AT&T Byron Nelson Preview, Picks & Analysis
FEW who witnessed it will forget the composure shown by Aaron Wise 12 months ago as he won the AT&T Byron Nelson at the age of 21 to become the second-youngster ever winner of the tournament, eclipsed only by somebody called Tiger Woods. It was a remarkable feat, especially given the fact that he shared the 54-hole lead and had never been in such a position before. Worse than that, after what he later admitted was pretty sleepless night, as he headed to the gym on the Sunday morning he was told that his tee time had been pushed back four hours because of bad weather. It meant he had even more time to stew on what was to come.
As things turned out it was his far more experienced playing partner, Marc Leishman, who buckled under the pressure. Wise played like a veteran, recording a bogey-free 65 to record a three-shot victory.
It wasn’t that simple. On the Saturday night, Wise’s mother, Karla, had arrived in town to support him and there she was telling him about all the benefits that would come his way with a win, or at least a high finish. Her heart was, of course, in the right place, but it was not what the young man needed to be hearing.
“You’ve got to go,” he told her. So she left the hotel room, and he took the time to chill out and prepare himself for what lay ahead. Eighteen holes later in the gloom of a very long day, the task was successfully completed. A first PGA Tour win, an exemption and entry to the 2019 Masters. “I kind of made her leave the room,” Wise said. “She went and did her own thing for a little bit. I was able to kind of stop thinking about it, get back into the zone … it was kind of business for me after that.”
He finished the week with a 72-hole total of 23 under par in the tournament’s first year at Trinity Forest. Yes, the course, which relies on windy conditions to keep things honest, was defenseless for three of its four days. Still, Wise kept his nerve and was in complete control of his game, making just four bogeys all week. And in the final round, Wise essentially delivered the knockout blows in the middle of his round with four straight birdies. The last one, at the par-four 10th from 18 feet, gave him a four-shot cushion and he never provided Leishman an opening after that.
“Through that stretch, I thought I talked to myself and kind of made myself trust my putting,” Wise said. Added Leishman: “He holed putts he needed to hole. I didn’t.”
Ben Crenshaw, one-half of the course design duo (with partner Bill Coore) who created the links-style Trinity Forest on top of a landfill, was standing near the putting green when he was asked about the youngster who was tearing up the course.
“I’m so impressed by him,” the two-time Masters champ said. “I tell you what, he is really good. He does everything well. He’s a very sound long driver, beautiful iron shots and a heckuva touch. I can’t remember another 21 … well, that guy right out there.” A few yards in front of Crenshaw was Jordan Spieth, who won his first Tour event at the age of 19 but is currently enduring the worst slump of his career. After years when he could do nothing wrong, Spieth suddenly appears to be utterly lost on the golf course. And that won’t have been lost on Wise. “It's huge at a young age to be able to plan your schedule, to be able to get into all the big events, to get that experience,” Wise said. “You look at guys like Jordan, Rory [McIlroy], JT [Justin Thomas], how it's just paid off for them when they're 24, 25, kind of hitting their prime a little bit and get all that experience already. They're able to win so many golf tournaments and I look at this as kind of helping me do that as well. I don't think I'm anywhere near my prime, I hope, and for me to be able to get all this experience so early -- it's only going to help me down the road when I'm contending in a lot of golf tournaments.”
There have already been three top-20 finishes this season, but there have also been four missed cuts, including three on the trot in a bitterly disappointing January, and he also failed to make the weekend at the Players Championship. But he finished in a tie for 17th at The Masters after barely making the cut, finishing the season’s first major with rounds of 68 and 67. It was a performance that will surely boost the confidence of a golfer who is still only 22 years old.
This year’s tournament takes on an added significance as it takes place the week before the US PGA Championship, which means that many of the field will be using it to fine-tune their games for the second major of the season. Two Europeans who are looking for morale-boosting performances are Sweden’s Henrik Stenson and Spain’s Rafa Cabrera Bello. Stenson would be the first to admit that the past couple of seasons have been something of a disappointment and his world ranking has suffered as a result. Cabrera Bello is a hugely impressive golfer. He is a wonderful ball striker with a magical short game but he has yet to win on the PGA Tour, and the longer these things go on the harder they become too achieve.
Spieth would give anything for four consistent rounds. He has always been wayward from the tee but his incredible putting touch has deserted him and he has developed an unfortunate habit of ruining a potentially good week’s work with one awful round. Much is made of the fact that Rory McIlroy only needs to win The Masters to complete the career Grand Slam. If Spieth wins the US PGA Championship then he will get there first. Not that anybody would give him a prayer of achieving that feat next week. But you write him off at your peril.
Ryan Palmer provided one of the most heartwarming stories of the year to date when he partnered with Jon Rahm to win the Zurich Classic of New Orleans. The American has endured a miserable time, with his wife battling cancer (thankfully, she is now fully recovered) and Palmer suffering a dose of the yips. Not so long ago he was one of the best putters on the PGA Tour but he began to suffer horribly. However he persevered and turned to the claw grip, which has transformed his fortunes. With a joint victory with Rahm to his credit, he is now determined to take that form forward and win another individual tournament.
Keep an an eye on Brooks Koepka too. Next week he defends his US PGA title. He is one of the most impressive physical specimens on the PGA Tour and although he has not been at his best in recent weeks it would be a big surprise if he is not in the mix at Bethpage - and here at the Byron Nelson.
Brooks Koepka. Tuning up for defence of USPGA title
Daniel Berger. Showing right signs again at last
Branden Grace. Looking to kick-start his season
Brooks Koepka. Most underrated golfer on the planet
Daniel Berger. Hugely talented
Branden Grace. Rock steady
Aaron Wise. Back with great memories
Beau Hossler. Keeps going close
Lucas Bjerregaard. On the crest of a wave right now
Ryan Palmer. Would love another individual victory
Rafa Cabrera Bello. Just keeps grinding out the results
Henrik Stenson. In need of some big weeks
Luke Donald. A really good each-way bet
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