Welcome back to the Monday Finish, where our New Year’s Resolutions include 1. A trip to Hawaii and 2. Surf lessons. Let’s get to the week that was!
FIRST OFF THE TEE
At the Tournament of Champions, there are plenty of reasons to expect golfers to be slightly off their games.
They’re putting new clubs in the bag, clubs they’ve never used before in competition.
They’re coming off the only actual “offseason” that actually exists in the Tour schedule. Some have gone weeks without playing before ramping back up for January.
Many travel early to Maui to enjoy some vacation and family time. They spend hours by the pool. It’s not necessarily the season to grind on the range.
But on the PGA Tour it’s extremely difficult to keep track of what, like, matters. Viktor Hovland’s driver breaks? He jumps out to the first-round lead. Jon Rahm was burnt out this fall and took a bunch of time away? No worries. He shoots 33 under. It’s impossible to make perfect sense of any of it; that’s the beauty and the confusion that comes with following professional golf. But this week served as a reminder of one thing in particular: These guys are really, really good.
Show ’em, Sergio!
BEST THING I SAW THIS WEEK
Money and courses.
The USGA’s U.S. Women’s Open rollout dominated the golf space on Friday, and with good reason: The biggest championship in the women’s game is doubling its purse and taking the show to some of the game’s most storied venues over the next decade-plus. The money is hugely important, though as a viewer the courses are more obviously exciting: The USWO lineup features public bucket-list courses (Pebble Beach, Erin Hills, Pinehurst) storied country clubs (Riviera, Oakmont, Merion) and a bunch more underexposed classics like Pine Needles, Lancaster and Oakland Hills.
The USGA deserves significant praise for making this happen. But it’s also exactly what they should be doing, and it’s what we should expect from golf’s governing body.
Whenever we start comparing purses or opportunities in the women’s game versus the men’s, the debate quickly shifts to TV ratings and sponsor revenue. The men’s game has historically been a bigger business than the women’s game, and the money surrounding their championships reflects that. But the USGA should be approaching things differently than a large business; their ROI is subject to a different calculus. It’s their job to tip the scales. They are a nonprofit whose stated central goals include the following:
-Inspire through championships
-Expand participation and advocacy
And their website features this message:
“Make golf more welcoming through opportunities for men and women, juniors and seniors, and for all who want to play the game.”
In other words, whatever investment they’re making here is well worth it.
Now, of course, comes the real work. It’s remarkably easy to cheerlead big-time announcements. But the point of the announcement is the trickle-down. The plans are significant and the courses are significant and the money is significant if it means more people watch at home and on TV, more people engage with the women’s game and, in the process, girls watching feel welcomed and inspired by a game that has not always been welcoming and inspiring. I’m invigorated by this step.
Who won the week?
Cameron Smith’s Golf Game
Cameron Smith kicked the door in on the 2022 golf season like some sort of mulleted, renegade one-man SWAT Team. Thirty-one birdies. Three eagles. A new PGA Tour scoring record. First in strokes gained off the tee. First in strokes gained putting. He held off the World No. 1 and just kept pouring on the birdies. Massive respect.
Cameron Smith’s Aussie Charm
Smith’s contentment endeared himself to plenty of fans when he expressed a general disinterest in the $15 million FedEx Cup prize. He won more over with his majestic mullet and wispy blonde mustache. He seems to be retaining fans, though, with his genuine enjoyment of competitive golf. Don’t expect that to change now that he’s inside the World Top 10.
“I feel like there’s no real reason to change my personality,” he said post-win. “I think my dad would whip me, to be honest, if I did.”
And surfers. And basically everything about the visuals of Kapalua. The reason we like the Tournament of Champions is because while we’re enduring a holiday hangover, chowing down on leftover Christmas cookies and returning to work in cold, dark climates, we can escape to the world of Rolfing, Ritz-Carlton and Rip Curl.
