The 2017-18 PGA Tour season was defined by comebacks. Tiger Woods was the most notable player to taste victory this past season, emerging from a lengthy career nadir lowlighted by injury and scandal to again contend on the biggest stages, taking runner-up honors at the PGA Championship before winning the Tour Championship.
In addition to Tiger’s resounding return to the winner’s circle, Phil Mickelson, Paul Casey, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Bubba Watson, Keegan Bradley, and Webb Simpson, among others, all ended painfully-long winless streaks.
How will 2018-19 be defined? It is too early to know, but the story will begin this week at Silverado Country Club in Napa, California, where the Safeway Open is set to kick off the season on Thursday. It is the fresh start most of the Tour has been craving.
The Safeway might not be the strongest field of the season, but it is the one with the most palpable air of hope.
There are myriad storylines to the season-opener, but here are four of the best:
1. STEELE DEFENDS IN NAPA (AGAIN)
It may be a new season, but we are starting the exact same way as last year: with Brendan Steele as the defending champion. At Silverado two years ago, Steele got hot on the weekend, posting 67-65 to vault up the leaderboard and finish a single stroke ahead of Patton Kizzire.
Last year, he started 65-67 to set the pace, and used a few late Sunday birdies to hold off Tony Finau and Phil Mickelson. The two Safeway triumphs represent two-thirds (67%) of Steele’s career victories, as the 35-year-old first prevailed at the 2011 Valero Texas Open.
A California native, all eyes will be on Steele as he attempts to become the first player on Tour to win an event three-consecutive times since Steve Stricker won a third-straight John Deere Classic in 2011.
This will be the fifth time since the start of last season that a player is going into an event as the two-time defending champion. Here’s what happened those four times last season:
- Justin Thomas – CIMB Classic (T17)
- Hideki Matsuyama – WM Phoenix Open (WD, Wrist)
- Daniel Berger – FedEx St. Jude Classic (CUT)
- Jhonattan Vegas – RBC Canadian Open (T29)
We do not know if Matsuyama would have made a run in Phoenix had he not hurt his wrist (he shot a first round 2-under 69 and was five back of Bill Haas), but recent history does not appear to be on the side of Steele. He obviously likes the course, but he will not be able to go relatively under the radar like he did last year, even as the defending champion.
If Steele is going to three-peat in Napa, in his 200th career start, he is going to have to do it with nothing resembling momentum. He got his season off to a good start with the win at Silverado and then a few other high finishes, but since a third-round 81 at THE PLAYERS Championship in May – which caused him to miss the secondary cut and place T79, his game has been a disaster.
In his last ten starts of 2018, Steele missed five cuts and his only finish better than 60th place was a T47 at the Open Championship. He finished the season with four-straight missed cuts before a 64th place finish at the no-cut, 70-man BMW Championship, the third leg of the FedExCup Playoffs.
Coming in cold might not be a problem for Steele, however. When he won last year, he had gone CUT-CUT-T56-T44 in his previous four events. When he won the year prior, he was coming off playoff finishes of 72nd and 64th. He might have some troubles keeping his stamina throughout an entire season, but there is something about Silverado that seems to fit him perfectly.
Last year, he led the field in strokes gained: off-the-tee, which has traditionally been the best part of his game.
2. STATE OF MICKELON’S GAME
Phil Mickelson might be a Hall of Famer, a 43-time tournament winner, and a five-time major champion, but over the past three weeks, the 48-year-old has looked anything but a legendary golfer. He finished the FedExCup Playoffs terribly, finishing T58 at the 70-man BMW Championship before placing dead last at the 30-man Tour Championship.
As bad as he played over the final two events of the playoffs, he was even worse at the Ryder Cup. Making his record 12th Ryder Cup appearance, Phil failed to score a point for the losing American side. He was thrashed 5&4 by the team of Sergio Garcia and Alex Noren in Friday Foursomes while paired with Bryson DeChambeau.
American Captain Jim Furyk sat Mickelson out for both Saturday sessions, and then on Sunday, he showed little fight in Sunday singles, losing convincingly to Francesco Molinari. Mickelson even had the ignominy of conceding the winning point to the Europeans, which happened after he sent his tee shot into the water on the par-3 16th hole.
It would seem strange that Phil is even in the Safeway field this week. He has looked exhausted as of late, and now, despite being the oldest player at the Ryder Cup, he is the only one of the 24 golfers there to sign up for Silverado.
Flying from Paris to Napa is tiring on its own, even in a luxury jet. Phil is a California guy, though, and he loves the California events. Apparently it was going to take a lot more to keep him on the sidelines this week.
Phil might be in terrible recent form, but even at an age where most players are well past their prime, it would be erroneous to call him washed up. His 2018 season was his best in years; he made 21 cuts in 24 starts with six finishes inside the top 5, including a win at the WGC-Mexico Championship that finally put an end to his five-year winless drought. He was wild off the tees all season, but the rest of his game was consistently good, and led to $4.6 million in earnings.
A big positive for Phil’s chances this week: he has been excellent at Silverado the last two years. After finishing T8 two years ago, he was T3 last season, using four back nine Sunday birdies to contend late. There are certainly questions about his game, but he should definitely not be counted out in Napa.
3. PATRICK CAN PLAY
Silverado Country Club will play host to a plethora of talent this week, but only two of the 144 players in the Safeway field this week were good enough in 2018 to qualify for the Tour Championship: Mickelson and Patrick Cantlay.
The 26-year-old Californian is the highest ranked player in the field (No. 22 in the OWGR), and at 12-1, he is the odds on favorite to take the season’s first title, despite never having professionally competed at Silverado.
The 2018 edition was the first full-time season for Cantlay – a once can’t miss amateur superstar who had his early career derailed by injury. After sitting out both 2015 and 2016, the UCLA product was finally healthy enough to play 13 events in 2017. That number was 23 in 2018.
In his most recent season, Cantlay made 21 of 23 cuts, posted seven top 10s, and notched his first professional victory, which came at the early-season Shriners Hospitals for Children Open.
Tee-to-green, Cantlay was phenomenal last year, finishing 9th on Tour in the strokes gain for that particular statistic. He was 8th in greens in regulation, and that shotmaking prowess was a chief reason he finished 17th in scoring average. He may lack experience at this course, and is not always sharp with the putter, but coming into the Safeway, he is the closest thing in the field to a lock to play well.
4. MULDER GETS CALLED UP
Baseball fans might notice a familiar name in the Safeway Open field: Mark Mulder. And yes, that is the same Mark Mulder who was an two-time All-Star pitcher, playing for the Oakland Athletics and the St. Louis Cardinals. The 41-year-old was given a sponsor’s exemption to tee up at Silverado.
Golf might not have been Mulder’s first love, and it is not the sport he made his millions playing, but make no mistake, his inclusion in the field is no gimmick. Mulder is a scratch golfer who asserted himself as the best celebrity golfer on the planet by going back-to-back-to-back at the American Century Championship.
The former 20-win pitcher has golfed in a number of mini-Tour events, but this week will represent his shot at a PGA Tour event. With his past success in Oakland, Mulder will likely be a popular man with the crowds this week.