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9:30PM

At the Safeway, Snedeker stays and Mickelson tumbles

By Art Spander

NAPA, Calif. — Phil Mickelson was right. His game wasn’t that sharp. Brandt Snedeker also was right. He does well playing with a lead.

Mickelson, everyone knows. He’s golf Hall of Famer. Snedeker, everyone should know. He shot a 59 a few weeks ago, has won the Tour Championship, finished first twice in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and appears headed for another victory in Northern California.

One of the enduring figures of the PGA Tour, Snedeker decided to try the Safeway, the opening tournament of the wrap-around 2018-19 schedule, after bypassing it the last two years. So far, it looks like a brilliant move.

Three rounds into the Safeway, Snedeker has a three-shot lead. Or should we say still has a three-shot lead? Birdies on the final three holes Saturday at Silverado Country Club, a par-5, a par-4 and a par-5, gave him a 3-under 69 and 54-hole total of 16-under 200.

Second at 203 after a 4-under 68 is Kevin Tway, whose father, Bob, in 1996 won a PGA Championship and in 1991 finished second in the Telcom Tucson Open to an amateur named Phil Mickelson.

Time does fly. And Saturday, Mickelson’s chances for a win — even though he had broken 70 the first two days — also flew away.

Starting the round in a tie for second, three shots behind Snedeker, Mickelson shot 74 to end up eight shots back, at 208.

So much for the post–second-round banter between Snedeker and Mickelson.

“I sent him a text,” said Snedeker of dealing with Mickelson. “I gave him a hard time because he said he was playing terrible, then I saw him (Friday) make six birdies in a row. He said, ‘Well, I’m not quite confident yet.’ But he’s a great California player. Won a bunch in his career here.”

Snedeker, 37, who’s from Nashville and played for hometown school Vanderbilt, has won three in California, the two at Pebble (2013 and 2015) and the Farmers in San Diego (2016). Another could be a day away.

“It was a struggle, a grind,” Snedeker said of his third round at the Safeway. “The wind kicked up on the last 12, 13 holes and made it hard to hit it close and make birdies.

“So I did a great job of kind of staying patient and surviving with sort of mediocre ball-striking. Knowing I had 16, 17, 18 ahead for birdie holes, and really proud of the way I stepped up and hit some quality shots when I needed to.”

Snedeker’s career has been kicked around by injuries. A year ago, he missed weeks with a sore sternum. Then in 2018, after the 59 and win at the Wyndham, which he thought would give him the boost he needed to make the Ryder Cup, he had another injury.

Mickelson, of course, was on the American team in the Ryder Cup in France, which ended a week ago, Snedeker followed from afar.

“I watched the Ryder Cup,” said Snedeker. “Obviously my not being there was tough. I watched and cheered for the guys. I have a bunch of friends on the team. Every time you miss that week, being together with all those guys, rekindling friendships, you feel left out.

“You don’t want to ever do it again. It gives you a hard look in the mirror.”

The look that Snedeker, a nine-time winner, has been giving this week is one of success. He had five birdies and two bogies Saturday.

“Majors and winning is all I care about,” said Snedeker.

He has a third in the Masters and a tie for third in the British Open. It you putt as accurately as he does, you can do well in any event, major or not major.

“I really care about getting that major win as many times as possible,” he said, “winning as many times as I possibly can. I’m going to do everything I possibly can to get every little bit of talent in my body.”

Which every athlete is supposed to do, no matter the sport.

8:41PM

Phil (The Thrill) Mickelson keeps on pace in the Safeway

By Art Spander

NAPA, Calif. — He once had a caddy tend the flagstick on a shot 75 yards from the cup (no, it didn’t go in). He won $400,000 by betting on the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XXX. He whacked a ball around a putting green and took a 10 in this year’s U.S. Open.

Phil Mickelson is a chance-taker, a self-believer, a fabulous putter and, contrary to the norm of lefthanders playing righthanded, notably Ben Hogan and Johnny Miller, a righthander who plays lefthanded.

And at age 48, in other words two years away from the Champions Tour (newspeak for the Seniors), Phil is in a tie for second halfway through the Safeway Open at Silverado Country Club.

You want some perspective? Mickelson, at 10-under-par 134 after Friday’s round, is one in front of Kevin Tway, whose father, Bob, was beaten by Phil 27 years ago in the 1991 Tucson Telcom Open.

