Gary Woodland reignites career at 33
Gary Woodland makes a nine-birdie, two-bogey 64 to storm to the top of the leaderboard, then outlasts a tenacious Chez Reavie with a par on the first hole of a playoff to win the Waste Management Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale. Welcome to the Monday Finish, where Woodland’s driving was characteristically strong, and he made 200 feet of putts on the weekend to break a five-year winless drought. Here are some observations after Woodland zoomed to fifth in the FedExCup and reminded us of his staggering talent. FIVE OBSERVATIONS 1 Long driving remains crucial in Phoenix. Woodland averaged 318.4 yards per drive, which was seventh best in the field. “The long hitters, when you drive it well, it’s a different golf course,” said Woodland’s caddie, Brennan Little, who used to caddie for Mike Weir. “Especially this year, since the greens were firmer. It helped to have some shorter irons into them.” Currently 10th in driving distance this season (313.9 yards), Woodland has always been one of the PGA TOUR’s heavier hitters, but pal Matt Kuchar noticed he had taken it to another level when the two played a nine-hole practice round together the Tuesday before the WMPO. Kuchar also took note of Woodland’s recent results, which included top-15 finishes in his last two starts, and felt like his friend might be about to win. “When he drives it well,” Kuchar said, “golf gets pretty easy.” 2 A solid short game is crucial everywhere. Frustrated with his results, Woodland had a heart-to-heart with his coach Butch Harmon, who set him up with Pete Cowen to evaluate his short game. That helped, as did Woodland reuniting with friend Brad Faxon in the off-season. The two spoke on the phone on Saturday night, right before Woodland scorched the greens at TPC Scottsdale for a final-round 64. “My first couple years out here I spent a lot of time with Fax, and played a lot of practice rounds with him,” Woodland said. “And just haven’t seen him much since he went out on the [PGA TOUR Champions], but now we’re living close to each other.” The fix was more mental than mechanical, Woodland said, and it’s clearly working. He was 16th in strokes gained: putting (+.846) at TPC Scottsdale, and he is eighth in that statistical category (+1.090) on the season. “I feel like I can make a lot of putts,” he said, “and I haven’t felt that way in a long time.” 3 Justin Thomas looks like a future winner in Phoenix. The reigning FedExCup champion couldn’t stay away from the big numbers, but Thomas got back at the closing holes at TPC Scottsdale on Sunday. After making pars at 15 and 16, he eagled the par-4 17th hole (3-wood tee shot to four feet) and birdied 18, too, for a 66 to finish 11-under. Just like that, he had played the last four holes in 3-under, seven shots better than the day before. “I played plenty well enough to win this week,” Thomas said. “I just really had four bad holes that probably ended up costing me the tournament.” Those four holes included a double-bogey/bogey hiccup on 16/17 at the end of the first round, plus a triple-bogey/double-bogey pileup on 15/16 at the end of the third. If there was one regret to Thomas’ sensational finish Sunday, it was his failure to make amends at 16, the common denominator in both of his crack-ups. His 19-foot birdie try grazed the edge of the cup, and he spun around and yelled in frustration. “It’s absolutely embarrassing and pathetic how I played that hole this week,” he said. “I like this golf course. I feel like I have a good chance to win here at some point in my career.” (At least he wasn’t the only one to struggle at 16. Ian Poulter, who had hit a shank there earlier in the week, left his second shot in the left greenside bunker and double-bogeyed it Sunday.) 4 Ollie Schniederjans keeps getting closer to that first win. Schniederjans (65, 15-under, T3) started the final round at 9-under and too far back. Okay, maybe not. The Georgia Tech product, part of the high school Class of 2011, turned in 1-under 34 before making four straight birdies on holes 12-15 to scare the leaders. He ran out of holes, though, making two pars to close out the second-best round of the day. “Really didn’t make enough putts the first three days to give myself a great chance today,” said Schniederjans, whose previous best this season was a T7 at the Sony Open in Hawaii. “I felt like I needed to birdie the last two.” (Two birdies would have left him a shot out of the playoff.) Although he didn’t win, the result was Schniederjans’ best since a solo second at the Wyndham Championship last August, and he has been inside the top 25 in five of seven starts this season. 5 Phil Mickelson doesn’t look done yet. The 42-time TOUR winner was trying to win for the first time with his brother, Tim, on the bag, and it didn’t look out of the realm of possibility when Mickelson birdied holes 15, 16 and 17. Alas, Mickelson simply ran out of holes. Needing to eagle the par-4 18th to pull even with Woodland, he made double-bogey to finish T5. It was a solid effort, but Mickelson, who like Woodland was trying to win for the first time since 2013, is beyond moral victories. “I played all right,” he said. “I just didn’t get it going early, and I don’t know what to say.” On the bright side, the popular lefty now goes back to California trending upward, and is a four-time winner of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, most recently in 2012. Then it’s on to the Genesis Open at Riviera, where he went back-to-back in 2008 and 2009. “It’s a collection of courses I really like,” Mickelson said. “I’ve played well on them in the past, and I’m hoping to build on this week’s performance. There’s no reason why I shouldn’t.” FIVE INSIGHTS 1 Woodland was helped immensely by his new short-game coach, Pete Cowen, and informal putting lessons from Brad Faxon. The winner chipped in from 30 feet to save par at the sixth hole and took just 26 putts Sunday, one day after he needed just 27 in the third round. 2 Chez Reavie did everything well in making the playoff, but he was best in fairways hit (36/56, T10) and proximity to the hole on approach shots (35 feet, 8 inches; 11th best). 3 Brendan Steele quietly posted a 4-under 67 to finish T3. He missed collecting his fourth TOUR title (2011 Valero Texas Open, 2016 and 2017 Safeway Open), but nevertheless has reeled off seven top-30 finishes at the WMPO since 2012. 4 Chesson Hadley, the Web.com Tour Player of the Year last season, closed with a 3-under 68 to finish T5. He has four top-five finishes in eight starts this season, including a runner-up at the Sanderson Farms Championship. 5 Mickelson (T5) is still a work in progress with the driver. He hit 29 of 56 fairways, which is just under 52 percent and was tied for 48th best in the field. Not bad, for him, but he still has room for improvement. He’s hitting just 45.86 percent of the fairways on the season (213th on TOUR) and is -.560 in strokes gained: off-the-tee (179th).
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