NAPA, Calif. – Tim Clark addressed his ball, reared back, took a mighty lash … and barely grazed the top of his ball with the sole of his driver. The ball dribbled off the tee and stopped perhaps 10 feet away, and Clark and practice round playing partners Matt Jones and Chez Reavie appraised the intentional duff with wry smiles.
Well, that’s one way to hit a 10-footer.
The 90-plus-degree air is thick with plots and subplots as the 2016 PGA Tour gets set to kick off with this week’s Frys.com Open at Silverado Country Club, among them how golfers like Clark, one of the last of the anchored putters, will adapt to the much-chronicled anchoring ban that goes into effect January 1.
“I’m still kind of deciding,” Clark said Tuesday. “But I’m probably going to start this week with something that will be allowed next year. I’ll probably go Kuchar-style.”
For the uninitiated, putting like Matt Kuchar means steadying the putter in part by running the grip end of the shaft up your left forearm. Clark, who will turn 40 in December, has had bigger problems than the USGA’s ban on anchoring, namely his most recent injury setback, left elbow surgery, that kept him off the Tour for five months.
“I feel great, physically,” he said. “I’m close to back to normal.”
Clark underwent surgery on his right elbow in 2011.
Charl Schwartzel stood on the practice green, squinted up at the hot sun, and asked his caddie whether the front and back nines here both come back to the clubhouse.
The 2011 Masters champion could be excused for feeling out of sorts. He’s one of four players in the field this week who competed in the Presidents Cup in South Korea, a quartet that also includes U.S. hero Chris Kirk, Steven Bowditch and Hideki Matsuyama.
“I feel like I’m on a different planet,” said Schwartzel, who made the 12-hour flight from South Korea to San Francisco on Monday. “I didn’t sleep well last night. It’s a 16-hour time change. I watched that movie with the Rock on the flight—San Andreas. Here I am watching that as I’m flying to San Francisco. The whole place is falling apart!”
Bowditch, who finished second here last year, reported no ill effects from the trip.
“I’m good to go,” he said. “It was an easy trip. I enjoy flying. I slept for probably six or seven hours. I’ll fly from Dallas, where I live in the U.S., to Brisbane quite often. And after this I’ll go to Las Vegas, Malaysia, China, Australia and South Africa.”
The off-season just isn’t what it used to be. After a hiatus of just two and a half weeks since Jordan Spieth won the Tour Championship, 144 players will tee off at the Frys.com at Silverado on Thursday, the lid lifter for the 2016 season.
There will be 47 events in all: seven during the fall of 2015, followed by a seven-week break, followed by the Hyundai Tournament of Champions in January. This may be the only tournament, however, in which last year’s champion, Sangmoon Bae, will miss out on defending his title in order to defend his country. He was off to join the South Korean military shortly after compiling a 2-1-1 record at the Presidents Cup.
“Have I been playing? It hasn’t been that long since I stopped playing,” said seventh-ranked Justin Rose, the highest ranked player in the field other than No. 3 Rory McIlroy. “I’ve just come from four or five days of equipment testing, and before that I played Pine Valley and Merion with some friends, and before that was the Tour Championship.” Rose tied for second place.
Kevin Na, who tied for 16th at the Tour Championship, said he was concerned about a possible loss of focus after the conclusion of the FedEx Cup. That’s partly why he was a late commitment to the Frys.com; he didn’t want to go into his hometown tournament, next week’s Shriners Hospitals for Children Open in Las Vegas, out of form.
“It was a short break,” Na said.
Harold Varner III is a 25-year-old PGA Tour rookie who finished 25th on the Web.com Tour money list, which means he was the very last player to graduate to the big Tour via his regular-season tournament winnings on the developmental tour.
He’s also the first player of African-American ancestry to make the Tour since Joseph Bramlett in 2011, and only the second since the arrival of Tiger Woods nearly two decades ago. Not that Varner would necessarily frame it that way.
“I want to inspire all races,” Varner, a 5-foot-8-inch graduate of East Carolina University, said in his press conference Tuesday. As for being just the second black player to make it to the Tour since Woods, Varner added: “Yeah, it does surprise me. I don’t think he really motivated me—I didn’t see Tiger as a black or white thing. I just know he was the best player, and he happened to be black. If me playing golf brings more African-Americans to the game, then the more the merrier.”
As a junior golfer, Varner won the 2007 First Tee Open at Pebble Beach with pro Morris Hatalsky. Both men now reside in Jacksonville, Fla., and they keep in touch. Until he made all of $2,340 at the WinCo Foods Portland Open in August, snagging the 25th spot on the money list, Varner’s brief run as a pro had been less successful. He qualified for the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion, but shot 76-79 and missed the cut.
As for Woods, Varner says they’ve never met.
“I’m sure we’ll cross paths soon,” he said. “I’m looking forward to him coming back.”