ORLANDO, Fla.—The Final Four is set.
Oh, not that Final Four. The NCAA basketball tournament brackets in your office pool entry looks like a train wreck collided with a cement mixer and you’re still dazed and mumbling phrases like, “Stephen F. Who?” No one has any idea who’s going to strut out of this mess and reach the Final Four.
We’re talking about The Arnold Palmer Invitational here. Its Final Four is set going into Sunday’s finish at Bay Hill, where banners with photos of a young Arnie adorn the press center along with inspirational quotes from him including, “You must play boldly to win” (and I can hear him chirping something with the word “chicken” in it if you ever laid up on a par 5 in his group) and “The road to success is always under construction."
The Palmer’s Final Four looks like this: Jason Day at 15-under, two shots ahead of Henrik Stenson, Kevin Chappell and Troy Merritt. With no disrespect to Justin Rose and Derek Fathauer at four shots back, which is certainly within range of winning on Sunday, but this is Jason Day in the lead. The guy who shot 20-under to win the PGA Championship last year and who, a few weeks later, shot 18-under in the first two rounds of the BMW Championship.
At his best, he looked every bit the part of vintage Tiger Woods during that summer stretch. Saturday, he shot a 70 in a steady and occasionally heavy rain. Somebody else would be catchable from four back but Day, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy are three exceptions where a realistic goal looks like second place.
Sir Charles Barkley is not available to analyze Arnie’s Final Four so we’ll have to muddle on without him. Here’s a quick Van Cynical look at the Palmer’s Quintessential Quadruplets:
Jason (Big Dog) Day.
This is exactly the guy you don’t want to chase on Sunday. His best golf last year looked better than Spieth’s or McIlroy’s best, for starters. Plus he’s one of game’s longest hitters. He’s killing Bay Hill’s par 5s—Arnie himself would probably be ticked off by as the course’s custodian that if it wasn’t exactly how he liked to play in his prime. “Go For Broke” was his instruction-piece book title.
Day is 11-under this week for the 12 par-5s he’s played. Do the math. Day is 15-under now, and he’s got a two-shot edge. Let’s conservatively give him three more birdies on the par 5s Sunday. Now he’s at 18-under. The other three guys now have to shoot 67 just to keep up with him.
Day got his high round out of the way Saturday, shooting 70 in the rain, about the highest he could have shot. No matter what Sunday’s weather is, he’s still unleashing the biggest dog off the tee in the final round.
Asked about how he’s different with a 54-hole lead now than he was a few years ago, Day laughed and answered, “I probably would have choked. That’s not to say I may not choke in the future as well but that’s how it is. You learn and get better and you go, Oh, that was it, that’s why I didn’t play so great because that changed my momentum or I didn’t make the birdie or the par and shot myself out of the lead. I feel like I’ve improved every year as a player. It’s going to be tough to win tomorrow. I’ve got to stay in my own world and focus on myself.”
Day, a big Cleveland Cavaliers fan since he’s taken up residence in suburban Columbus, Ohio, was asked to compare Sunday’s finish to a basketball game.
“There’s a team aspect to it, if you’re not having the greatest night, another teammate can pick up the slack,” he said. “If I’m out there and not playing well, I can’t hand it to my caddie, Colin, and say, ‘Finish my back nine because I’m playing horrible.’ You’ve got to suck it up for all five hours.”
Henrik (The Swedish Chef) Stenson.
Another guy you don’t to see stepping to the tee in your group. He’s probably the Best Player Without a Major, he won the FedEx Cup and the Race To Dubai in the same season, a crazy-good feat and he likes Bay Hill. His last four finishes here are 15th, eighth, fifth and second.
“There are a lot of mid-to long irons on the par 3s, into the par 4s and also on the par 5s,” Stenson said. “That’s one of my strengths of my game when I’m playing well. It’s a good course for me, the same as last week in Tampa.”
Stenson is another big hitter, but he’s only eight under par on the 12 par 5s, and that includes Saturday’s eagle at the famous sixth, the hole that curves left around a big lake. He drove it 310 yards, reached the green from 235 yards and sank a 13-foot putt. Easy.
If there’s a knock on the off-beat Swede, it’s that he doesn’t always close strong. He hasn’t won in the U.S. since his Tour Championship victory in 2013 and his last European breakthrough was the 2014 DP Tour Championship in Dubai. He came close at the PGA Championship at Valhalla won by McIlroy, and he’s had a second and two thirds on the European Tour this season.
