For another year, the PGA Tour spotlight is shining away from Asia and Mississippi, and settling in a place where light is hardly scarce: Las Vegas, Nevada for the 36th annual Shriners Hospitals For Children Open.
A 132-man field will be on hand at TPC Summerlin, and while the Fall Series typically does not draw the bigger names, those among this week’s field include Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler, Bryson DeChambeau, Webb Simpson, Tony Finau, and Patrick Cantlay. Those who find themselves in Vegas regularly, or just this weekend, should be especially excited to finally have something to do.
There are many great storylines at the course where Tiger Woods notched the first of his 80 career PGA Tour victories, but here are the ones that deserve extra attention:
1. Cantlay Defends
In 2011, Patrick Cantlay was destined for stardom. He was a record-breaking amateur player who looked nowhere out of place in the U.S. Open, and then shot a second-round 60 at the Travelers Championship, as an amateur.
Then, life went bad for the UCLA product. His back gave out on him, much younger than it does for most golfers, and stress fractures made it impossible for him to play. He sat out years in the recovery. There was also the personal turmoil from when his caddie, who also happened to be his best friend, died in a hit-and-run right in front of his eyes.
For a while, he became one of the ultimate “what if?” stories, mentioned along with the Anthony Kims and Ty Tryons of the world.
Now, largely thanks to what he was able to accomplish at last year’s Shriners Hospitals For Children Open, the 26-year-old appears to be back on a track for stardom, and certainly, once again, has the attention of the golf world.
Coming into last year’s event at TPC Summerlin, Cantlay had been in reasonably good form. His 2017 comeback season – the first regular, competitive golf since his back fracture, did not net a victory, but he did make an impressive 13 cuts in 13 events. Four of those finishes were inside the top 10, and he did extremely well to make it to the Tour Championship – the final event of the FedExCup playoffs. Players who make just 13 starts aren’t supposed to go THAT deep into the playoffs.
All he needed was that win, and he got it in Vegas.
Five shots out of the lead going into the final round, Cantlay played his front-nine in 2 under, and then exploded on the back with birdies on Nos. 11, 12, 13, and 14, vaulting him into the lead. He nearly squandered that advantage down the stretch as Sunday’s final groups were forced to navigate the last three holes at Summerlin against heavy cross winds. His bogey-bogey finish, though, was still good enough to get him into a playoff with Whee Kim and Alex Cejka.
The trio went back to No. 18, where Cantlay was able to rebound from a poor drive to make the lone par of the threesome. And with it, Cantlay finally had his win.
For the 2017-18 season, in addition to his maiden PGA Tour victory, Cantlay made 21 cuts in 23 starts – highlighted by seven top 10s, and once again made it to East Lake.
He was the 54-hole leader at The Memorial Tournament, one of the strongest-field events of the year among non-majors, and also posted a T4 at Riviera.
This will be Cantlay’s third start of the new season. He finished T17 at the season-opening Safeway Open, and followed it up with a T7 at last week’s WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai, China.
Now ranked No. 23 in the world, if Cantlay is able to shake off the travel fatigue, his all-around game should give him an excellent shot of joining Jim Furyk as a multi-time winner in Vegas.
2. A Champ-ion Bomber
While most of the world’s elite golfers were in China for the WGC-HSBC Champions, a great story was going on in Mississippi, where a lower tier of professionals were assembled for the Sanderson Farms Championship.
The alternate field event was won by 23-year-old Tour rookie Cameron Champ, who used a torrid final stretch to finish four strokes ahead of the competition.
This win was no ordinary victory, however. The appropriately-named Champ was already one of the most watched players in golf, as he is a bomber among the bombers on Tour.
Now, the Texas A&M star has a giant rooster trophy that proves he is more than a Happy Gilmore-esque long-drive freak. He finished the tournament 9th in greens in regulation and second in strokes gained: putting, gaining more than nine strokes on the field with his flatstick.
Now, Champ-mania will be in full force as fans trample each other to catch a glimpse of a truly inimitable skillset. This will be his Shriners debut, but he has shown the ability to get (and stay) hot; he is unlikely to see too much of a letdown at TPC Summerlin.
3. Spieth Re-Starts His Engines
Many players will be relishing the new starts they get with the PGA wrap-around season. Nobody should be looking forward to it more than Jordan Spieth, an 11-time Tour winner and 3-time major champion, who was shockingly one of the most disappointing players on Tour in 2018.
