It may be the world’s premiere golf league, but this week’s PGA Tour event – the Houston Open, had a strength-of-field comparable to today’s NFL game between the 0-5 Washington Redskins and the 0-4 Miami Dolphins.
Still, despite an ultimate field of “who’s that?” the action was pretty darn good on Sunday at the Golf Club of Houston, as the relatively anonymous Lanto Griffin shot a 3-under 69 to reach 14-under for the week, transmuting a one-stroke 54-hole lead into his first career PGA Tour victory.
The 31-year-old Griffin, making just his 33rd career Tour start, prevailed by one stroke over San Jose State product Mark Hubbard and 38-year-old Tour rookie Scott Harrington.
To say the Houston Open was lacking star power this week would be an enormous understatement. When “headliners” Henrik Stenson (world No. 37) and Keegan Bradley (No. 43) missed the cut, the highest ranked player still teeing it up in Houston over the weekend was world No. 59 Lucas Bjerregaard, a European Tour regular who had missed 12 of his last 17 cuts.
Griffin is not apologizing for the field, though, and he shouldn’t. Prior to this season, Griffin had not played on the PGA Tour since his rookie season of 2018, acquiring his 2020 Tour card via a strong performance on last season’s Korn Ferry Tour, where he finished sixth on the season money list.
Griffin has made the most of his second chance on Tour, posting finishes of 13, T11, T17, and T18 in his first four 2019-20 starts, respectively. In that span, he improved his world ranking from 228th to 176th. Anyone paying attention should not have been totally surprised that he broke through this week.
Despite his recent stretch of great play, the victory was nowhere near easy for Griffin. He played his front nine 3-under, but at the turn, his lead had turned into a co-lead, as Hubbard, his Sunday playing partner, played the front one stroke better. After Griffin made a mess of the par-4 11th hole, carding a bogey that could have been worse, he appeared to be fading.
Griffin failed to take advantage of either of the back-nine par 5s, 13 and 15, but his fortunes suddenly changed when he sunk a 33-foot bomb for birdie on the par 4 16th hole. He found himself again tied for the lead, this time with Harrington, who had gone on a back-nine birdie binge, but after Harrington bogeyed the par-4 17th, Griffin stood on the final tee box with a one-stroke lead over Harrington and Hubbard.
From there, it was simple: a par would likely mean a victory. For the week, the 18th hole was playing higher to par than No. 9 at Sheshan Golf Club, statistically the most difficult hole on the PGA Tour last season. However, despite the difficulty and the stakes, Griffin calmly reached the green in two, and after Hubbard narrowly missed what would have been a surprising birdie (only three players in the field birdied 18 on Sunday), Griffin sunk his 6-footer for par, clinching his first career Tour win.
Final Top-10 Finishers
Pos-Name-To Par (Final Rd)
1. Lanto Griffin -14 (-3)
2. Scott Harrington -13 (-5)
2. Mark Hubbard -13 (-3)
4. Harris English -11 (-6)
4. Xinjun Xhang -11 (-6)
4. Talor Gooch -11 (-3)
4. Carlos Ortiz -11 (-3)
4. Sepp Straka -11 (-3)
9. Bud Cauley -10 (-5)
9. Chad Campbell -10 (-4)
9. Stewart Cink -10 (-3)
9. Denny McCarthy -10 (-3)
13. Beau Hossler -9
17. Maverick McNealy -8
21. Kyle Stanley -7
23. Cameron Champ -6
28. Sebastian Munoz -5
28. Nick Watney -5
28. Russell Knox -5
45. Lucas Bjerregaard -3
55. Rich Beem -1
61. Russell Henley +1
78. Bill Haas +10
How Lanto Griffin Won the Houston Open
Griffin got off to a hot start at the Golf Club of Houston this week, opening with a 6-under 66 that had him just two strokes off the lead. However, Griffin found the going much more difficult on Friday, struggling his way to a 2-over 74 that threatened to end his championship hopes going into the week.
Griffin was resilient though, surging into the 54-hole lead with his best round of the week in round 3, a 7-under 65 that moved him to 11-under-par. His 3-under 69 on Sunday was enough to stay one ahead of his competition.
His 24 birdies for the week led the field, and he bogeyed just two holes in each of the four rounds, which, combined with the double-bogey he had on the brutal 18th hole on Friday, totalled his 14-under final score. Statistically, his best club this week was his putter, as he ranked 7th in the field in strokes gained: putting. He also finished 7th in strokes gained: tee-to-green, and while he did not dominate one particular category, he was good enough all-around to lead the field in strokes gained: total.
