The 5 wildest things you missed from a rollercoaster ending at Kapalua
The PGA Tour is off to a wild start to the decade. On Sunday evening in Hawaii, three of the game’s top Americans ended up in a playoff for the first Tour title of 2020. By the time the tournament wrapped up, it was after 11 p.m. on the east coast, which means you may well have missed the action. Here are five of the moments that got us to that playoff — and what happened when we got there.
1. Joaquin Niemann’s “worm-burner”
Let’s start with the rest of the field; those 31 players who didn’t make it into the playoff. Representing the best of the rest will be this fine bit of craftsmanship from Joaquin Niemann, whose masters of the driver stinger is up there with the best in the game. Sunday was particularly gusty at Kapalua’s Plantation Course; the best way to cheat the wind is by staying underneath it. Safe to say the 21-year-old Chilean accomplished that with his tee shot on the par-4 13th, where he hit what Paul Azinger called a “worm-burner” — in admiration, of course.
“Not a lot of guys are able to do what he did right here,” Azinger said. “But this is a confident effort. One of his strengths is he can really manipulate his trajectory off the tee, but to be able to do this you kind of have to hood the face down at the bottom, which he was able to do. Almost looked like he topped it, but I can assure you he hit the sweet spot dead center.”
2. Justin Thomas’ implosion
I don’t want to get melodramatic about a bogey in a pressure-packed spot, but it was shocking to see Justin Thomas give away a one-stroke lead on the par-5 18th hole in regulation. No. 18 had played under par all week and was the third-easiest hole on Sunday; Thomas is also known as a steady closer. But he’d already given away a shot with bogey at 16 and scrambled to save par at 17. At 18, he mishit his tee shot and then sniped his approach shot out of play on the left — the only place he couldn’t miss it.
Azinger rightly called it a “humongous mistake,” and he was right: there’s infinite room to the right on the approach, especially the way the pros play it. Consider Dustin Johnson’s approach on 18, which missed some 50 yards right but resulted in a benevolent free drop. Thomas scratched out a bogey just to earn a spot in the playoff. That ended up being enough.
3. Xander Schauffele’s three-putts
Thomas wasn’t the only one struggling to close out the tournament on No. 18. Once he missed short and left, it opened the door for playing partner (and 2019 champion) Xander Schauffele to steal the tournament. When he chased his second shot up to 40 feet for eagle, it looked like his event to win. But this is golf, and Schauffele’s eagle try kept trickling past the hole, rolling out to some seven feet. There are no easy seven-footers to win golf tournaments, and Schauffele over-read this one, never even scaring the hole.
“I should have won the tournament. I know it. Everyone knows it. I mean, J.T. was right there, but under the circumstances I should have closed it off, and I didn’t,” Schauffele said afterwards.
Instead, he earned a spot in the playoff, where he hit the 18th green in two shots again. This time, though, his eagle putt was some 100 feet in length, and he described being “spooked” after having blown his putt past the hole in regulation. He left it 23 feet short and missed the birdie try, settling for another three-putt par and elimination from the playoff in the process.
“I kind of did everything I was supposed to do until the last moment, which sucks. But this is another learning experience, and I guess I’ll have to work on some wind putting,” he concluded.
The spectacle of in-person professional golf relies on the crowd to stay respectfully silent while a player hits each shot. Now and again, an ill-fated scream from a fan will interrupt a player’s swing or putting stroke, often to deleterious effect. That wall was nearly broken down during the playoff, when Patrick Reed — human beacon of controversy — faced a birdie putt to extend the event to a fourth playoff hole. Just after he made contact with the ball, someone from the bleachers yelled, “Cheater!”
Reed shot a look up into the stands as his ball raced past the cup, all but ensuring the end of the tournament (Thomas faced three feet for the win).
“That was pretty unfortunate,” Golf Channel announcer Dan Hicks said. “You see Reed glaring up into the stands. Someone yelled as loud and as clear as day, ‘Cheater!’ ”
“I didn’t hear that,” Azinger responded.
“I did,” Hicks said. “There was no doubt about it, ‘Zing.”
It’s no secret Reed hasn’t exactly been a fan favorite in recent weeks since his incident at the Hero World Challenge, but he’s grown accustomed to that role — and seems to thrive on it. Still, it’s worth keeping an ear out for future Reed hecklers, particularly if he keeps up this run of top form.
5. JT’s deal-sealing wedge
It took three extra trips down the 18th hole, but Justin Thomas finally did what he needed to do to close out the Tournament of Champions. On playoff hole No. 3, Thomas stared down a wedge shot from 113 yards, knowing he needed to hit something close. We’ll let Thomas take it from here:
“The first thing [caddie] Jimmy said was, ‘What do you think is the safest?’ I said, ‘We’re 113 yards, I need to make birdie; I’m not worried about what the safest play is, like, we need to make 4.’
“For me I felt like my best chance was going to be to hit a cut sand wedge and we were trying to fly it about eight short, so that was playing I felt like about 95, so I just tried to hit a 95 cut sand wedge, and it looked like it was pretty close to going in.”
Indeed, the approach nearly grazed the hole on its way by and settled just three feet from the cup. When Thomas dodged Reed’s final bid to extend, it was official.
“For some reason I was supposed to win this week,” he said immediately afterwards, immensely relieved. “I got very, very lucky to even have that opportunity.”
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