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Golf — Brendan Steele’s streak, Rory McIlroy’s struggles and Lefty’s strong start


Ninety hours.

Give or take a few ticks of the minute hand, that’s how long the PGA Tour offseason lasted, from the final putt of the Presidents Cup to the opening tee shot of the Safeway Open, which kicked off the 2017-18 campaign this past week.

Hope you enjoyed the downtime.

This edition of the Weekly 18 begins with a bit of déjà vu.

1. The Alfred Dunhill Links Championship and Safeway Open weren’t played during the same week last year, but you could be excused for feeling as if you had already lived through what happened this past weekend. First, Tyrrell Hatton successfully defended his title at St. Andrews, then Brendan Steele did the same thing in Napa, California. It’s obviously not unheard of for players to win the same event in back-to-back years – Justin Thomas, Hideki Matsuyama and Jhonattan Vegas were among those who accomplished that feat on the PGA Tour this past season. But two in a single week?

2.Two years ago, I spoke with Steele after he parlayed a 54-hole lead at the Safeway Open into a share of 17th place due to a final-round 76. With his mood somewhere between despondent and discouraged, let’s just say he wasn’t exactly excited about the prospect of playing more tournaments directly after that. It took a year, but he rebounded. It should enhance the old suggestion that there’s no such thing as a negative close call; even the most painful ones become positive experiences at some point.

3. Because of that season-opening win last year, Steele automatically jumped atop the first FedEx Cup points list. He never relinquished a spot in the top 30 — until the final day of the BMW Championship, where he failed to reach the Tour Championship by falling outside that number. After his latest win, Steele said he’s learned from last season. Expect that to serve as another positive close call — and expect him to be at East Lake in September.

4. Speaking of the Tour Championship, I wrote a lengthy feature on Tony Finau‘s journey during the tourney last month. One of the things that stuck with me was how comfortable he seemed in unfamiliar surroundings. Finau is on the verge of some very big things in his career — and his runner-up finish at the Safeway this past week only helped to support that.

5. Phil Mickelson‘s winless streak now moves to 91 starts (his last victory was the 2013 Open Championship) after a week in which he seriously contended at the Safeway Open, but fell short once again. It’s not all bad news for the lefthander. Mickelson recorded his first top-three since last year’s epic duel against Henrik Stenson at Royal Troon. Looking rejuvenated after posting a 3-0-1 record at the Presidents Cup, expect to see Mickelson’s name on a decent amount of leaderboards between now and next year’s Ryder Cup – one that will mean a lot to him, should he make the team at age 48.

6. Even in the heat of the moment, Mickelson can still have a sense of humor. Running at just under 28 percent for driving accuracy, he hit a drive into the short stuff on the 16th hole during Sunday’s final round, then casually said to the gallery, “Let’s take a moment to admire the fact that I just hit a fairway.”

7. I’ve said it before and I’ll keep banging this drum: The. Season. Is. Way. Too. Long. Now, I’m not naïve; I get it — the PGA Tour isn’t in the business of turning down title sponsors and its biggest priority is offering as many playing opportunities as possible for its members. But this is becoming a punchline. Seriously, go try out this conversation with a sports fan who doesn’t know golf: “Yes, the season just ended last week, but the new one started this week …” It sounds ridiculous because it is ridiculous. Simply put, fans need the game to go away for a while; they need to miss it before it comes back. The current model doesn’t allow for any of that.

8. I feel worse for the Web.com graduates than the fans. Players who competed in last week’s Web.com Tour Championship were delayed into a Monday finish, from which those who were in the Safeway Open had to travel from Northern Florida to Northern California and prepare for the season-opener in 48 hours. That’s not fair. This isn’t a perfect analogy, but we wouldn’t ask a college football player to compete in a bowl game, then play Week 1 of the NFL season a few days later.

9. With all of this in mind, I’m about to sound incredibly hypocritical: Yes, the season is way too long; yes, it needs a longer offseason; yes, it’s difficult to get excited about the new season when the old one just ended; and yes, when names like Steele and Finau and Mickelson are on the leaderboard on a Sunday afternoon, it’s still pretty cool to watch. There’s a common misnomer that these fall events are solely the domain of journeymen and up-and-comers, but this week proved once again that even big names can make these events interesting. Right on cue, reigning FedEx Cup champion Justin Thomas will play the CIMB Classic this week and aim for the three-peat.

