Looking back on a compelling first week of golf in 2019. 

By Daniel Rapaport
January 07, 2019

As far as tone-setters for the year go, the PGA Tour couldn’t have asked for much more than what it got on Sunday. While the majority of the country dealt with depressing January cold and darkness—and a certain Midwest city processed a particularly brutal missed field goal—a riveting final round played out on a picturesque golf course, on a tropical island paradise, in primetime.

In case you missed it: Xander Schauffele fired a course-record tying, 11-under 62 to erase a five-shot deficit and win the Sentry Tournament of Champions by one shot over Gary Woodland. The laidback Californian has now won the two most prestigious events of the young wraparound season—he also claimed the WGC event in China back in October—and, as a result, he moves to world No. 6 and now owns a healthy lead in the FedEx Cup standings.

Let’s take a look back at four things from a compelling week of golf.

1. A new fab four?

In American team sports, players of a certain age range tend to be linked with one another because they entered the professional ranks as part of the same draft class. (Think Eli Manning-Ben Roethlisberger-Philip Rivers, or LeBron James-Carmelo Anthony-Dwyane Wade-Chris Bosh). That’s not the case in golf, as some players win majors at age 21 while others don’t get their PGA Tour cards until 31. In the collective subconscious of the golfsphere, Jordan Spieth is considered a veteran, whereas Schauffele remains a “young gun.” The reason? We’ve been familiar with Spieth for so much longer. While he was world No. 1 in the world in early 2016, world no. 1743 Schauffele was busy missing nine of 12 cuts to start his Web.com Tour season.

So while they might occupy different roles in our heads, the calendar tells a different story. The two players were born less than three months apart in 1993. In fact, there are four world-class American players born between the spring and fall of that year:

Justin Thomas, born April 29, 1993
Jordan Spieth, born July 27, 1993
Bryson DeChambeau, born Sept. 16, 1993
Xander Schauffele, born Oct. 25, 1993

The four 25-year-olds have combined for 29 PGA Tour victories and four majors already—thanks in large part to Spieth, who accounts for 11 of the wins and three of the majors—and they all shot to stardom at different times. Spieth announced himself firstby winning two majors in 2015, all before his 22nd birthday. Next up was Thomas, who won five tournaments, a major and PGA Tour Player of the Year in 2017. Then came a period of quasi dominance from the delightfully quirky DeChambeau, who won four times from June-November 2018 and nearly won the FedEx Cup in the process. Now we have Schauffele, whose incredible performance at Kapalua on Sunday saw him leapfrog Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm and Francesco Molinari in the world rankings.

Along with the three other sub-30 Americans in the world top 15—Brooks Koepka, Tony Finau and Patrick Reed—these four figure to be staples on major leaderboards and U.S. Ryder Cup teams for at least the next decade. Just three months after a sobering defeat at Le Golf National, the emergence of another mid 20’s star in Schauffele should restore a bit of optimism for American golf fans.

2. The flagstick conundrum

The Tournament of Champions will rightfully be remembered for Schauffele’s heroics, but the main story over the first couple days was the new rules. Namely, the now-legal practice of putting with the flagstick in. Staying true to his science-over-everything brand, DeChambeau emerged as the earliest convert, as he told Golf.com in November that he planned to putt with the flagstick in when it benefits him, eyesore be damned. He made good on that promise in Hawaii, frequently leaving the stick in when putting from as close as 10 feet. It was an off-putting visual, but the proof is in the pudding, and DeChambeau picked up more than seven shots on the field with his putting over the course of the week.

Correlation does not imply causation, of course, and it’s entirely possible that DeChambeau’s putting statistics would have been virtually identical had he taken the flag out. But his early success—paired with growing scientific evidence that putting with the flagstick is, in fact, an advantage—presents an interesting conundrum to his competitors, particularly those who have been on Tour for years. Putting with the flagstick in requires one to swallow his pride and buck convention to gain a marginal advantage, no matter what the optics may be. Early in the week, Justin Thomas said he couldn’t take himself seriously if he left the flag in on an eight-footer to win a tournament. The social media army mobilized to ridicule DeChambeau and the practice as a whole.

My thinking is more in line with that of Brandel Chamblee, who said on Golf Channel that, given the scientific evidence, any player who does not putt with the flagstick in is plaguing himself with a competitive disadvantage. The benefit of leaving the stick in may seem negligible on any one putt, but in a sport where one stroke can decide a major championship or whether a player keeps his Tour playing privileges, how can one afford to forego any advantage, no matter how infinitesimal?

This is going to be an absolutely fascinating storyline to follow throughout the year. Specifically, I’m curious to see how the powers that will be at Augusta National handle this issue. Being able to leave the flagstick in on those slippery greens would be a significant advantage, allowing players to take more aggressive lines on short putts with the stick serving as a sort of backstop. Will it be allowed there? Will legends like Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson adopt this 20+ years into their careers?

