The Safeway Open may have meant the start to a new PGA Tour season, but after the first 2018 wrap-around season event, the Tour looks the exact same way it did after last year’s Safeway Open: with Brendan Steele on top.
Confidence and course familiarity ended up triumphing over recent form, as a badly-slumping Steele shot a final round 3-under 69 to reach -15 for the tournament, and edge Tony Finau by two strokes. That makes back-to-back Safeway Open championships for the 34-year-old Californian.
Starting the day two strokes behind 54-hole leader Tyler Duncan, Steele wasted little time to vault into the lead, and was able to ride out some back nine stumbles before two birdies over his last three holes capped off his successful title defense.
Steele’s 69 was a rare bright spot on a day where windy conditions and hardened greens engendered many poor rounds from the field, especially compared to the first three days at Silverado Resort & Spa.
Also looking strong on Sunday was a name that has been ubiquitous on leaderboards at California events: Phil Mickelson, who made a late charge with four back nine birdies, to post a final round 2-under 70 and finish in a share for third.
FINAL TOP 10: SAFEWAY OPEN
1 Brendan Steele -15
2 Tony Finau -13
3 Phil Mickelson -12
3 Chesson Hadley -12
5 Graham DeLaet -11
5 Tyler Duncan -11
7 Andrew Landry -10
7 Bud Cauley -10
9 Grayson Murray -9
9 Tyrone Van Aswegan -9
9 Brandon Harkins -9
9 Nick Taylor -9
T13 Hunter Mahan, Zach Johnson -8
T17 Ryan Moore, Bryson DeChambeau, Webb Simpson, Bill Haas -7
T28 Emiliano Grillo -6
T37 Kevin Na -4
T52 Maverick McNealy, Kevin Tway -2
68 Chad Campbell +3
72 Jon Daly +5
74 Beau Hossler +9
HOW BRENDAN STEELE DID IT
Despite being the defending champion, Brendan Steele was largely overlooked going into the season-opening event, which may have been justifiable given how awful Steele had played in recent months.
Since July, he had entered seven events, missing the cut in four of them, and his only top 40 was at the limited-field WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, where he finished T24.
Steele took full advantage of a fresh start, however, as a 65-67 start at Silverado made him the opening-round co-leader and the second solo leader.
A pedestrian round-three even-par 72 knocked Steele two strokes behind recent Web.com Tour grad Tyler Duncan, as his approach game abandoned him on Saturday, but he needed little time getting back on top of the leaderboard, due to both his own strong play at the start (birdies on 4 and 5) and a bogey-bogey-bogey beginning to Duncan’s final round.
After going out in 3-under 33, Steele’s round nearly came off the rails on the back with bogeys on 12 and 14, the latter of which briefly dropped him into a co-lead alongside Tony Finau, with Mickelson also in the mix.
But Steele steadied himself with a gritty par on 15, and was incredible over the final three holes, finishing birdie-par-birdie and taking the championship by two over Finau.
Steele finished the week ranked first in the field in strokes gained: off-the-tee, strokes gained: tee-to-green, and driving distance, a stat where he ranked 40th on Tour in the most recent season.
WHAT IT MEANS FOR STEELE
When Steele won the 2016-17 Safeway Open, he went on to have his best season on Tour, making 20 cuts in 25 events, earning nearly $3 million, notching four top 10s, and finishing 33rd in the FedExCup standings, just barely missing a spot in the Tour Championship.
He kind of limped to the finish line, but as a whole, it was an excellent season for him.
Now, he has another year of experience and is well in his prime, and this successful title defense could really elevate him to another level among the better players on Tour. He has yet to challenge at a major championship, but it should no longer be considered a surprise if he does.
OTHER SUNDAY STARS
The low round in the Sunday field came from a very surprising name: Brandon Harkins. The Safeway marked the professional PGA debut of the recent Web.com Tour grad, but he looked anything but a rookie in shooting a 4-under 68 in the difficult Sunday conditions.
Harkins carded seven birdies, including four in his final six holes to finish at -9 for the week, which was good for a season-opening T9. Harkins’ top 10 is especially impressive when considering that in his last six starts, all on the Web.com Tour, he had a T29, a T60, and four missed cuts.
PGA Tour fans have not heard much from Andrew Landry since he was a surprise member of the final pairing at the 2016 U.S. Open, but a final round 3-under 69, which included an eagle on 18, led to Landry’s best PGA Tour finish: a T7.
Another player who crashed the Safeway top 10 with a final round 3-under 69 was Grayson Murray, who used a hot Sunday start to post his first top 10 since he won the Barbosol Championship, an opposite-field event, back in January.
Murray hit only 41% of his fairways at Silverado, but his approach game was on, and by hitting 14 of 18 greens on Sunday, he rose 26 spots up the final leaderboard.
Many players struggled on Sunday, but nobody tumbled further down the leaderboard than Harold Varner III. Varner had been hot coming in, and had himself in excellent position at 9-under through three rounds, but his final round was an outright disaster.
A quadruple-bogey 9 on the par-5 5th hole absolutely deflated Varner, who ended up finishing with a 9-over 81, one of just three Sunday rounds in the 80s. Varner plummeted 48 spots down the final leaderboard, dropping from 11th to 59th.
At 10-under through three rounds, Bill Haas was in fine position coming into the final round, especially when juxtaposing his experience with the strength of the field, but on Sunday, he was just another guy. With a double-bogey on 8, and no birdies until the 15th hole, Haas faded into a tie for 17th after a 3-over 75.
Chesson Hadley did not experience the precipitous leaderboard drop of Varner or Haas, but his final round 1-over 73 was even more significant.
After setting the course record with a dazzling 11-under 61 on Friday, Hadley played well enough to make the final Sunday grouping, but was not able to get much of anything going in the final round, with two bogeys, a double, and just one birdie over his first 15 holes.
A T3 finish is encouraging, but given how indestructible he looked in the second round, it feels like Hadley could have done better.
THE PHIL FACTOR
After a T6 finish at his most recent tournament, the BMW Championship, Phil Mickelson had high hopes coming into the week, and for the most part, he did not disappoint.
The 47-year-old began his 27th full-time PGA Tour season with an impressive T3 finish, which was not a surprise given his immaculate history in California events.
Mickelson looked to have played himself out of the mix early, playing the first seven holes at 2-over, but after playing 8-16 in 4-under, Phil was suddenly just two strokes back.
A bogey 5 on the par-4 17th dashed the hopes of his first victory since the 2013 Open Championship, but after immediately bouncing back with a birdie on the final hole. Mickelson finished the day with a 2-under 70, which put him at -12 for the championship.