That’s when Mickelson, a 20-year-old junior at Arizona State at the time, became the last amateur to win a PGA Tour tournament.

So if Phil is wonderfully unpredictable and charmingly arrogant, there are reasons. As did his rivals, Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus, Mickelson won the U.S. Amateur and NCAA championship. Phil was on the cover of Golf Digest before he turned pro, with the headline, “How good is this kid?”

More than a quarter-century later, we know the answer: Good enough to win five majors; good enough to be on 12 Ryder Cup teams; good enough earlier this year at age 47 to win a tournament, the WGC in Mexico; good enough to be three shots behind Brandt Snedeker’s 131 after 36 holes in this Safeway.

Phil the Thrill. “The real boss of the (winning 2016) Ryder Cup team,” tweeted Ted Bishop, former president of the PGA of America. “Phil presided over the press conference like a hawk surveying his prey.”

A father so interested in his kids in 2017 he skipped the U.S. Open, the only major of the four he never won, finishing runner-up six times, to attend the graduation of his eldest daughter Amanda from her San Diego-area high school.

A man who paid off a gambling debt with $1 million earned on an illegal insider tip, according to the Securities and Exchange Commission, but according to his attorneys was not charged and was innocent of any wrongdoing — but agreed to repay the $1 million.

Mickelson was a star a few years in front of Tiger, and you wonder what Phil might have done had Woods not come along to win the tournaments and steal the attention. Not until the 2004 Masters did Mickelson, then 33, get that first major.

Now, he’s trying to get a second tournament in this calendar year but a first tournament of the 2018-19 Tour season, which starts with the Safeway. After flying from France and last week’s Ryder Cup, Mickelson isn’t sure what to make of his golf.

“Yeah, I don’t know what to say,” Phil observed. “I’m as surprised as anybody that I’m playing well. I’ve hit a lot of good shots. I’m not surprised I’m putting well. I’ve been putting well week in and week out.

“I’m just surprised I’m hitting this many good shots. I’m surprised I haven’t hit some huge drives off line. The ones that were in the rough are very solidly hit. But I’m surprised I haven’t hit any out of bounds, to be honest.”

It’s hard to smack one OB at Silverado, although a few fairways do border roads or residences. So Mickelson, who can be cocky, is giving us a bit of self-deprecation.

Not that Phil deserves to be criticized. He’s the only 2018 Ryder Cup player in the Safeway, and along with Fred Couples, Snedeker and two-time Safeway winner Brendan Steele he gives the event the recognizable names need to draw fans and Golf Channel viewers.

“I love what I do,” said Mickelson, “but now, as opposed to playing the tournaments you’re expected to play in, whatever, I’m going to play the events I like.”

One of those is a $9 million winner-take-all, pay-per-view match between Phil and Tiger over the Thanksgiving weekend.

“I probably won’t play much until then” said Mickelson. “You know at 48 it’s not a smart thing to do. It doesn’t come easy anymore.”

But as his play so far in the Safeway indicates, for Phil Mickelson it comes when needed.

7:42PM

Mickelson: From Ryder Cup pond to 6 straight birdies at the Safeway

By Art Spander

NAPA, Calif. — So it’s back to the PGA Tour, the Safeway Open, where golf once again is a game of strokes and not words. And America’s failure in the Ryder Cup remains in that other wine country, France.

What surfaced again at the Safeway was Phil Mickelson’s game — or at least the most important part, putting.

Phil’s last shot at the Ryder Cup, six days ago, plunked into a pond and gave Europe the winning points. But Thursday, in the first round of the first tournament of the 2018-19 season, the Safeway at Silverado Country Club, Philly Mick birdied six straight holes, 9 through 14, and shot a 7-under 65.

He was two behind rookie Sepp Straka, who is making his first Tour start and shot a spectacular 63, one back of Chase Wright.

Mickelson, reminding us he’s 48 and not quite able to handle monster courses with narrow fairways and high, thick rough, as he encountered during the Ryder Cup at Le Golf National near Paris, was asked about the apparent bickering among American Ryder Cuppers.

Patrick Reed’s wife whined that he was blindsided by, presumably, U.S. captain Jim Furyk, when Reed was separated as a playing partner from Jordan Spieth, with whom he formed a winning pairing in the 2016 Cup.

Then, wham, another anonymous golfer said Reed was full of spit, or something, and the U.S. players were very much involved in the pairing decisions.

