Golf World NotebookOctober 3, 2017

New PGA Tour members try hard to catch their breath as the wrap-around season begins

Steve Wheatcroft
Michael Cohen/Getty Images

Slightly hungover on Tuesday afternoon, Steve Wheatcroft was in the Jacksonville airport getting ready to board a flight across the country to Napa, Calif. Tom Hoge was already there, after making a hotel reservation while driving to the airport a day earlier and arriving on the West Coast the night before.

Both were exhausted.

“I don’t think any of us like how the schedule works out,” said Wheatcroft, a 39-year-old journeyman who is headed back to the PGA Tour after locking up a card in Monday’s rain-delayed Web.com Finals finale, the Tour Championship, at Atlantic Beach Country Club and after a night of celebrating the achievement in what has been an injury-riddled year.

One season ends, another begins. This is the PGA Tour with a wraparound calendar. The 2016-’17 season ended just two weeks ago at East Lake. The 2017-’18 season starts Thursday at Silverado. In between was the Presidents Cup.

PGA Tour officials have long believed that if there’s a week on the calendar and a sponsor that is willing to put up the dough, they should put on the tournament, otherwise someone else would be willing to do it. At last check, no one says no to money.

The flip side to the argument is that players are wiped out and fans are fatigued (see: ratings, television; or “engagement,” if you prefer), with little break from the sport to anyone the opportunity to miss the game the way they do in other sports.

Both are valid arguments.

As for the never-ending schedule, in the past there has been a week, even two, between the end of the Web.com Tour Finals, where players are vying for PGA Tour cards, and the start of the next PGA Tour season. Not this year. For some reason, what amounts to the tour’s developmental league played its finale up against the Presidents Cup and also took a week off during the FedEx Cup Playoffs’ bye week.

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Hoge says he might trade practice for sleep in the days ahead of the PGA Tour season opener in Napa.

A lack of a break was also made worse by a Monday finish after bad weather hammered the Jacksonville area on Sunday. And it doesn’t look good, either, that 13 players who already had secured status on the big tour withdrew from the Web.com finale to make it to Napa with ample time to prepare.

“In a perfect world, you’d like to have one or two weeks off to try to get your bearings,” said Hoge, who added that he might “wing it” this week and trade practice rounds at Silverado for rest.

There are solutions, of course. Playing better would be one. Skipping the opener would be another, though that’s less of an option for guys who need to make as many starts as they can. This is life on tour for Web.com grads with low status.

Wheatcroft and Hoge are trying to see the positive through their tired eyes, though. It’s all about the bigger picture.

“If you told me 48 hours ago my worst problem would be trying to get a last-minute flight to Napa, there are worse problems,” said Wheatcroft.

Added 28-year-old Hoge: “I’m tired today for sure, but kind of looking at it as a positive because I’ve been playing well the last few weeks. I’m hoping to keep the momentum going.”

HEADLINERS IN NAPA

Phil Mickelson headlines the field this week in the PGA Tour’s season-opener in Napa, but there are a few other names worth noting and watching in the opener—most notably Sang-Moon Bae.

The 31-year-old South Korean hasn’t played since the 2015 Presidents Cup and returns this week after a government-required 21-month stint in the military. Bae was discharged last month and missed the cut in an Asian Tour event three weeks ago, shooting 74 in his first round in two years and finishing at seven over.

When the 2014-’15 season ended, Bae was ranked No. 85 in the world and by virtue of a win at the 2014 event in Napa would have been exempt for two more years. Instead, he’ll play this season on a one-year hardship exemption, which will give him status for the 2017-’18 season.

Keyur Khamar

Bae will play on the PGA Tour this year using a one-year hardship waiver.

Meanwhile, highly decorated former amateur and Stanford star Maverick McNealy will make his pro debut at Silverado. He’s joined by Beau Hossler, the former University of Texas standout who after spending this year on the Web.com Tour is playing his first official event as a PGA Tour member after finishing 23rd on the Web.com money list.

McNealy, who once considered foregoing a career on tour and whose father, Scott, co-founded Sun Microsystems, won the Haskins and Nicklaus Awards as the nation’s top collegiate player during his sophomore year at Stanford and was the No. 1-ranked amateur in the world earlier this year.

Hossler, on the other hand, last made big headlines at the 2012 U.S. Open at Olympic, where as a 17-year-old he held the lead midway through the second round.

RORY’S LAST STAND

Speaking of momentum, Rory McIlroy found some at last week’s British Masters, where he finished three strokes behind winner Paul Dunne. McIlroy’s weekend 64-63 was the best closing stretch of his career and if nothing else should give him a confidence boost as he heads into the offseason following this week’s Dunhill Links Championship.

“It was just nice to have a chance to win a golf tournament,” McIlroy said after the runner-up, his best finish since finishing second in South Africa early in the year. “I think that was the big thing. The more chances I have like that I seem to play better. Mentally I’m just a little more engaged and switched on.

“I’m happy with how I played and don’t feel like I could have done much more,” McIlroy added.

Especially after Dunne closed with a 61 to claim his first European Tour title.

McIlroy can now head into a couple of months off on a high note, though, which is certainly a different feeling than he exited the FedEx Cup Playoffs with after being eliminated at the BMW Championship.

THREE THINGS I THINK I THINK

I think the conversation should be under way on how to fix the Presidents Cup. Yes, the U.S. was loaded. Yes, the International team played poorly. And yes, there seemed to be a lot of fun being had by both sides, which is a key component when it comes to spreading the game in an exhibition. But the event will become a joke from a competition standpoint if it remains so one-sided and with so many inherent advantages for the American team there’s nothing to indicate the winning streak will stop anytime soon. …

I think among the ideas of how to fix the Presidents Cup being kicked around, the one I like most is Brandel Chamblee’s suggestion that the home team picking the order of play. While we’re at it, shorten the event to three, maybe even two, days and reduce the total points even further. This would, I think, make things more competitive without sacrificing any integrity of the event or its participants. …

I think that as much as no one enjoyed the rain and wind washing away Sunday at the Web.com Tour Championship, it worked out OK for Wheatcroft, who despite the poor conditions, hit the range anyway, found something in his swing (he was having trouble staying down and into his left knee on his follow through) and played what he called a “stress-free” final round in which he shot four-under 67. Funny how golf works sometimes.

WHO I LIKE THIS WEEK

As much as Mickelson is the best player in the field this week in Napa and is feeling “re-focused” and “energized,” much of that likely applied to his run up and through the Presidents Cup. I like a different kind of momentum instead. Sam Saunders is coming off a week in which he shot 59 and finished second on the Web.com Tour. He’ll ride that all the way to his first win on tour.

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