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Tour Rundown: The brave and the fortunate

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The brave and the fortunate probably account for equal amounts of victories in professional sport. Technique, confidence, and execution have no substitute, but a fortunate break along the way, can decide the outcome. In South Africa, Max Homa was the beneficiary of a fortuitous parking job. Golf tournaments share little with life’s treachery and trauma, yet have a way of offering a bit of solace to those in need. A bit under forty months ago, the Villegas family lost their daughter to cancer. Today, Camilo Villegas won on the PGA Tour, for the first time in nine years. The other two events weren’t quite as poignant, but they had their moments. Enjoy one of the last Tour Rundowns of 2023. It has been a great ride as usual, and we are grateful that you came along.

PGA Tour Champions @ Charles Schwab Cup: The season comes down to Alker

With Steve Stricker tending to his hospitalized father (all is well with Papa Stricker) and unable to compete, there would be no double-double at this year’s Charles Schwab Cup. Stricker, you see, had already clinched the season-long points race, thanks to three major titles and three additional tour wins. His departure gave his colleagues an opportunity to win a few more dollars and possibly, some of that top-five, season bonus money.

Mr. 2022, Steven Alker, played the first three rounds at Phoenix Country Club as if he were privy to some incantation not known to the others. He stood at 17-under par 196, four shots clear of Alex Cejka. It should have been a done deal, the way Alker had played and carried himself, but there’s a reason that they play the final round. Noted on multiple occasions by commentators, Alker looked like a different golfer on Sunday: tentative, off-balance, and protective.

Early on, it was Ernie Els who made a run at the lead and, if not for a short miss at the 9th, he might have turned in 30 and scared the pants off Alker. Els cooled off on the inward half, but was strong enough to tie Stephen Ames for second place, at 17-deep. Despite making a near-mess of the 18th hole, Alker was able to coax a gnarly chip within 18 inches of the hole in four, then drop the putt for par and a one shot win. It wasn’t macho and it wasn’t pretty, but it was a win.

LPGA @ The Annika: Vu says me, not you, at The Annika

I would be remiss to not recognize fellow Demon Deacon Rachel Kuehn, on her T15 finish. Kuehn was one of two amateurs to earn a spot in the field. Both made the cut, an achievement in itself! With that formality out of the way, let’s clap our hands for Lilia Vu, who decided that 2023 would be the year of her coming-out party. We remember the dominant performance she put on for Team USA in the 2018 Curtis Cup at Quaker Ridge. For a time, she fell off our radar. She has returned with vigor.

If not for the year that Celine Boutier has had, Vu would be the runaway number one and player of the year. As things stand, it will all come down to next week at the CME Championship, two hours down Florida’s west coast from this week’s tournament site. Boutier will have to improve on this week’s MC, while Vu, will certainly roll into Tiburón Golf Club on the highest of highs.

Vu’s fourth win of the year came by three shots, over a pair of runners-up. She began the day three shots behind Emily Pedersen, who had ignited the course with rounds of 63-65-64. Sunday resembled none of those days for the young Danish golfer, and a final-hole double bogey not only dropped her to a tie for fifth position, but cost her a spot in the CME Tour Championship as well. In total contrast, Vu was the picture of composure. A solitary bogey at the 12th hole was offset by five birdies all around. In the end, her 66 was something, on the heels of a Saturday 62.

Boutier has been other-worldly this year, with four wins of her own, and Ruoning Yin cannot be ignored. With that said, it’s hard to bet against Lilia Vu. Naples should be the hottest ticket in golf next weekend.

PGA Tour @ Butterfield Bermuda: Villegas triunfa tras nueve años de luchar

It was revealed this week by a colleague, that Alex Noren is THE last guy off the practice range each night. One day, Noren will find the elixir that results in a PGA Tour triumph. He opened with 61 this week, and through eight holes on Sunday, still held on to first place. A pair of bogeys at the turn dropped him out of the top spot. Despite great effort, he finished in second position.

Camilo Villegas began the final round a single shot behind the leader. Villegas’ last of four tour wins came in 2014, in Greensboro. He had worked his way back to the big tour, serving a stint on the Korn Ferry Tour. Last week, Villegas challenged in Mexico before finishing in a second-place tie. This week, he found the trade winds and sands of Bermuda to be the ideal place to find his way home. From the mountains of Medellín, to the seas of the Atlantic, Villegas had returned.

