While controversy swirled at The Northern Trust, a great golf tournament broke out in a gorgeous setting

August 12, 2019

JERSEY CITY, N.J. — Tiger Woods wasn’t around. Brooks Koepka made more news off the course than on it. In terms of fan support, both in numbers and in volume, this first week of the 2019 FedEx Cup Playoffs was mellow. But here’s the strange thing — a terrific golf tournament broke out on Sunday, in a special setting. One of the best events of the year, really. Patrick Reed won by a shot. It was his first win since the 2018 Masters.

The man he beat was in the day’s last twosome with him, Abraham Ancer of Mexico. Despite finishing second, the slender, bearded and elegant golfer played his way into the 30-man Tour Championship, the International team for the Presidents Cup in December and into the field for next April’s Masters.

One shot behind Ancer was Harold Varner, one of the most engaging and fun golfers on Tour, who will continue his search for his first Tour win this week at Medinah, at the BMW Championship, aka FedEx II.

Three interesting golfers, on an interesting course.

That is, the much-derided Liberty National Golf Club course. Is it a classic? No. Is it better than when it opened in 2006? It’s way better. Is its glass clubhouse with views of the Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan skyline one of the most spectacular things in golf? Absolutely.

Patrick Reed celebrates his victory at The Northern Trust on Sunday evening.
Getty Images

“It’s unique,” Reed said of the clubhouse when the shouting was over. He shot a final-round 69, two under, as did Ancer. “I’ve entered it now, three different ways. Basically, through the basement. I’ve entered it from up top, the normal clubhouse entrance. And for the Presidents Cup, I entered it from the ferry. It’s awesome. I think it’s a cool place. You see the 18th hole, the golf course, you look to the left and see the Statue of Liberty.”

The clubhouse and the course below it, built on a former landfill, are noted here because they show that golf does not have to be what it has always been. The game can reinvent itself and stay true to its roots. This place is a playground for the super-rich but that doesn’t mean it can’t be an inspiration in ways big and small.

“Getting the nickname Captain America and being able to come here, see the golf course and see the Statue of Liberty is pretty sweet,” Reed said. In actual fact, Reed’s “Captain America” nickname has not been in broad circulation since last year’s American Ryder Cup loss to the Europeans in Paris, although there were some fans shouting it out here this week. Regardless, it always kind of takes your breath away when you’re walking along the course, you look up, and there she is, Lady Liberty.

President Trump was here two years ago, when the Presidents Cup was played here. Woods was an assistant captain then and this year he is the Presidents Cup captain. Reed is in 12th place on the American points list. The top eight will make the team automatically after next week’s tournament in Chicago. The 2019 team, Reed said, was “definitely on my mind a little more than other weeks because of where we are.” He wants desperately to be on the team, and try to put the 2017 Ryder Cup behind him.

With a Mexican golfer finishing in second by a shot, it was impossible to ignore the powerful symbol of playing across a few acres of bay from the Statue of Liberty. The Mexican-American border has dominated the news for a long time now, and Ancer was asked about the heartbreak on a border he has crossed innumerable times. “I think it’s just unfortunate,” he said. “I don’t like to get really involved much in politics or anything like that, but I really hope that this all gets sorted out, and that all the distortion between U.S. and México all kind of goes away. I think if they work together, they can obviously make incredible things. But like I said, I think it’s a shame, all the stuff that’s going on. It’s a pretty touchy topic.”

Reed was deeply impressed by Ancer on Sunday, as he has been before. “There’s no quit in the guy,” Reed said. “You know he’s going to finish strong.” Reed predicted that Ancer would be an important contributor to the International team at the Presidents Cup in Australia in December. Ernie Els is the International captain.

As for Varner, his Sunday play here was vastly better than it was in his last outing in greater New York City. In May, at the PGA Championship at Bethpage Black, Varner was in a tie for second through three rounds (though seven shots back). His final-round 81, paired with the winner, Brooks Koepka, sent him into oblivion, but not depression. He’s one of the most upbeat players on Tour. His third-place finish here qualifies him both for the BMW Championship and the Tour Championship.

Asked if he was ready for two more events, Varner said, “Yeah — I’m only 28. I’ll be 29 in three days. So I don’t have anything else to do. I was going to play golf at home anyway.”

He played a nine-hole practice round with Woods on Tuesday, along with Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka. He was the fourth banana in that group, but how’s he looking now?

He’s going to Chicago for the first time in his nearly 29 years on this Earth.

“I’m just excited to be going to Chicago,” Varner said.

He was asked, What’s the one thing you want to do there?

“I want to go play good golf.”

Sixty-nine other guys can say the exact same thing. Way different course this week, way different clubhouse and a goal that does not change and has not changed for a century or more. FedEx II, here we come.

Michael Bamberger may be reached at [email protected]