Safeway Open Preview, Picks & Analysis
THAT was the season that was, it's over now and a new one begins. After a short break to accommodate the Presidents Cup, the PGA Tour season starts all over again with the Safeway Open at Silverado Resort and Spa North.
Most of the big names will be taking the week off, so this represents a great chance for one of the lesser lights or rookies to make a name for themselves and secure an exemption that will take them through to 2020. Yes, 2020.
Officially, this is the kick-off to the 2017-18 season, and if it comes anywhere close to matching the excitement and wondrous golf we witnessed during the past 12 months then it will be something special. Who honestly believed that Justin Thomas would win five times and be crowned FedEx Cup champion? Did anybody believe that Jordan Spieth would win The Open? Or that Sergio Garcia would finally end 18 years of trying and land his first major at The Masters? Brooks Koepka as US Open champion? Who saw that coming? And a year for Rory McIlroy when he not only failed to win a major, but also went without a single PGA Tour title and failed to make the field for the Tour Championship.
So here we go again, with Brendan Steele defending the title he won by pipping Patton Kizzire, Paul Casey, Scott Piercy and Michael Kim. It was won in 2010 by Rocco Mediate, in 2011 by Bryce Molder, in 2012 by Jonas Blixt, in 2014 by Jimmy Walker, in 2015 by Sangmoon Bae and in 2016 by Emiliano Grillo. For Molder, Blixt, Bae and Grillo it was their maiden victories, and it was Steele's first success in five years. All of that would imply that this year's champion is unlikely to be a serial winner.
And one man who would appear to fit the bill is Webb Simpson. Yes, he won the 2012 US Open. Yes, he has three other victories to his credit, but the last of those came at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open almost exactly four years ago. Simpson suffered badly when anchored putting was banned and at one point it looked like he might not be able to continue playing at this level, but the 32-year-old refused to be beaten. He worked hard to find a way to get the ball in the hall and it is starting to pay dividends. He lost in a playoff to Hideki Matsuyama at the Phoenix Waste Management Open earlier in the year, and had a further five top-10 finishes. He ended the 2016-17 campaign in 23rd place in the FedEx Cup with earnings of more than $3m.
Simpson is a surprisingly long hitter of the golf ball, averaging around 300 yards. He has always been a world-class iron player and now that he has sorted out his putting, don't be at all surprised to see him winning again soon.
Phil Mickelson, fresh from playing in the Presidents Cup, is a surprise entrant at Silverado. Lefty continues to believe that he can win tournaments and, more importantly, add to his tally of five majors. His last win of any kind came at The Open in 2013 and he is now 47 years old. But he hits the ball as far as he ever did and as long as he retains his magical skills around the greens then who is to argue with his belief? If you were to ask him for his goals for the 2017-18 season he would tell you that he finally wants to win the US Open and that he wants to be a member of Jim Furyk's Ryder Cup team. You have to go way back to 1993 to find the last time that a US Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup team did not contain Mickelson. It is a run that has to come to an end sometime, but don't bet on it happening any time soon.
Mickelson is in the field because he likes the course, he wants to get the new season off to a good start and he believes he can still show the young upstarts a thing or two.
Much attention will be on John Daly, who received a special invitation. The Wild Thing is now playing on the Champions Tour and this year won his first tournament in 13 years. He also produced a couple of creditable performances on the European Tour during the summer. Make no mistake, when his mindset is right, Daly can still play a bit. Daly is known for his long hitting. So, too, is Jamie Sadlowski, who has also been given a special invite. Sadlowski makes Dustin Johnson look like a short hitter - this guy has twice won the World Long Drive Championship, which means he is capable of striking a golf ball in the region of 400 yards. He has a career best of, wait for it....445 yards. You have been warned!
However, there is more to his game than sheer power. Last year the Canadian decided that he was going to try to make the cut as a tour professional and has been playing on both the Machenzie Tour and Web.com Tour.
Charles Howell III continues to pile up the prize money. He has just completed another great season, with plenty of top-10 finishes, including two runner-up finishes and a bucketful of dollars to add to the collection. Now 38 years old, the last of his two PGA Tour wins came way back in 2007. He has every shot in the book, and is one of those players who, the harder the course, the better he seems to play. So why is it 10 years since he last tasted a victory? The truth is that even he probably couldn't answer that question, but there is a suspicion that maybe, just maybe, he simply isn't hungry enough.
Kevin Na. Hugely underrated player
Phil Mickelson. Rule him out at your peril
Matt Kuchar. Another week, another top 10. Probably
Kevin Na. Real grinder
Phil Mickelson. Fans would love to see him win again - and so would he
Matt Kuchar. Mr Happy - and why wouldn't he be
Charles Howell III. Will he ever win again?
Zach Johnson. Mr Consistency
Maverick McNealy. Could be the next big thing
Beau Hossler. Back on the PGA Tour after a great season on the Web.com Tour
Cameron Champ. With a name like that he was born to win
Paul Casey. A money-making machine these days
Tony Finau. Hits the ball into the middle of next week
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