Villegas made six birdies in his final-round 66, but none was more stunning, than the one he made at the 17th. With an opportunity to take a two-shot advantage to the final tee, Villegas found himself bunkered greenside in two. Not a bad place to be, unless you were on the short side, which he was. Trusting in all the hours of work, Villegas exploded his ball out of the abyss, over a mound, one inch onto the putting surface. From there, it trickled to within two feet for the birdie that he needed.

The entire world of golf walked the final 380 yards with Villegas, urging him on toward completion. When his drive reached the fairway, we breathed. When his approach reached the green, we breathed. When his first putt snuggled to within two feet of the hole, we breathed. And when Camilo Villegas tapped in, hugged his caddie, and spread his arms wide as every Hispanic compatriot showered him in agua y champaña, we cheered.

DP World Tour @ Nebank: Homa on the range

Max Homa earned his first international title this week in South Africa. The care-free Californian shared the lead after each of the first two rounds, then took a one-shot advantage over France’s Matthieu Pavon through 54 holes. Chasing the pair were the Højgaard brothers (Nicolai and Rasmus), alongside a number of DP World Tour stalwarts.

The final round was a mother lode for California, but a bust for France. While Homa matched his opening-round 66, Pavon went north to a 78, dropping 13 places to a tie for 15th. Three bogeys in the first five holes for Pavon were more than matched by Home, who stood three-under through six holes on Sunday. Even when Pavon finally made birdie at the ninth, Homa posted eagle.  At that juncture, the challenge came not from Pavon, but from a pair of Swedes.

Nicolai Højgaard and Thorbjørn Olesen were in the process of posting 68 and 69, respectively. When Homa made bogey at 11, a sliver of hope appeared. No birdies down the stretch for Nicolai, coupled with a double at 17 for Thorbjørn, drew the potential drama to a close. Homa secured his seventh top-tour win and first on the DP World Tour.

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Ronald Montesano writes for GolfWRX.com from western New York. He dabbles in coaching golf and teaching Spanish, in addition to scribbling columns on all aspects of golf, from apparel to architecture, from equipment to travel. Follow Ronald on Twitter at @buffalogolfer.

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Masters 2024: Reduced-scale clubhouse trophy and green jacket to Scottie Scheffler

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In the world of golf, there is Scotty and there is Scottie. Scotty Cameron gave the world of golf a nickname for a prestigious putter line, and Scottie Scheffler has now given the golf world a blueprint for how to negotiate one of the toughest tournaments to win. Sunday, Scheffler won the Masters tournament for the second time in three years. He separated from the field around the turn, making a trio of birdies at holes eight through 10. On the long walk home, he added three more birdie at 13, 14, and 16, to secure a four-shot win over Masters and major-championship rookie Ludvig Åberg.

As the final group moved along the ninth hole, a quadrilateral stood at 7 under par, tied for the lead. Scheffler, playing partner Collin Morikawa, and penultimate pairing Max Homa and Åberg advanced equally toward Amen Corner, with the resolution of the competition well in doubt. Morikawa flinched first, getting too greedy (his words) at nine and 11. Double bogey at each dropped him farther back than he wished, and he ultimately made a 10-foot putt for bogey at the last, to tie for third position.

Ludvig Åberg made the next mistake. Whether he knew the Ben Hogan story about the approach into 11 or not, he bit off way more than he should have. His approach was never hopeful, and ended short and right in White Dogwood’s pond. Åberg finished the hole in six shots. To his credit, he played the remaining seven holes in two-under figures. Finally, Max Homa was the victim of the finicky winds over Golden Bell, the short, par-3 12th hole. His disbelief was evident, as his tee shot flew everything and landed in azaleas behind the putting surface. After two pitch shots and two putts, Homa also had a double bogey, losing shots that he could not surrender.

Why? At the ninth hole, Scottie Scheffler hit one of the finest approach shots of all time, into the final green of the first nine. Scheffler had six inches for birdie and he converted. At the 10th, he lasered another approach shot into a tricky hole location, then made another fine putt for birdie. Within the space of 30 minutes, Scheffler had seized complete control of the tournament, but Amen Corner still lurked.