If that weren’t enough, then came a report that two of America’s literal big men, the 6-footers Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka — who together have won the last three U.S. Opens — had a punch-out. Fiction, Koepka insisted.

“I don’t know what to say,” Mickelson responded, “because I didn’t see any of that stuff happen. I only saw one of the best weeks and team unities that we’ve had in a long time.”

There’s an adage that you can learn more about a person in a single round of golf than in a month of dialogue. What we seemingly learned about some of the members of the U.S. team is they didn’t so much need a captain as a nursemaid.

“Well, we got outplayed,” a candid Mickelson said Thursday, discussing the result of his 12th Ryder Cup. “I thought we had a great week in the sense we worked really well together as a team in deciphering some things and over the course of 20 years we’re looking at this as a big-picture thing.

“We were 2-8 the last 20 years (the Ryder Cup is biennial). Our goal is take the wins and losses and build on them. We’re having the opportunity to build something special, and so we’ll be judged on how we do the next 20 years. Our goal is to go 8-2, but after losing this time that might not be possible.”

Anything’s possible in golf. Mickelson flew 11 hours to his San Diego-area home from France on Monday, rested, came north to Napa on Wednesday, hit the ball poorly in warm-ups Thursday and shot 34-30.

“I hit it terrible,” Mickelson said, “one of the worst warm-ups of the year. I was hitting the fence on the range. To the left, not straight ahead. But I’ve been putting well, like I can putt. The big thing is making the short ones. Don’t let the good round fool you.”

The real question is: were we fooled by the tales of disaffection among the U.S. Ryder Cuppers? Or is it that the Euros care more about winning the Cup, while the Americans care about winning the majors?

Fred Couples has done both, his major the 1992 Masters. He is 59 and playing the Champions Tour, but as a spectator attraction — Fred always has been one of the more popular golfers — he is entered in the Safeway, where Thursday he shot a 1-over 73.

“I wish they would just leave it alone,” Couples said about the Ryder Cup complaining. “We got smoked, give it a rest. You go down as a team. … Why did they (Europe) win? They played better. They’re not better friends or attached more. They just flat beat us.”

Fortunately, Justin Thomas, the son and grandson of pros, and the 2017 PGA Champion, had the proper approach after playing in his first Ryder Cup. “To the fans and people of France,” Thomas tweeted, “y’all were amazing. So loud, supportive and classy to both the Europeans and US team. They are what makes the @rydercup so special…”

Thanks, Justin.

 

8:27PM

Mickelson, man of the past, talks about the future

By Art Spander

NAPA, Calif. — It’s the past that makes us think of Phil Mickelson, the Masters triumphs, the battles with Tiger Woods, the win in the Tucson Open when he was a 20-year-old student at Arizona State. But for Phil and the golfer who beat him Sunday in the Safeway Open, the talk was of the future.

Even though at 47 Mickelson seemingly is near the end of his career on the regular PGA Tour.

Even though he hasn’t won since 2015.

Phil tied for third in the Safeway. The winner for a second straight year was Brendan Steele, at 15-under-par 273. Tony Finau was a shot back. Mickelson and Chesson Hadley were two more behind, at 276.

Two days ago, Mickelson made a bold forecast. He promised he would win. Maybe here, at Silverado Country Club. Maybe in China, where in two weeks he’ll make his next start, at a tournament where he’s twice finished first.

Steele, a southern Californian as is Mickelson, seconded the motion.

“He’s very close,” Steele said of Mickelson, with whom he plays frequently. “He’s been playing really well. I think the only thing that’s holding him back is missing a few fairways here and there.”

Which is what Phil did on the front nine on Sunday, shooting one-over 37. And then, after a run on the back nine, what he did on the little (370-yard) 17th, making a bogey after a birdie at 16 and before a closing birdie at 18.

Missing fairways has always been Mickelson’s weakness, as if a golfer who’s won five majors and 42 tournaments overall can be said to have a weakness. 

What he can do is get the ball into the cup, putting, chipping, blasting, and in golf there’s nothing more important.

You can recover from a shot into the trees. You can’t recover from missing three-footers.

Mickelson shot a two-over 70 the final day of this Safeway, his only round of the week out of the 60s, a score that was a shot worse than those of Steele and Finau.

“When I’ve been home with him,” said Steele, “he’s had good results. He’s trending in the right direction ... I don’t see any reason why he can’t be competitive for a really long time. I’ve always said I think Phil can win at Augusta well into his mid-50s, he knows the course so well. I don’t see him slowing down anytime soon.”