Bryson DeChambeau wore a normal baseball-cap-style hat all week. People seemed to dig that.
Terrific debut for the Tour’s new streaming product. The picture is clear, the stream is easy to access, it’s cheaper and sleeker than it was on the original PGA Tour Live and this was just a “soft launch” before the real thing joins the Tour on the mainland. We’ll grade harder in the future (some users complained of early commercial load) but for now, this is a giant step in the right direction.
Moral victories all around.
Jon Rahm’s Ridiculous Birdie Count
Plenty of good news this week: Jon Rahm tied the PGA Tour record for most birdies (32!) in a single tournament, he increased his hold on World No. 1 and he beat 36 of the 37 other golfers in the field. The only bad news was that he still didn’t win. Rahm’s strange not-winning has become something of a pattern. He was arguably the best player at the Ryder Cup but his team got blown out. He shot the lowest score at the Tour Championship but didn’t win due to the staggered starting scores. He tested positive with a six-shot lead at the Memorial. Etc. But hey, there was that little U.S. Open win tucked in there. Rahm seems to still be something of a winner.
Slopes and Props
The broadcast did an innovative job working in different angles and using props to demonstrate the massive slopes around Kapalua. Notah Begay III and John Wood got plenty of exercise and were terrific demonstrating the nuances of sideslopes, downslopes and bad places to miss. The only thing that keeps this from the “Winners” category is the fact that the golfers didn’t seem to find these difficult shots particularly difficult. Still, let’s see more of it!
Not their week.
Obliterated. Eviscerated. Teeth kicked in. If you’re someone who enjoys protecting par, this was not the week for you. The average score for the week was nearly five under par — per round. The toughest hole was the par-4 17th, which played to an average of 4.06 for the week. The easiest hold was the par-5 5th, which played to an average of 4.1. Fifteen of 18 holes played under par. 36 of 38 players finished 10 under or better for the week. There are basically endless ways to say that this was the most ridiculous scoring tournament we’ve ever seen on Tour.
The fairways are massive at Kapalua. They’re wide, sloping monsters that will eagerly receive a well-struck golf ball. But if you miss those fairways, you’re suddenly in deep trouble. Take DeChambeau, who is presently the world’s most famous driver. He hit it plenty far, leading the field in all measures of driving distance. But he finished last in driving accuracy, finding just 31 of 60 fairways and ultimately finishing a surprising 33rd in the field in strokes gained off the tee. (Most of this damage was done in the third round, where he lost nearly four strokes to the fairway-splitting field.) Bad news for us, too: We won’t see DeChambeau take on Waialae, a radically different Hawaiian test, after he pulled out Monday with wrist soreness.
ONE DUMB SEGMENT
Hopefully it’s only one? Let’s talk NFL ties.
Like much of the sporting world I was wholly enthralled with the insane conclusion to the NFL season, in which the Raiders and Chargers put complex game theory into real-life action and nearly emerged with a fantastically chaotic tie. I started to tweet a thread about the golf equivalent of this incredibly bizarre scenario, but it got long and strange, to the point where Max Homa responded “Wtf is this?” which felt justified. Instead I figured I’d start from scratch in this space. So here’s the hypothetical:
It’s August 2023. The U.S. Ryder Cup team is down to its last week of qualifying — and this year they’ve decided there are no captain’s picks. Ten players are already locked, but the final two spots are up for grabs based off final-week points.
Early on Sunday, Jason Kokrak (our Pittsburgh Steelers) wins the Saudi National, a new event in King Abdullah Economic City. With the victory he appears to have locked up the final spot in the rankings, pending the end of the weekend’s PGA Tour event.
Now all that’s left is the final spot, and it’s down to Webb Simpson (our Derek Carr/Oakland Raiders) and Homa (our Justin Herbert/Los Angeles Chargers). They’re way out in front of the field at TPC Southwind, some five shots clear in what the announcers have referred to as “essentially a match-play situation.”