At the 11th, Scheffler played safely right with his approach. His chip shot was a wee bit too brave and left him a seven-foot comeback putt for par. He missed on the right side and gave one shot back to the course and field. His tee ball on 12 was safely aboard, and he took two putts for par. On 13, the 2022 champion drove slightly through the fairway, then reached the green, with his first two shots. His seventy-foot-plus putt for eagle eased up, four feet past the hole. His second putt went down, and he was back in the birdie zone. As on nine, his approach to 14 green finished brilliantly within six inches. His final birdie came at the 16th, where he negotiated a nine-foot putt for a deuce.

Scheffler reached 11 under par and stood four shots clear of Ludvig Åberg when he reached the 18th tee. His drive found the lower fairway bunker on the left, and his approach settled in a vale, short and right of the green. With dexterous hands, Scheffler pitched to three feet and made the putt for par. With a big smile, he embraced caddie Ted Scott, who won for the fourth time at Augusta National, and the second with Scheffler. Ludvig Åberg finished alone in second spot, four back of the winner. Not a bad performance for the first-time major championship participant Åberg, and not a bad finish for the world No. 1 and second-time Masters champion, Scottie Scheffler.

 

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5 Things We Learned: Saturday at the Masters

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Just as the honorary starters broke our hearts with the reality of ageing, so too, did Saturday, with the revelation that third-round Tiger Woods is not yet (if ever) what he once was. The great champion struggled mightily to an 82, tied with three others for high round of the day. Among the top ten, the worst score posted was DeChambeau’s 75, but the large Californian remains in the hunt. Day four will see 2022 champion Scottie Scheffler pair with Collin Morikawa in the final game. In front of them will be Max Homa and Ludwig Åberg. The antipenultimate pairing will feature DeChambeau and Xander Schauffele.

If you look at the one-off major winners, most took advantage of their only chance at grand slam glory. For golfers like Homa, Schauffele, and others, Sunday the 14th might represent their best and only chance at claiming a major title. For Scheffler, Morikawa, and DeChambeau, the ability to join the two-time and three-time, major winners club holds great appeal. Finally, a young’un like Åberg seeks to jump-start a more-than-tour-winner career with a major title. Many of the greats won them early, and the Swede from Texas Tech would love nothing more than a chance to join that company.

Sunday at Augusta, as always, will be riveting. It will provide hope throughout the first nine holes, then gut many a competitor’s heart coming home, rewarding just one with a new item for the wardrobe. Plan your menu and choose your outfit. Masters 2024 is about to conclude. Until then, let’s reveal five things that we learned on day three of the year’s first men’s major.

1. The three most critical holes on the first nine are …

numbers four through six. You might make some birdies at the first and last trios of holes, but the middle triumvirate of fairways and greens determines your day. Play them even par or better, and you’ll lose zero shots to the field. Get on a downward spiral of slightly-wayward shots, and recovery will be nigh impossible. Anyone who makes three at the fifth, as Tiger Woods did on Saturday, will get giddy.

2. The three most important holes on the second nine are …

ten through twelve. We realize that we commit heresy by omitting one of Herbert Warren Wind’s Amen Corner traces, but par or better is critical at 10. Dry landings at 11 and 12 set the competitor up for two par fives in three holes, sandwiched around a straightforward, par-four hole. Remember when Ben Crenshaw began his march to glory in 1995? It all started with birdie at the 10th.

3. The most interesting and efficient round of day three came from …

Collin Morikawa. Birdies at the first three holes, followed by bogey-birdie at six and eight, then ten consecutive pars to finish off the second-low round of the day. Morikawa has improved each day, from 71 to 70 to 69. He has won majors in England and California. He has the temperment for this sort of day, but will certainly be in the hottest of all cauldrons around 3 pm on Sunday.

4. The guy who lost the most ground on day three was …

Nikolai Hojgaard. The dude failed to make par from the seventh green to the 16th. After three consecutive birdies around the turn (8 through 10), the Great Dane tumbled to earth with five consecutive bogeys. 11 and 12, we understand, but 13 and 15 are par-five holes, for goodness sake! No matter where he finds himself on day four’s back nine, it will be hard to put that stretch of golf out of his mind.

