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The Day 1 leader at The American Express is so out of nowhere he wasn't even in the field on Monday

January 21, 2021

Sean M. Haffey

One of the PGA Tour’s longest-running events kicked off on Thursday, although it was almost unrecognizable: The American Express has no amateurs in the field this year due to COVID-19 concerns. That plus the lack of fans (for the same reason) and playing just two courses rather than three has the event that will always be known as the Bob Hope to die-hard golf fans feeling a bit joyless this year. That said, the money and the FedEx Cup points and the trophy are all the same, which is no small thing. Here, then, are four takeaways from the first day of the West Coast Swing.

Brandon Hagy, from the clouds

Brandon Hagy lucky to be competing in the California desert for a few reasons. On the micro level, Hagy was originally an alternate for the tournament, the World No. 398 getting his spot only after the World No. 2, Jon Rahm, withdrew earlier in the week. On the macro level, professional golf has been something of a turbulent ride for the long-hitting yet injury-plagued Cal-Berkeley grad. He missed the cut in 13 of his 14 starts on the PGA Tour in the 2018-19 season, only to save his card in the Korn Ferry Tour finals. He then missed the FedEx Cup playoffs in 2019-20 but retained his status due to the one-time COVID rules preventing anybody who had a card from losing it for 2020-21. Thus far this season, Hagy has missed the cut in five of his seven starts.

And yet, none of that would matter should he find a way to strike gold this week.

He’s one-fourth the way there. After starting with a bogey, Hagy ripped off 10 birdies—a career-high on the PGA Tour—to post an eight-under 64 on the Nicklaus Tournament course, the easier of the two layouts being used in La Quinta.. There’s longer than a long way to go, but tournaments where top players (the highest ranked golfer in the field is No. 10 Patrick Cantlay) are missing give pros like Hagy a chance to earn some job security.

“I play with Jon a little bit at Whisper Rock in Scottsdale,” Hagy said after the round, “so we know each other pretty well. We played against each other in college, and so I’ll have to buy him a bottle of wine or something.”

Three more days like Thursday, and that bottle may have toi turn into some pricey bubbly.

Lefty stumbles in 2021 debut

Phil Mickelson plays tournament host this week. With no fans and no amateurs in the field, it’s not entirely clear who he is hosting, but that’s neither here nor there. More importantly, he is making his first start since a T-55 at the Masters in November and struggled mightily, shooting 74 on the Nicklaus Tournament course. Just how frustrating was his round? Consider this brutal lipout from earlier in the day:

According to the PGA Tour Communications folks, Mickelson’s Thursday round was only the seventh time he’s shot an over-par score in 74 career rounds in this event. Suffice it to say, it leaves him some serious work to do if he’s to need his clubs this weekend. (He’s probably staying in town either way, being host and all).

We don’t want to read too much into one round, but Phil has not played well in his PGA Tour starts since a T-2 at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational last summer. With the PGA Tour Champions kicking off its season this week, you have to wonder what Lefty’s split will be this year between playing against the old guys and the young. He turns 51 in June.

Here’s what he said in his pre-tournament presser on Wednesday: “If I don’t play well early on, I’ll start to re-evaluate things and maybe play a few more events on the Champions Tour because what’s fun for me is competing, getting in contention, and trying to win tournaments.”

Father Time, man …

Rickie Fowler reacts to his shot out of the rough on the 11th hole during the first round of The American Express.

Harry How

Spieth isn’t the only slumping Spring Breaker

Jordan Spieth’s slide seems to get all the attention, but Rickie Fowler is on his own tumble down the World Ranking. Now 32, Fowler has dropped all the way to No. 60, and his last top 10 on the PGA Tour came at this very event a year ago. Playing alongside Mickelson, Fowler made six bogeys in shooting 73. He, too, will have to summon a low one on the tougher Stadium Course to stick around.

Augenstein’s first professional round is a snoozer

John Augenstein was pumped for today. The 23-year-old Vanderbilt grad is making his professional debut this week. Surely he dreamt of this moment since he was a kid … but we doubt he dreamt of an even-par round, two birdies and two bogeys, at a tournament without fans. Augenstein will surely have plenty of electric moments throughout his career, but this—this was hardly an adrenaline-addled beginning.