Safeway Open Preview, Picks & Analysis
AND SO it begins all over again. With the Tour Championship behind us, this extraordinary PGA Tour season is now over and we begin the 2020-21 campaign with the Safeway Open. Confusingly, however, we still have to fit in a US Open and The Masters.
The PGA Tour has announced its full schedule for the new campaign and it will include six majors among 50 tournaments. The schedule contains 14 events postponed or cancelled because of coronavirus, including the US Open, The Masters and Olympic Games. Those majors, as well as The Open and US PGA Championship, will then return to their traditional dates during 2021. Hopefully!
"If you're a golf fan, this is a dream season," said Jay Monahan, the PGA Tour commissioner. "Building our schedule is always complicated, but never more so as over the past several months as we continue to navigate challenges brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic," he added.
The season, which will feature the most events since 51 were held in 1975, will conclude on September 5, 2021 at the Tour Championship in Atlanta.
This year's US Open, rescheduled from June, will be played later this month while The Masters at Augusta, traditionally staged in April, is due to be played in November.
But before any of that, we head to Silverado Resort and Spa in Napa, California, won last year by Cameron Champ.
The young American was one of a number of young first-time winners who marked the campaign, players who ensure that the future of the sport is in good hands. Collin Morikawa, Viktor Hovland, Joaquin Niemann, Sebastian Munoz, Lanto Griffin and Richy Werenski all won for the first time. There were also victories for Daniel Berger, Sungjae Im, Tyrrell Hatton and Cameron Smith, as well as the usual suspects - Dustin Johnson, Jon Rahm, Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods, Webb Simpson, Jason Day, a reborn Brendon Todd and, of course, Bryson DeChambeau, the man who may well have changed the face of professional tournament golf for ever.
But perhaps the victory that captured the imagination more than other was that of Champ at Silverado. It was his second, and there will surely be many, many more.
He led after 54 holes but opened the final round with a nervous tee shot at the 436-yard par four. The ball skipped off the cart path and stopped just short of a hazard, settling into the rough. He put his second shot seven feet from the hole, sank the putt and was apparently on his way.
He came up well short on the par-three, 240-yard second hole but he got up and down, and did so again at the third. It would have all too easy for his start to have gotten away from him but he maintained his composure and demonstrated a maturity beyond his years.
The big-hitting youngster missed more than his share of fairways but his short game saved him repeatedly He made a host of key putts on his way to a final round of 69 that changed his life for good and confirmed his status as one of the most promising and gifted golfers on the planet.
Champ began the final round at 14-under for the tournament and with a three-stroke lead after firing a 67 in the third round. “I just kept grinding,” he said. “There were some pins I didn’t want to punish myself trying to go at and get short sided. We were trying to stay aggressive, but at the same time knowing where the trouble was. Then I got some key up and downs.
“This is kind of my home event, to have so many family and friends here. It’s just been awesome.”
As the Safeway Open winner, Champ received $1.188m and a full two-year exemption.
Champ’s final-round lead, which at one point was five strokes, was cut to one over Adam Hadwin when he bogeyed the par-four, 375-yard 17th hole after a 327-yard drive. He missed the green long on his approach shot.
Hadwin then moved to 16-under, tying Champ, when he made a birdie on the final hole, capping a round of 67.
“I didn’t panic. I overshot it,” said Champ, who was making only his 33rd PGA Tour start as a professional. “Then I thought I made the putt, but I didn't.”
Champ came right back, launching a 369-yard drive on the par-five 18th hole – the longest drive any player during the week. He missed the green with his second shot from 198 yards, leaving him in a collection area, 42 feet from the hole. He wedged his third shot to 3 feet, 8 inches and closed the deal with a birdie putt.
“That putt … I knew I wasn’t going to miss that,” said Champ. “The feeling I had, it was different. It wasn’t nerves, it was just kind of excitement.”
Champ finished the week at 17-under 271, one shot in front of Hadwin. Marc Leishman came from behind to shoot 65 and finished alone in third place at 14-under 274. Tying for fourth were Charles Howell III (68), Zac Blair (68) and Justin Thomas (69) at 13-under. In a seventh-place tie were Dylan Frittelli (66), Cameron Percy (67) and Xinjun Zhang (69) at 12-under.
“I knew on the 18th if I could put a good drive in the fairway, it would give me a good chance. I’d have a pretty easy birdie if I could just hit the green. Obviously I hit it just short and got up and down,” said Champ.
It was a highly emotional week for Champ, as his grandfather, Mack Ray Champ, who got Cameron started in golf, had stage four cancer and died the following month. He lived to see his grandson win on the PGA Tour.
“With everything going on with my family, with my grandpa, I wasn’t even sure if I was going to play. It was going to be a last minute deal,” said Champ. “I knew he wanted me to play. I know he watched it on TV all day. Obviously, golf, it’s my career, I love doing it, but it made me realise it’s not the most important thing, that there’s a lot more to life than just golf.”
Much is made of the distance that DeChambeau hits the ball but Champ is not far behind him, hits more fairways and possesses a brilliant short game.
A graduate of the Korn Ferry Tour, he won his first title, the Sanderson Farms Championship, as a rookie in October 2018 in only his ninth start. He was among five nominees for the Tour’s Rookie of the Year award for the 2018-19 season after leading the Tour in driving distance (317.9 yards) and finishing No. 62 in the FedExCup standings.
“When he’s hitting it straight, it’s hard to catch up because he’s 40 yards ahead of me and he’s got wedge or nine iron when I’m hitting a five iron or something,” said Morikawa. “It’s awesome to watch. I’ve watched and I’ve grown up playing with him a lot. I’ve always seen how far he hits it. The talent is there and he just needs to keep it in play.”
The Safeway Open was won in 2015 by Emiliano Grillo, in 2016 and 2017 by Brendan Steele, in 2018 by Kevin Tway and last year by Champ.
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