Harold Varner’s walk-off eagle putt at the Saudi International put a smiley face on week that left many picking the wind-blown sand out of their eyes. And we’re not talking about the on-course hazards.
The controversial tournament that is now under the banner of the Asian Tour figured to produce its share of fireworks, especially given how quiet things had been of late surrounding Greg Norman’s quest to put together a rival tour that would pay big guarantees and a shake up the stately order of professional golf as we have known it for the better part of six decades.
Varner helped, at least for a time, alleviate some of the sting from all the acrimony. The popular former East Carolina golfer has not won on the PGA Tour and had knocked on the door several times only to be shut out. That he went birdie-eagle on the last two holes — holing a 90-footer on the last — made for a dramatic win and first-ever spot among the top-50 ranked players in the world.
The fact that Bubba Watson, who had also eagled the 18th to take the lead, raced from the driving range to congratulate Varner beside the green, was a nice act of sportsmanship and cap to a crazy week.
To be sure, both Varner and Watson were at the tournament because they were being paid to be there. They were among nearly three dozen players who needed a release from their respective tours in order play the tournament in the first place. And those on the PGA Tour were eschewing the popular AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am in order to travel 11 time zones away to compete before sparse crowds under the banner of the Saudi government.
Phil Mickelson was among them, and he skipped a Pebble Beach venue where he had won five times in order to play the Saudi tournament. To be fair, he played it each of the previous two years as well, when he was skipping another popular venue, the WM Phoenix Open, where he also had success.
That’s why the irony was not lost on many observers when Mickelson last week called out the PGA Tour for its “obnoxious greed’’ in an interview with Golf Digest. Perhaps it is simply good business for Mickelson and the others to take advantage of the riches bestowed on them just to show up. It was a curious time to make such a claim.
And yet, Mickelson brought up a few frustrations that have led to the current situation. While he was off-base on his claim about “media rights’’ — no sports league gives away a players’ video highlights; it’s among the ways they are able to command rights fees and sponsorships — he said the proposed new ventures have provided “leverage.’’
Mickelson has long believed that the Tour does not take care of its stars. At times, he has railed against opposite events and the never-ending golf season. Extra tournaments mean more playing opportunities, a Tour mantra. Mickelson’s response: play better.
Those who perform will always be rewarded, he has reasoned. And he’s right. But it’s also a view that comes from one of the best players of all time, one who might not see the world of professional golf through the prism of those struggling to make it.
The LIV Golf Investments team was at the tournament all week, and the subject of Norman’s possible new venture could not be avoided. All manner of players, including Lee Westwood, Dustin Johnson and Mickelson were asked about it. Reports of big-money offers surfaced.
And make no mistake, the Public Investment Fund – the Saudi government’s sovereign wealth fund – is always bubbling beneath the surface. For many, the Saudi government’s track record on human rights will forever tarnish this endeavor.
Still, if it were Mark Cuban or Warren Buffett putting up the funds instead for such a rival league, it would still be disruptive. That’s why the past week provided so many headlines off the course.
And it could all seem like nothing compared to the possible next step: player commitments to the new league. That’s what has to come next, and if it and when it does, this story becomes all the more fascinating.
So about the Ryder Cup Captain
The biennial competition would seem to have nothing to do with the proposed new league, but of course it does. That’s because it is unclear if anyone who participates would then lose their eligibility to be part of the Ryder Cup. And that includes the captain.
The European side almost always names its next captain at the Abu Dhabi event in the year prior to the competition, some 18 months out. Padraig Harrington, in fact, was announced in January 2019 for what was supposed to be the 2020 event that was postponed to last year due to the pandemic.
The U.S. side has had various times it announces its next captain, but Steve Stricker was chosen in February of 2019.
The European announcement, especially, appears to be on hold. Lee Westwood, viewed as the easy front runner at the conclusion of the competition in September, took his name out of consideration because he wants to continue to compete and possibly make the team. But it’s also possibly he was aware of his impending foray into Norman’s rival league and how that might make things messy.
Sweden’s Henrik Stenson was next up, but he, too, is seemingly involved in the LIV Golf possibilities, thus muddying his candidacy. Luke Donald, a former No. 1 player in the world and a frequent assistant captain, has now become the favorite, although there has also been a push for Paul Lawrie. It is unclear when the announcement will come.
There has been little chatter on the U.S. side. Mickelson didn’t appear to be on board at this point, although he will be 52 next year and this is seemingly the perfect time for him. All seem to be waiting for him to take on the reins in 2025 at Bethpage. So what about Tiger Woods? Does it not make sense for him to have a home Ryder Cup? Is he waiting until 2029 when he’s well into his 50s?
The name that has come up the most is Zach Johnson, the two-time major champion who has been a frequent assistant in recent years. He seemed the best choice to captain this year’s U.S. Presidents Cup team, but when Davis Love III was the surprise choice for Charlotte, it seemed to suggest that Johnson had been determined to be the Ryder Cup captain. It’s possible the PGA of America makes that call by the end of the month.
Tom Hoge chews up Spieth
Jordan Spieth had to wonder what happened. He had a two-stroke lead walking off the 14th green and then walked off the 17th trailing by one. And he didn’t do much wrong. He narrowly had missed a birdie putt at the 14th. He hit what he called his best shot of the week, an 8-iron at the 17th, that barely came up short in a bunker. But it led to a bogey — Spieth failed to get up and down from five bunkers for the week.
And Tom Hoge capitalized. Birdies at the 14th and 16th holes meant a tie. Spieth’s bogey at the 17th meant a one-shot lead. And then Hoge rolled in another putt to birdie the 17th and take a two-shot lead to the iconic 18th hole.
