wedge and dropped shot elicited a groan from an invested spectator, audible from the other room.
The list of contenders had suddenly shrunk to three. There was Scottie Scheffler, World No. 1, who’d somehow fired the round of the day by three shots — his 67 was the only score under 70 — despite losing a stroke and a half on the greens. He’d finished so early that he’d headed back to his rental house to pack his things while he rooted for carnage behind.
Carnage arrived. Denny McCarthy had made three birdies in his first seven holes and all pars since; his red-hot putter had built him a two-stroke lead. Viktor Hovland birdied the par-5 15th to get to six under par, tied with Scheffler’s clubhouse lead. But the rest of the contenders had fallen back, some remarkably so. Mark Hubbard had started the day one shot back and shot 79, falling to T30. Patrick Rodgers, Patrick Cantlay and Keegan Bradley had started the day two shots back; they each shot 78 to finish tied with Hubbard. Theirs weren’t close to the highest scores of the day, either: Danny Willett (81) Matt Kuchar (84), Sam Bennett (84) and Tom Hoge (85) all plummeted down the leaderboard in the finale.
It was hardly surprising why. McCarthy was particularly descriptive post-round, calling the greens on the back nine “an ice rink,” “baked out” and “purple and concrete.” And that was from the putting whiz who’d come the closest to mastering ’em!
“You’re tapping down marks and your putter slides,” he added.
If the greens were ice rinks, McCarthy had little issue controlling the puck. Par after par after par. He canned a 10-footer for par at No. 15. He found the bunker at No. 16 but splashed it to eight feet and made that. Good thing, too: Hovland had just birdied the 17th up ahead, the lone 3 on the hole all day. McCarthy found the middle of the fairway and the middle of the green at the treacherous 17th, too, setting up a two-putt par. But 16-17-18 were three of the day’s toughest four holes, averaging a collective shot-and-a-half over par — it was tough for anyone to escape wholly unscathed.
THERE WAS NO audible volume on the TV, but what played out next was a simple enough storyline I could tell piece together the symbolism on my own.
There was Hovland, a famously poor chipper, his ball just long of the 18th green, facing a touchy downhiller from the rough. He got it up and down, curling in a five-footer with trembling hands to stay within one.
And then there was McCarthy, minutes later, laying up from the rough so he could lean on his short game yet again. But a middling wedge shot left him with a 23-foot slider for the win and he did well just to make the next one, a five-footer coming back for bogey. One man was made whole by conquering his greatest weakness. The other was let down by his greatest strength. (Okay, really it was the tee shot, but you get the point.) The result was playoff time!
Galway is five hours ahead of Ohio, so we drew a line in the sand: we’d leave after one playoff hole. That put the pressure on Hovland and McCarthy to close things out stat. They obliged; McCarthy’s 12-footer for par looked like it was going in right until it didn’t, while Hovland’s seven-footer for par looked like it was going to miss right until it disappeared.
It was such a well-earned win that it was easy to feel satisfied for Hovland. Memorial was an impressive bounce-back after a runner-up finish at the PGA Championship and a Sunday fade from contention at the Charles Schwab Challenge. Plus, the W didn’t just validate the work he’d been doing on his chipping. It validated his entire resume.
“I feel like I’ve won a decent amount of tournaments for only being a pro for four years; however, they have been at low key places, resort courses, and abroad, so it feels really cool to get my first win on the U.S. soil,” he said post-round. We can debate the geography of his Puerto Rico Open victory another time, but his point was clear: this was a big one.
WE RETURNED OUR PINT GLASSES to the barman on the way out; a glacial pace of play at the Mizuho meant there were too many holes to safely recommend we wait it out. Last call would have beaten us to it.
Where were you when Rose Zhang won her first LPGA event? Back at our rental I tried YouTube TV, which I’d forgotten doesn’t work abroad. I tried our living room’s TV but the wifi was on the fritz. For me, Zhang’s arrival wouldn’t be televised; it would be bootleg-streamed via TravelPass data and eventually tracked frantically via social media.
A few limited impressions, from that point of view:
1. Closing out your first LPGA win without making a birdie isn’t exactly slamming the door, but it’s a testament to her grit. The Athletic‘s Brendan Quinn wrote a fantastic profile of Zhang that included this exchange:
“Then why do you always win?” one girl asked.
“I make fewer mistakes than they do,” she responded.
2. Zhang won the event with a 10-foot par putt at No. 17. That gave her the wiggle room to bogey 18 and still head to a playoff, where…
3. The approach shot she hit with her 4-hybrid was a glorious statement. It was everything but a walk-off. It was, in her words, “one of the best shots that I’ve ever hit.”
4. Zhang is clearly smart. Counterintuitively, she’s smart enough to keep things from getting too complex. That’s not to say she doesn’t get nervous — she’s said she does — but it does mean her approach is aspirationally simple.
“So, yeah, when I went out there [in the playoff] with Jennifer, all I was thinking about was try to hit fairway, try to hit green, try make putt. Very simple, but that’s ultimately all I was thinking about.”
5. Zhang shared a moment with tournament host Michelle Wie post-round. The two have plenty in common. Like Wie, Zhang has been promised as a global superstar, with external expectations set unfairly high at the outset of her pro career. Like Wie, Zhang will try to pull off a challenging combo by continuing to attend Stanford while playing professionally.
Wie served as an in-person reminder that none of this is guaranteed and none of it lasts forever. She’s been out of the game long enough that she’s ascended to elder stateswoman status, betraying the fact that she’s still just 33 years old, younger than McIlroy. That would provide some good perspective for Zhang except for the fact that Zhang already seems to understand exactly that.
“Going forward I understand that there are going to be a lot of bumps in the road, and I’m expecting a lot of obstacles,” she said. An immaculate debut result doesn’t guarantee an immaculate career; there’s no such thing. So it’s worth embracing the journey.
Zhang and Hovland didn’t seem overly eager to pop champagne nor get to the club; these two seem to have embraced the journey by doubling down on being themselves. This week Zhang will celebrate her win by taking finals, and she’ll move from her dorm to a new spot — her professional digs. Hovland celebrated his by caddying — yeah, caddying — for his buddy, former Oklahoma State teammate Zach Bauchou, in U.S. Open qualifying.
Life is good for these winners. It’s good for the almost-winners, too. Kupcho, who came up one shot short. McCarthy, who embraced the result not for what he’d lost but for what he’d learned. It’s early June. The days are long. The pubs are open. The golf is good.