10. Hatton wasn’t the only story at the Dunhill this past weekend. On Friday, Tommy Fleetwood posted a 63 for a new course record at Carnoustie; two days later, Ross Fisher posted a 61 for a new course record at the Old Course. While it’s surprising the Golf Gods didn’t turn up the wind once the scores started going low, it shouldn’t be a surprise that such records are being broken on these venerable tracks. Players are perhaps more talented than ever, they understand how to better go low and the sport’s technology has some courses on the verge of becoming obsolete when conditions are benign.

11. Gary Player voiced his opinion via Twitter after the second of those course records was set Sunday. “Whilst delighted for all the players, it’s quite sad to see The Old Course of St. Andrews brought to her knees by today’s ball & equipment,” he posted. After one reader replied with a question about whether past generations had been grousing about similar issues, Player answered in part, “We have been questioning the ball, equipment & conditioning for 50 years.” He then concluded the tweet with “#bifurcation” — in case anyone wondered where the Black Knight stood on that ongoing debate.

12. What a strange season it was for Rory McIlroy. He dealt with injuries, got married, played some good golf and some not-so-good golf. In the end, McIlroy finished with 18 worldwide starts and seven top-10s, including a pair of runners-up. Still, he never seriously contended at a major championship and seemed to struggle to ever get out of the blocks, like a world-class sprinter trying to race through quicksand.

13. One of the most admirable qualities McIlroy exudes is his innate ability to separate himself from the moment and offer an insight so keen that you sometimes wonder if he’s being too forthright. Following a final-round even-par 72 at St. Andrews this past weekend, he was asked minutes later to reflect on his year and explained, “I think my last round of 2017 sort of summed up all of 2017. Not much happening, good or bad. Just sort of stuck in neutral.” You can criticize him for his performance, but it’s impossible to fault him for his honesty.

14. For what it’s worth, I’d buy low on shares of McIlroy stock and store ’em away until next summer. Since the beginning of this year, he’s dropped from second to sixth in the world ranking (and some would suggest the formula is being overly kind to him). I’d be surprised if he doesn’t reverse that trend and find himself closer to second at this time next year.

15. Following another anticlimactic Presidents Cup, there have been many suggestions on how to spruce up the festivities. Among those gaining steam — amongst fans, at least, if not the powers-that-be — is a mixed team competition featuring players from both the PGA Tour and the LPGA. I love the idea — and I don’t think it will ever happen. Answer these questions for me: Why would the PGA Tour (remember, it doesn’t run the Ryder Cup) share its baby with another tour? Why would it give up even a small percentage of the TV revenue and ticket sales and visibility? Why would it even admit that the current format is “broken” and needs some type of radical overhaul? I’m a huge fan of forward-thinking ideas in the game and out-of-the-box ways to improve upon its current structure, but when proposing these changes, we need to look at the solution from everyone’s angle, not solely the one which would most benefit the fans.

16. I do love the idea of a mixed event — and with the PGA Tour and LPGA entering into a relationship a few years ago, it’s a viable option moving forward. The most logical place for it is not the Presidents Cup, but rather the annual PGA Tour stop at Kapalua, which has long needed a little jab to increase interest levels in the smaller field. Opening it up to both men’s and women’s tournament winners, with them playing alongside each other, would give each tour a major boost in the early part of the year. It wouldn’t have the emotion of a mixed Presidents Cup, but it would be a clear step above the old JC Penney Classic and other former iterations.

17. I’ll admit it: I don’t know what it means when Tiger Woods posts a slow-motion video of his swing via social media with the caption, “Smooth iron shots.” I don’t know if this is supposed to leave us guessing about an imminent return or make us long for the good ol’ days of his prime. Maybe he’s just bored and decided to tweet, which makes him no different than the rest of us. What I do know is, as good as it was to see him enjoying the team atmosphere at the Presidents Cup, it is also good to see him swinging a club again. Whatever it might mean.

18. This remains an a mind-boggling fact: Woods has won a tournament more recently than Mickelson. It was the 2013 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, two weeks after Mickelson won his last event at The Open. Try wrapping your mind around that one for a little while.



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