“I’m almost in shock,’” Hoge said afterward. “It’s been so long since I won anything I didn’t know how to celebrate. It was a weird day because I thought I made too many mistakes early. But I looked up on the back nine and was still in it and then made a few putts.’”
The win was the first for Hoge on the PGA Tour and his first anywhere since a 2011 win on the Canadian Tour. The victory gives him an invitation to his first Masters.
Fore! Things I Need to Mention
1. For all the talk about players being independent contractors and having a right to play whenever they want— Norman has long advocated for that – there is an irony involved: However many events the rival league decides to play — the working number is 14 – those who join will be required to play in all of them
2. Dustin Johnson has now gone a full year since his last worldwide victory when he captured the Saudi International in 2021. At the time of that victory, he had won three times in 10 worldwide starts, including the fall 2020 Masters for his second major title. Seven of the finishes were in the top 10 with his worst a tie for 12th. Since then, Johnson — now fifth in the world after being No. 1 — has made 20 worldwide starts, with no wins, seven top 10s and a best finish of sixth?!
3. This week’s Waste Management Phoenix Open marks the three-year anniversary of Rickie Fowler’s last victory. He was eighth in the world following that victory and a few weeks later tied for second at the Honda Classic. After some promising signs toward the end of 2021, Fowler has missed consecutive cuts in 2022 and is now 108th in the world.
4. Mickelson’s tie for 18th at the Saudi International was just his third top-20 finish going back to the start of 2021. The others were the tie for 17th at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude last August; and his PGA Championship win.
The plight of Bryson
It is fair to wonder if Bryson DeChambeau’s obsession with bulking up and hitting it longer over the past two-plus years has led to some injury problems. Such were the fears when he embarked on the program, and in recent weeks there have been some issues which only have intensified the debate.
DeChambeau withdrew from the Sony Open with a wrist injury. He appeared to be favoring his back and his arm or wrist on the way to a missed cut at the Farmers Insurance Open. Then he withdrew from the Saudi International with what was reported as a left hand and left hip injury.
Given the back woes of Tiger Woods and Jason Day over the years, someone purposely putting on weight and getting bigger in the gym was naturally going to lead to such conjecture.
DeChambeau sought to ratchet down the talk on Instagram (above).
“Everyone needs to chill,’’ he wrote. “Yes I hurt myself but not from hitting it far. I slipped and fell this week on Tuesday unfortunately. I know people probably won’t believe me but that is the truth. I will be back stronger and better than ever in a few weeks. . . Thank you for your concerns and keep hitting bombs!! I will be back…’’
Where might we season Bryson next? At the Genesis Invitational next week, perhaps. He is scheduled to defend his Arnold Palmer Invitational title in three weeks.
Why Xander is ‘fishing’ and there’s no water involved
Xander Schauffele said he has a difficult time getting ahold of the Olympic Gold Medal he won at last year’s Olympic Games because his family is so enamored of the prize they never let him have it.
He was joking, somewhat.
The eighth-ranked player in the world tied for seventh at last year’s U.S. Open. He tied for third playing in the final group with eventual winner Hideki Matsuyama at the Masters.
And it remains somewhat mystifying that his only victory now going back more than three years is his win in Japan. Schauffele’s last official victory came at the 2019 Sentry Tournament of Champions. During the period since, Tiger Woods won the Masters, the Zozo Championship and has been sidelined for more than a year due to his Feb. 23, 2021 car crash.
What’s the deal?
“Fishing, just like every other golfer,’’ said Schauffele, who was not referring to the pastoral pastime on the water.
“I’ve just been trying to get better at things, and it’s sort of led my game to be a little worse in certain areas. As soon as you try and make your weaknesses your strengths, your strengths become weaknesses. It’s funny how the game works, and I’m just trying to get back to how I play.’’
This is a lesson learned by many great players over time. Sometimes a little perspective is in order.
“I’ve tried to clean up some wedge work, and I’ve just slowly learned that the best wedge player in the world will never be the best driver for certain reasons,’’ said Schauffele, who tied for 18th at the Saudi tournament. “I think it’s a bonus that I understand those things now. It’s just tricky to try and do it all, I guess.
“I’ve got to realize that what I had was good enough before, and if I can kind of sort of slowly get better at it. .. I tried to do a hard set on trying to be a better wedge player and it sort of leaked into my driving game and my long iron ability. I’m still young and trying to figure it out slowly.’’
The good news for Schauffele: he made this discovery while remaining a top-10 player in the world.
The Masters countdown
The Masters is 59 days away and 89 players have qualified for the tournament, which begins April 7. The most recent are Hudson Swafford, who won the American Express Championship; Luke List, who won the Farmers Insurance Open; Tom Hoge, Sunday’s winner at Pebble Beach; and amateur Aaron Jarvis, who won the Latin America Amateur Championship.
That number includes past champion Tiger Woods, whose status for the tournament seems unlikely.
There are eight more PGA Tour events through the Valero Texas Open that provide an opportunity to get in with a win. There are also the top 50 in the Official World Ranking as of March 28 who will receive invitations if not otherwise in the field.
The social posts that mattered
From Collin Morikawa, who turned 25 on Sunday:
Bubba Watson after finishing second to Harold Varner at the Saudi International:
Brooks Koepka, responding to Phil Mickelson’s comments about the PGA Tour and its obnoxious greed.
Bryson DeChambeau, responding to a (London) Daily Mail report that he has been offered more than $100-million to play the tour being run by Greg Norman:
Some notables to watch this week in Phoenix
A strong field is set to take part in the WM Phoenix Open, where six of the top 10, 14 of the top 20 and 25 of the top 50 in the world are entered.
Jon Rahm, Patrick Cantlay, Justin Thomas, Viktor Hovland, Hideki Matsuyama and defending champion Brooks Koepka are among the players who will be at TPC Scottsdale.
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