Expectations were high for Spieth, who was the world’s second-ranked player 12 months ago. He was coming off another tremendous season: three wins (including a major), three runner-ups (including two in the playoffs), twelve top-10s, and $9.4 million in earnings.
His 2017-18 season, though? The 24-year old (now 25) fell well short of his standards.
Spieth did not make a start last season until January at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, where he finished 9th in a 32-man field. His early results were just so-so, but he seemed to be coming around when he finished T3 at the Houston Open, and then exploded with a final-round 64 at The Masters to finish third there as well.
Then things went south. His minor putting regression turned into full-blown yips, and he was unable to carry himself with the rest of his game. From the Masters on, Spieth had just one top-10 – a T9 as the defending champion at the Open Championship, where he was the 54-hole leader before imploding for a birdie-free 76 on Sunday. It was difficult to take much good from that.
For the season, Spieth had no victories, no runner-ups, just five top-10s, and $2.8 million in earnings – a precipitous drop-off from his previous few seasons. He even failed to make it to the Tour Championship, bowing out of the playoffs with a dreadful performance at the BMW Championship. He has also fallen outside the top 10 of the world rankings (No. 12).
However, there was a promising sign recently. In his last outing, the Ryder Cup, Spieth was one of just a few American players who were ANY good. He went 3-2-0 for the week in Paris, although he got walloped 5&4 in Sunday singles by European Ryder Cup rookie Thorbjorn Olesen.
This will be Spieth’s debut in Vegas. Nobody knows exactly where his game is right now, but he should be as motivated as anyone to put the last season well in the rear-view mirror. He is too good to have another season like last.
4. Other Season Debuts For Stars
Spieth might be the most notable player who chose the Shriners Hospitals For Children Open for his season debut, but he is definitely not the only A-lister in that position. This is a surprisingly top-heavy field; more so than usual, anyway, and the following golfers are also eager to get the new season going:
Probably the most popular player in the Shriners field, the world No. 9 Fowler is one of just two players in this field who are currently in the top 10 of the world rankings.
While 2017-18 was not a full-fledged disaster for Rickie, it was not exactly the banner year he was looking for either. He made 17 of 20 cuts with 14 finishes in the top 25 and 6 inside the top 10. He did not add a 5th career victory, but he did have two runner-ups; one in the Fall Series, and the other at The Masters.
He did fairly well in the majors, but is under as much pressure as anyone to win on that stage, and he again did not do that.
Like most of the American team, he was terrible at the Ryder Cup (1-3-0), but has shown good recent form, posting top 20s in 8 of his last 9 starts. His two playoff starts (he missed the first two with an injury) were a T8 and a T7. The latter was at the Tour Championship where he shot bookend 65s.
The highest-ranked player in this week’s field is the 25-year-old DeChambeau, who sits at No. 6 in the OWGR. While Spieth was a major disappointment last season, and Fowler was a minor one, DeChambeau became a sensation in 2018.
One of the most unorthodox players the Tour has ever seen, DeChambeau had three wins among his nine top-10 finishes, including back-to-back victories in the first two legs of the FedExCup playoffs. He struggled in the Tour Championship as the No. 1 player in the standings, and was an unmitigated disaster at the Ryder Cup (0-3-0), but he is unlikely to stay down long, if at all.
The 2014 Shriners Champion in a six-stroke blowout, Simpson is coming off a tremendous comeback season. Largely due his unbelievable improvement with his putter (he ranked 6th on Tour in strokes gained: putting), Simpson found himself frequently in contention.
He had one victory among his nine top 10s, an absolute shellacking of an elite field at THE PLAYERS Championship. He is in good form as of late, finishing the playoffs with a T6 and a T4, and put up a respectable performance at the Ryder Cup (2-1-0).
Add the now 40-year-old to the list of players who would like to forget the 2017-18 PGA Tour season.
Kuchar has seven career victories, but none in majors, and none since the 2014 RBC Heritage. Known as a top-10 machine, he had just four in 24 starts this past season.
The Georgia Tech product went T60-T43 over the first two rounds of the playoffs, failing to make it to the third leg. Kuchar was motivated to add the Shriners to his schedule this year, an event he has not played this decade.