Griffin’s Winning Numbers
Driving: 311.8 yards (10th)
Fairways: 33/56, 58.93% (68th)
Greens: 48/72, 66.67% (64th)
Putts/GIR: 77/1.604 (3rd)
Scores: 24 Birdies, 39 Pars, 8 Bogeys, 1 Double Bogey
Off The Tee: 3.561 (17th)
Approach To Green: 2.438 (28th)
Around The Green: 1.651 (34th)
Putting: 5.830 (8th)
Tee To Green: 7.649 (7th)
Total: 13.480 (1st)
What It Means For Griffin
Not only did Griffin notch his first career PGA Tour victory on Sunday, but the win, combined with the strong start to his 2019-20 season, allowed him to take over the top position in the current FedExCup standings. In his only other season on Tour, he finished 171st in the FedExCup standings, making just 13 cuts in 26 starts, and landing in the top 25 just once.
Strong field or not, Griffin receives the same prodigious exemptions as the winners of any other non-major Tour event. He is now exempt for the entirely of the 2020 season, plus two additional seasons, and receives invites to a number of elite events, including The Masters in April. Griffin has played in only one major in his career, the 2018 U.S. Open, where he shot 9-over through the first two days and missed the cut by a mile.
Griffin’s 2019-20 PGA Tour Season
Cuts Made: 5
Wins: 1 (Houston)
Additional Top 10/20: 0/4
Earnings: $1,828,952 (1)
FedExCup Pts: 710 (1)
World Rank Before/After: 176/108
Scott Harrington was one of the feel-good stories of the Korn Ferry Tour finals in August, earning his first PGA Tour card. Harrington had taken considerable time off assisting his wife with a cancer battle, but came back strong, and showed that he might be on the Tour to stay.
Making just his 8th career PGA Tour start (and the first two came in 2004 and 2006, respectively), Harrington found himself in the lead late, shooting a final round 5-under 67 to finish runner-up, far and away his best career finish. Hitting at least 15 greens in three of four rounds, Harrington led the field for the week in greens in regulation, in addition to strokes gained: tee-to-green.
Despite a second-round 76, 32-year-old China native Xinjun Xhang, seriously threatened the course record of 63, reaching 8-under through 16 holes and getting himself within one of the lead before bogeys on the final two holes meant that he had to settle for a still-impressive 6-under 66. With the great Sunday round, Xhang jumped from T17 to T4 on the final leaderboard, his best finish in 36 career PGA Tour starts.
Sunday’s low round came from one of the most familiar names in the field. 23-year-old Maverick McNealy, a former Stanford standout, birdied five consecutive holes on the back-nine on his way to a 7-under 65. McNealy, who made his Tour debut as an 18-year-old at the 2014 U.S. Open, propelled 29 spots up the leaderboard, finishing T17, the best finish of his young career.
When the Houston Open was last played, one year and six months ago, then 23-year-old former University of Texas star Beau Hossler birdied four consecutive holes on Sunday’s back nine, reaching a playoff he would lose to Ian Poulter (who did not even bother to attempt to defend his title).
In this year’s edition, Hossler again got himself into the mix, beginning Sunday in a share of third place, just two strokes back of Griffin. However, his final round was nowhere near as good as it was last time. Hossler cancelled out two birdies with two bogeys to shoot a disappointing even-par 72 and drop into a share of 13th place.
At 9-under for the week, Hossler needed ten more strokes than he did in his last appearance at the Golf Club of Houston. After a second-round 7-under 65, Peter Malnati held the Houston Open lead going into the week, giving himself an excellent shot at his first career victory. A 1-over 73 on Saturday was not good, but he went into the final round still just two strokes out of the lead. Unfortunately, the 32-year-old matched his Saturday 73 on Sunday, dropping to 17th place after a four-putt double-bogey on the final hole.
The struggles of former FedExCup Champion Bill Haas continued in Houston this week. The 37-year-old six-time Tour champion has seen his profile plummet in recent years, as he has finished 140th and 152nd in the final FedExCup standings the last two years, respectively, and has seen his world rankings drop from a high of 12th in 2012 to his current position of 394th.
Things did not get much better for Haas on Sunday, who posted the co-worst round of the day, a 6-over 78 that dropped him to 78th on the final leaderboard, dead last among those who made the cut. Haas’ disastrous final round featured four bogeys and three doubles, with two of those coming on the final two holes.
“I’m just so relieved it’s over. I played really solid; I’m so proud of the way I hung in there. The putter let me down a little on the back nine, but I kept hitting… my iron shots were pretty darn good. I just felt calm, I don’t know why, but it’s pretty surreal.” ~ Lanto Griffin, Houston Open Champion
– Lanto Griffin