“When Tiger was at his best, he was one or two shots up when he teed it up because everyone was scared of him,” Stenson said. “Tomorrow for me, I’m just going to try to play the best round I can and hopefully that will be good enough.”
Did I mention he was offbeat? In an early round at the Valspar Championship, Stenson was eating a banana as he walked off a tee box and then spotted a writer he recognized (no, not me!) walking along inside the ropes. Stenson approach him, grabbed his hand, pulled him out closer to the fairway and walked like a monkey and made monkey-sounds while continuing to eat the banana for about 20 yards before letting the writer escape. In summary: Fear the Swedish banana.
Kevin (ChapSticks) Chappell.
He’s 29 and hitting the big three-oh later this summer. A former NCAA champion at UCLA, Chappell has developed into a steady money-winner on the PGA Tour. He’s got five top-three finishes with no wins yet but he has racked up more than $7 million in earnings.
Chappell has racked up rounds of 68, 68 and 67 for three days and been consistent despite not feeling well.
“I didn’t feel great Thursday morning,” he said. “My wife and son came out from the West Coast. He had a bug and now my wife and I have it but he feels great. I’m just happy to be done. I guess it’s true what they say, be wary of the sick golfer.”
He said he felt like the media has been pretty nice to him (somebody note this epochal moment!) considering how many chances he’s had to win.
“So, I guess the personal pressures are much larger than external pressures,” he said. “I know not to really blow in here and expect to win tomorrow but I'm sure going to give it a shot. It's something I thought about thousands and thousands of times. It's just a matter of going out and doing it. I can't think of a better place to get my first win--the castle that Mr. Palmer built and in front of a world class field.”
Troy (The Boise Assasin) Merritt.
This is the wild card entry. He’s somewhat unknown, the NCAA tournament equivalent of Middle Tennessee State or Northern Iowa, but he’s dangerous. He won last summer’s Quicken Loans Championship, his first PGA Tour victory, and this is his first appearance in the Palmer Invitational. Best of all, he’s Teflon to all weather conditions. When it poured Saturday, Merritt didn’t hide under some $800 Gore-Tex suit. He just grabbed an umbrella and gutted it out. Merritt, 30, an All-American golfer at Boise State University, was born in Osage, Iowa, and moved around a bit.
“I was raised in southern Idaho, went to high school in Minneapolis and spent two years at Winona State in Minnesota,” he said. “So I know the north, the cold, the wind and the rain and the snow. The most important thing when it starts raining hard is to embrace it. If you don't want to play in the rain, if you don't want to be out there, you're not going to put good swings on it and you’re goig to shoot yourself out of it.”
So Merritt is a mudder. And probably a slusher, too.
Better still, Merritt is not some techno-swing golfing robot machine who needs to know whether his swing plane is two degrees off its zenith or what. “I don't work on a lot of my golf swing,” he admitted. “As long as the posture and alignment are correct and the takeaway is fine, all ll I think about are tempo. No mechanics.”
He’s a throwback, a feel player and he admittedly has a knack for playing his best golf after a six-week stretch of crap golf. Why? He doesn’t’ know, he just does and yes, he came to Bay Hill having missed five of his last six cuts.
Merritt has a sense of humor. He wore pink slacks Saturday. Or were they salmon-colored? He was ready for a debate on the subject. And when a shortish, squat media member corralled him for a quick interview in front of a video camera, the taller (6 feet) Merritt joked, “You want me to kneel?”
He is 148th in driving distance, a self-described shorter hitter, and joked that if he was playing in Sunday’s final threesome with long-knockers Day and Stenson, “They’d better be ready for me to blow it 20 yards by them every hole.”
He is kidding, of course. But he is not kidding about not minding if he’s overlooked in Sunday’s Bay Hill finale.
“I don’t think I’m a Stephen F. Austin of this tournament,” Merritt said. “They’re hard core and get after you right away and keep the pressure up. I’m kind of laid back, hide in the weeds and try to get the job done from the back seat. That’s a position I’m OK with. I’m not a headliner by any means and I’m fine with that.
It means Merritt is the clear underdog here, which could play well. After all, it’s March, it’s time for madness and hey, he’s already in The Final Four.