5. Our pick for the green jacket is …

impossible to nail. We suspect that certain players should and could perform on Sunday. We remember when Retief Goosen, a great US Open winner until round four of 2005, lost his mojo. We recall days when Rich Beam and Y.E. Yang pulled major titles away from Tiger Woods. Things go wrong on Sunday, and they go wrong super-quick at Augusta.

We’ve decided to ascend Mount Olympus for our Sunday selection. Who better than the 2021 Olympic champion to add a long-awaited, first major title. It’s Professor X for us: Xander Schauffele.

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5 Things We Learned: Friday at the Masters

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You don’t see leaves on the ground at Augusta National. The grounds crew and superintendent’s staff take care of those sorts of things, so that both course appearance and consistency of play are preserved at the top tier. We saw leaves on the ground today and, given the force and perseverance of the wind, we’re lucky that we didn’t see tree trunks along the fairways. We did see higher scores than secured in round one, and some of the three- and four-hole stretches were downright inconceivable. The cut after 36 holes came at six over par, and five dozen golfers reached the weekend of play. Numbers always define the story of a tournament, and we’ll let them define the five things we learned on day two of the 2024 Masters tournament.

One: 60 + 10

Sixty golfers posted scores of 148 or better through 36 holes, to reach weekend play. Ten more golfers posted 149 and missed the cut by a single stroke. The ones who missed the cut by a stroke included former champions Mike Weir, Zach Johnson, and Sergio Garcia. Also among the brood were current US Open champion Wyndham Clark, and Nick Dunlap, who won on the PGA Tour as an amateur in January, and subsequently turned professional. Of the ones who survived by the slimmest of margins, surviving to the weekend were former champions Jose Maria Olazabal, Hideki Matsuyama, and Adam Scott, along with Rickie Fowler and Tom Kim. Golf’s cut is a cruel and unconcerned blade, and each Masters tournament reminds us of this fact.

Two: One

The number of amateurs to make the cut in the 2024 Masters is solitary. His name is Neil Shipley, and most folks love him. He wears his hair to the shoulder, and appears to have the proper balance of intensity and chill. Shipley opened with 71, then held on for 76 on day two. He made the cut by three shots, and will collect his share of hardware on Sunday. It’s safe to say that Shipley will turn his attention to learning the course, as well as his own self under pressure.

Three: 23

For most sorts fans, 23 recalls the greatest NBA player of all time, Michael Jordan. For Justin Thomas, it’s a number that will haunt him for a long time. Thomas reached tee number fifteen on Friday at even par. The two-time PGA Champion played the subsequent, four-hole stretch in 23 shots, missing the cut by a shot. On fifteen, he went for the green in two, in some sort of halfhearted manner. He got wet with shot number two, went long with his pitch, and three-putted from the fringe. On sixteen, he played away from safety and found elevated sand. His blast went down the hill, and he missed his approach putt in the wrong place. On seventeen, he missed his drive right and his approach long, and lost another shot to par. The coup de grace took place on the home hole: drive so horribly left that he had to pitch out to the fairway and hit three metal into the green. His third double bogey in four holes dropped him all the way to 151 and plus seven. Among the many questions, the foremost one was why he dropped his longtime caddy on the eve of a major championship. Surely Bones would have saved him one of those shots, and perhaps more.

Four: Forty-Nine divided by five or six

Tiger Woods cannot possibly win title number six at Augusta in his 49th year, can he? Not on this broken body, and not from seven strokes behind, right? Not with so few competitive rounds over the most recent months, and not one year removed from a third-round withdrawal from this very tournament. Well, if he cannnot possibly win, allow us to dream and hope a bit, and hold on to a fantasy.

Five: 3 that we like

We like Scottie Scheffler, of course. He seems to have a sense of Augusta National, and he was able to hold on in 2023 for the championship. We like Nikolai Hojgaard, because he might have just the proper combination of naivete and experience for a first-time winner. Finally, we like Collin Morikawa, a winner of two separate major titles. Winning at Augusta National requires a certain amount of length, unless you putt lights out. Morikawa might be embedded in one of those putting weeks.

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