3. Rory’s closing problem

Through 57 holes of the Sentry, Rory McIlroy seemed the most likely player to walk away with the title. He was swinging as well as he has since at least 2016, which is saying something for a player who possesses the most aesthetically-pleasing motion in the sport. His significant work on his putting this offseason looked to be paying off, as he looked comfortable with a new mallet putter in his hand. Above all, he appeared focused, confident and energized as he birdied the third hole to cut Woodland’s lead to just two shots. This is an important year for McIlroy, who turns 30 in May and hasn’t won a major since 2014, and he was going to start it off with a victory.

Until he didn’t. McIlroy added a birdie on the fifth hole before playing the 13 in one-over par, on a benign day when everyone around him traded birdies and eagles. While last year’s Masters sticks out as the most salient example of his final-round struggles—he shot a two-over 74 with a chance to complete the career Grand Slam—it’s only one data point of a disturbing trend. McIlroy is winless the last seven times he's played in the final group on a Sunday. He's been either leading or in second place entering the final round of a PGA Tour event six times since the beginning of 2016; he’s winless in those events and has a final-round scoring average of 72.5. It’s worth noting that he did shoot an eight-under 64 to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March, but that closing performance has been the exception rather than the rule of recent.

It’s impossible to pinpoint one cause for his nagging case of the Sunday setbacks because it’s a combination of factors: his putter tends to go cold at the wrong time; he often plays too conservatively in the middle parts of final rounds, firing at the middle of greens rather than flag hunting; he’s still not immune to the big left miss; his distance control with his wedges leaves some to be desired.

Still, something tells me that instead of dwelling on another near-miss, McIlroy will focus on the positives from Maui, of which there were many. He seems re-energized, fully committed to his game and confident with his decision to prioritize the PGA Tour at the expense of the European Tour. The man formerly known as Boy Wonder surely didn’t love watching Jordan Spieth and Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka and Justin Thomas and Justin Rose surpass him in the “best player on the planet” debate. Back in October, I predicted he’ll finish the year as the world’s top-ranked player. I’m sticking with that call.

4. More amateurism issues

Somewhat lost among all the Hawaiian action this week was one of the more peculiar golf stories in a while. Lucy Li, a 16-year-old junior player who is currently the ninth-ranked amateur in the world, was featured in a new 15-second Apple Watch commercial. The ad shows Li wearing the watch in a number of different settings, from tournaments to the beach to a birthday party. It seemed innocuous enough, but her appearance has caused quite the stir and thrown some fuel onto the never-ending amateurism debate.

The USGA is investigating whether Li, who signed a non-disclosure agreement and thus cannot discuss the matter with media, violated the terms of her amateur status. Interestingly enough, it appears Li did even if she didn’t get financially compensated. From Rule 6-2:

An amateur golfer of golf skill or reputation must not use that skill or reputation to obtain payment, compensation, personal benefit or any financial gain, directly or indirectly, for (i) promoting, advertising or selling anything, or (ii) allowing his name or likeness to be used by a third party for the promotion, advertisement or sale of anything.”

This seems like an open-and-shut case; quite clearly, Apple (a third party) used her likeness to promote, advertise and sell products. The ball is in the USGA’s court—do they stick to the letter of the law and revoke her amateur status, robbing her the opportunity to play in college and represent her country in the Curtis Cup? Or do they operate with at least a shred of compassion, realize Li made an honest mistake and giver her a stern warning? Time will tell, but this is an opportunity for American golf’s governing body to differentiate itself from the tone-deaf NCAA and give this 16-year-old a second chance.

CHIP-INS

• Shoutout to this marshall: 

Not all heroes wear capes. It’s people like you that allow the PGA Tour to run as smoothly as it does.

• In a move that will surprise no one who has watched the last two U.S. Opens, Mike Davis will be handing over course setup duty to John Bodenhamer starting with this summer at Pebble Beach. Erin Hills 2017 was widely seen as too easy, then the greens became borderline unplayable last year at Shinnecock. Let’s hope Bodenhamer can avoid having the course be a main storyline for the third year in a row.

NIESEN: USGA's Setup Becomes the Story Saturday at Shinnecock

• This Gary Woodland stinger is NSFW: 

• Despite not playing in Kapalua, Justin Rose retook the world No. 1 ranking from Koepka…for the third time since November. This peculiar game of hot potato continues, as this was the eighth time the top spot has changed hands since September.

• Next up on the schedule is Sony Open on Honolulu. Last year, on Saturday, a push alert arrived on all cell phones reading “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” Avoiding another apocalyptic scare would be nice.

• The Sentry broadcasts started experimenting with mid-round interviews. These were mostly bleh. What players were saying in the middle of their round did not differ from what they say after their round. The cons seem to outweigh the pros here—no other sport interviews players mid competition—and I'd guess this practice fizzles out sooner rather than later. 

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