Mickelson won’t slow down over the next two weeks. He will stop, going east to attend parents day at Brown University in Providence, R.I, where the eldest of the Mickelson children, Amanda, is a freshman. Then we will see what happens on the course.

“The game has come back,” he insisted, “and my focus is much better.”

One of the problems for relatively older athletes is a loss of concentration. They perform well for a while, say an inning or two, a set or two, a round or two, and then they fall apart.

The oldest golfer to win a major was Julius Boros, 48, who took the PGA Championship back in the 1960s. Jack Nicklaus won the Masters at 46 in 1986. Subsequently he would return, get in contention and then make bogies.

Silverado played tough Sunday. There was a stiff wind, and the pins were on raised areas of the greens. Mickelson said he liked the challenge and also believed correctly that none of the leaders, including Steele, would get far ahead.

“It was fun to be in the mix,” he said, sounding like a rookie. “It was fun to have a chance.”

The optimism grows from the results.

“It’s just easy to see the ball starting on the right line,” he said. “Iron play’s back, distance control, putting. I’m staying (in the) present and hitting shots.”

What he most wants to hit after four years is the winner’s circle.

1:32PM

The fans still chant for John Daly

By Art Spander

NAPA,  Calif. — His game? Well, John Daly made the cut in a regular PGA Tour event for the first time in two years, didn’t he? His fame? Just listen to those fans. “Daly, Daly, Daly,” they chanted as he walked out of the scoring trailer.

They love him. Still and always. At age 52, perhaps more curiosity than competitor, although since he will play all four rounds at the Safeway Open — and people such as Keegan Bradley and D.A. Points will not — John is far from a relic.

He was given an exemption. He gave the sponsors an attraction.

Daly and Phil Mickelson were the most recognizable golfers in the field at Silverado Country Club. Phil, four back of first-place Tyler Duncan with a round to go, has an outside chance for a win. John has a great chance to keep the crowd engaged.

We know the pain he’s put others through, put himself through, the alcoholism, the domestic spats, It wasn’t that long ago down in Winston-Salem when sheriffs brought him in, although they didn’t charge him. Here, sheriffs from Napa County serve as his protection on course.

Can’t be too careful with your stars. And for better or worse, with that tempestuous history, with those garish (and copyrighted) Loudmouth trousers, with golf still seeking to expand its audience in these post-Tiger days, Daly remains a star.

He may be a regular on the Champions (seniors) Tour. He may have been at the other end of the Saturday groupings, with Ted Potter Jr. and Martin Piller last off the 10th tee. No matter. He was John Daly, winner of the 1991 PGA Championship and the 1995 British Open — and with his reputation and personality, the common man’s links hero.

Grip it and rip it. That was the Daly mantra. Isn’t that what every golfer tries to do? Not a lot of grace or subtlety. Just like John.

“People were awesome,” said Daly about his trip around the course. He shot a one-under 71, his second straight sub-par round, and is at a cumulative two-under 214.

“I got a lot of offers to have a beer.”

John is the guy next door, except this guy next score can hit the ball more than 300 yards and, when things go right, display a putting touch that belies his size (uhm, is 320 pounds a fair estimation?) and helped him birdie the 18th hole Friday to make the cut on the number, one-under 143.

He’s never been qualified or chosen to make America’s Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup teams, which in the selection process may be more intent than oversight. Golf people have not taken kindly to Daly’s lifestyle — although they love the way he brings in spectators.

Daly is a cottage industry. His web site advertises “Daly’s Deals,” offering everything from those flowered trousers to Smith’s Workwear flannel shirts to trucker caps with the slogan “Grip it N Rip it” that cost $19.99. That’s a deal?

A musician of sorts, singer and guitar player, Daly the other night took part in one of the concerts that in the evening follow the golf at the Safeway. “Someone said they thought I was pretty good,” confessed Daly.

His golf used to be very good, and when he was younger it was hard not to muse about Daly, who at one time had such a great future. Now it's hard not to wonder, had he kept his life in order, what might have been.

That’s a game so many of us play, speculation. And true, Daly possibly could have done much, much more. Still, he’s playing golf effectively enough to make the cut against people a generation younger and hear appreciative fans chant, “Daly, Daly, Daiy.”

That’s no small achievement for big John.