In a season-opening edition we applaud a small-town event with a big-time field, contemplate Lefty’s future and question (again) a lack of transparency in the PGA Tour Player of the Year voting.
First of 48. For the sixth time in the last seven years, the Tour season kicks off in Napa Valley at the Silverado Resort, where an admittedly small-market event has taken on a major-market persona.
With a year-round population of around 80,000, and with a proximity to San Francisco that isn’t exactly convenient, this week’s Fortinet Championship has had many names and sponsors but the one that seems to stick with pride is season-opener.
Despite just a single week between the Tour Championship and the Napa event, the event’s strength of field of 216 compares favorably to last week’s BMW PGA Championship, the flagship event on the European Tour which drew a 248 strength of field.
The independent contractors will find plenty of reasons to take time off this fall after a grueling “super season,” but the season-opener has become an unlikely can’t-miss.
Brooks being Brooks. It hasn’t been a great few months for Brooks Koepka. His season has again been defined by injury after having to withdraw from the Tour Championship with an ailing wrist and his man-spat with Bryson DeChambeau has made “Brooksie” come across as a bully at times.
Where the iconoclast doesn’t need defending, however, is his recent thoughts on winning major championships. In a wide-ranging interview with Golf Digest, Koepka said he still has time to catch Tiger Woods’ mark of 15 major championships.
“I’m 31. I have another 14 years left. If I win one a year, I got Jack [Nicklaus with 18 majors],” Koepka said. “People misconstrue that as being cocky. No, that’s just my belief. If I don’t have that belief, I shouldn’t be out there. If you don’t think you can win, why the hell are you teeing it up?”
More to the point, if you’re a top-10 player and don’t believe you have the ability to do special things, why are you teeing it up? Don’t confuse arrogance for proven ability.
Made Cut-Did Not Finish (MDF)
Lefty’s legacy. For the first time since 1993 next week’s Ryder Cup will not include Phil Mickelson as a player. Instead, Lefty will transition to a new role as one of Steve Stricker’s vice captains. It’s a moment that seems strangely symbolic.
On one hand Mickelson’s victory at the PGA Championship in May appeared to re-energize a career that was clearly winding down, but that moment at Kiawah was fleeting. His best finish in his next eight starts was a tie for 17th at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational. In fact, his PGA victory was his only top-10 finish last season.
It was that inconsistency that’s driving Mickelson this off-season toward an uncertain future.
“I’m going to play this event and I’m going to have three months off, so it’s hard to say right now,” he said when asked his goals for the new season.
Maybe some time off is what Mickelson needs to rekindle that Kiawah spirit, or maybe it’s time to embrace a new chapter in a legendary career.
Player of the Year. Patrick Cantlay defeated Jon Rahm in Player of the Year polling to win the Jack Nicklaus Award in what many believe to be a close vote.
The debate over the polling outcome is compelling enough. Rahm had one win in the 2020-21 season (the U.S. Open in June) and was forced to withdraw from the Memorial with a six-stroke lead through 54 holes after testing positive for COVID-19. He also would have finished tied for lead after 72 holes with Kevin Na had the Tour used normal scoring, not strokes-based, at the Tour Championship. The rub here is that Cantlay won both the Memorial and the Tour Championship.
“Well, finishing runner-up doesn’t feel too good,” Rahm said. “I felt like I played good enough to be able to earn that title, but unfortunate situations like the one at Memorial cost me, right? Had I been able to play, maybe win it, I think it would have tipped the balance towards myself. Maybe even play in the Olympics, have a good showing and maybe even earn a medal could have tipped the balance as well.”
The criticism here is less about player priorities and voting habits than it is transparency. How many players voted? How close was the vote? How did this vote compare historically to other (perceived) close votes? We don’t know because the Tour won’t say, as if democracy is something to be hidden from public view.
There was plenty of pushback this week when Cantlay was announced the winner of the Jack Nicklaus Trophy, but that’s not the problem. The problem is a system shrouded in secrecy.
Home field advantage. It remains to be seen if Whistling Straits, site of next week’s Ryder Cup, can be set up to favor the home team the way recent venues have, but Stricker certainly had a plan.
When he announced his six captain’s picks last week Stricker observed multiple times how his players “fit the course to a T.” He even pointed out that Scottie Scheffler, a true rookie on the U.S. team, ranked seventh in birdie average last season. The message was clear: Whistling Straits is going to be a track meet.
A quick glance at the stats, however, point out a potential flaw in Stricker’s plan. Rahm, who is poised to lead the European team, finished tied for first last season on Tour in birdie average alongside Rory McIlroy, another key player for the Continent. They averaged 4 ½ birdies per round.
The U.S. captain might have gotten the players he wanted but it’s clear the European side will have plenty of their own firepower.