But there’s an important rules note: Last offseason, the Tour decided that due to broadcast challenges, tournaments would end immediately after three playoff holes. If two players tied for the win, each would finish T1, splitting first and second prize money and points. (They named it the Kramer Hickok-Harris English-Please-God-Somebody-Make-A-Putt Rule.)
As the final round gets underway, stats guru Justin Ray crunches the numbers. Whichever player wins makes the Ryder Cup team, while the other one is out. But if Simpson and Homa both tie for first, they BOTH make it — and Kokrak is out.
Conspiracies float around Twitter as to how they could collude to a tie, but that’s just Twitter. Naturally they have an earnest battle, and it appears to be Simpson’s day — he’s two strokes ahead with six holes to play.
Homa can’t catch a break, but he’s a fighter. Like Herbert, he’s a West Coast kid with some star power and something to prove. At 14, he pours in a 25-footer for par. At No. 15 he holds a bunker shot for birdie. Now he’s down just one. At 16 he has a 20-footer for par: He makes that, too!
At 17, Homa dumps his approach at 17 into a flower bed, which seems to end his chances, but wait — there’s a rules official on his walkie talkie. “Local Rule,” he says. Free drop!
At 18 Simpson hits the middle of the green, setting up a two-putt par. Homa hits a tree with his tee shot, launches 3-wood to the front fringe…and then cans that for birdie! To a playoff! The fans are on their feet. Word has spread. Everybody wants a tie — except Team Kokrak, of course, and their loyal following.
Each Simpson and Homa have a look for birdie on the first playoff hole, and the second, but they’re playing it safe. Par-par. There’s some murmuring about whether collusion could be punished by the Tour.
On the third playoff hole they each hit the green. Simpson is closer, some 10 feet from the hole. Homa has 20 feet left. They exchange a knowing look; two lag putts and they’re both on the team. Homa putts first, lagging it up to about a foot.
Simpson steps up next; he mostly wants to avoid any possibility of a 3-putt. He’s happy with a tie. But then, just as he’s about to pull the putter back, he hears a noise: Homa’s caddie, who was cleaning his ball, has dropped it on the green. It’s a complete accident, but the moment seems to refocus Simpson. He steps off the ball and refocuses, thinking more aggressively.
He takes the putter back and sends it through. The ball finds the center of the cup. He’s through to the Ryder Cup team with birdie. The Kokrak Hive is rejoicing, too. Homa is left on the outside looking in despite a miraculous battle.
(And if you’ve got a better comparison, I’m all ears!)
NEWS FROM SEATTLE
Monday Finish HQ
It’s been a long December, and a long November before that, filled with rain and cold and snow. The locals tell me this is much more severe weather than usual, and I believe ‘em — I played golf with some regularity throughout the winter last year. But Sunday was the sort of day that gives Seattleites hope. Crystal-clear, bluebird day. Mt. Rainier was in full view. The temperature started in the low 30s but climbed north of 50. City courses were, I’m sure, packed.
But I was sadly, to use NFL terms, “in Covid-19 protocols,” so I imagined a sunny, soggy 18 in my mind instead. We’ll get ‘em next time.
Three things to watch this week.
1. Short-course kings.
The Sony Open means small-ball and an entirely different type of imagination than what’s required at Kapalua. Here’s the aforementioned Justin Ray with a helpful tweet on why Abraham Ancer is going to be in contention by week’s end:
2. The PGA Tour Stock Exchange
This is our made-up game on the Drop Zone Podcast in which we invest in six player “stocks.” Three of my guys make their debuts this week: Taylor Pendrith, Sahith Theegala and meme stock Martin Trainer. (For a fuller explanation listen here, and consider forming a league of your own…)
3. The trees to the left of the 18th hole.
Last year there were a bunch of people who tried to cut the corner down the left side. Plenty succeeded. Some did not. What a beautiful sport. Check out these dots from 2021:
We’ll see you next week!