Given that the grueling “super” season ended just two weeks ago, the frequency with which he played over the past month, and the looming Ryder Cup next week, it came as a mild surprise to see World No. 1 Jon Rahm in the field at this subdued season opener. This may be one of the best locales that the tour drops in on all year, but it’s wildly early and usually a field full of many rookies and journeymen looking to get a jump on FedEx Cup points at the start of a new campaign. The top player in the world showing up is rarely a guarantee, but there was Rahm this week and he started with Tiger-equse low odds and astronomical fantasy pricing up against this weaker field. But he’s going home early after rounds of 71 and 70 will put him two shots off the cut line.
Strong play from Rahm will likely be essential for an underdog team Europe next week at Whistling Straits, so it may have made captain Padraig Harrington somewhat uneasy to see the stud Spaniard playing out on the left coast just a couple days before he’s due in Wisconsin. Then came news that he was struggling with a stomach illness that knocked him out of the Wednesday pro-am, and well, you had to question why he might be there at all with the high stakes next week. He was the only Ryder Cup player in the field in Napa.
Rahm indicated that the heat at home in Arizona would make practicing a pain and saw this event, with potentially fast and firm conditions, as possibly better prep for next week than resting back home. The agency that represents him also managing the event could have played some small part in his appearance as well.
He might have been the heavy favorite, but the whole experience seemed off from the start of the week and now he’ll get a couple extra days to rest before the Ryder Cup, perhaps to the relief of Harrington. “From a Ryder Cup standpoint, maybe good to see him get the weekend off,” said analyst Trevor Immelman, who will captain the Internationals in the Presidents Cup next year.
“I’ve got two more days off,” Rahm said after the MC. “I think it’s primarily rest. I feel like with having those stomach issues early, I wasn’t nearly as rested as I could have been, my body got a little bit tight, but I’m feeling good today. It was a tough course out there. If anything, I get to rest a couple extra days and be able to figure out what’s going on with my swing, which technically is not really anything bad. It’s just I think a lot of those swings were made to look worse because of how tough it is out there. It’s firm, it’s fast, the fairways are hard to hit.”
Any handful of stats (e.g. a ridiculous strokes gained margin over the second best) are illustrative of Rahm being far and away the top player of this past year, The missed cut is just his second of the year, the last and only other coming at the Wells Fargo Championship in May. He won’t see the weekend, but he was back out on the putting green working on his stroke as the sun went down in Napa. It was a serene setting, far from what he’s about to enter a week from now.
With the heavy pre-tournament favorite now gone, the mid-tournament favorite should be Maverick McNealy. For one, there’s the obvious poll position he’s now sitting in after 36 holes. The Northern California product posted 68-64 through the first two days and, at 12 under, is two clear of Mito Pereira and Beau Hossler.
McNealy is a young pro but he’s not unfamiliar with this venue or this tournament. The former Haskins Award and McCormack Medal winner during his days at Stanford received sponsor’s exemptions into this Silverado stop and he’s quite comfortable with both the conditions and the layout.
“This is my fifth time playing this golf tournament, too, so the volunteers and the tournament staff, we know them well,” McNealy said. “It’s one of the places on tour where I don’t feel like as much of a rookie, and it’s going back to the Bay Area roots. Something about the air here, I feel really comfortable, and the grass and the conditions and it’s a lot of fun having people rooting for you.”
The second-round 64 was not exactly a smooth march all the way around. It included about a 45-minute stretch where McNealy made three straight bogeys and the round felt in danger of going off the rails. But if you’re giving three back in a round of 64, there’s got to be a whole lot of red numbers elsewhere. McNealy responded to that three-straight-bogey stretch with four consecutive birdies and a closing hole-out eagle. Combined with the other flawless opening nine of 31, it was a low enough number to put him out front with a multi-shot cushion.
“It absolutely plays to my advantage,” he said of his knowledge of the course. “Poa annua is my favorite putting surface and even as it gets bumpy I think it plays to my strength. My strength is speed control with the putter and the bumpier and faster poa annua gets, which I’m sure it will towards late in the day this weekend, that plays right to my advantage. I’m comfortable on these lies, I know how the ball flies in these conditions. Even coming back the fifth time to this golf tournament is a huge advantage.”
It was also an advantage to be out early, where most of the day’s low scores came from in the second round. Phil Mickelson indicated that the greens are so firm that he does not think anyone will be able to run away and hide, so McNealy will have to avoid those bogey stretches throughout the weekend to bag his first PGA Tour win.
A win feels like the next step after last season, which was a significant jump in improvement for the former amateur standout. McNealy had one runner-up, posted 11 top 25-finishes in 26 starts, and made it to the second leg of the playoffs. He said he spent all summer getting up at 5 or 5:30 a.m. to practice, putting in the effort to make that second full season a real jump on tour. That showed in the results and getting to the BMW Championship. It would not be a shock to see him win this next season, perhaps as soon as this weekend in the opener at a place where he’s confident.
Mickelson’s tinkering is in full effect at the start of this new season, with the arm-lock putter he played around with in Memphis last month getting an extension in Napa. He seems to be into extended shafts these days, though this one may not be the subject of USGA regulation that had the six-time major winner hollering at the governing body last month.
The putter is a full 41 inches and he seemed happy with the results it yielded through the first two days, though putting enough pace on it can be a challenge with the new stroke. Mickelson is five under and tied for 24th place after two rounds and while this may not be the most pressurized event at this point in his career, he sounded optimistic about the weekend
“I think that as well as I’m putting, I have a chance to shoot mid-60s,” the reigning PGA champ said after his round. Another equipment adjustment is coming as well, as Mickelson also said the face on his beloved 2-wood cracked and that lead to some “crazy shots.” A new head will be swapped in for the weekend, but presumably the arm-lock putter will be staying.
“I’m putting well, so I’ve got a chance to make a run at it, but the greens are so firm that if you’re not in the fairway, you can’t stop it,” he added. “So I’m going to have to hit more fairways. And that 2-wood’s a really important club for me, so when it goes bad I struggle.”
With Rahm gone, Phil is the undisputed headliner for the weekend so here’s hoping for more of a show in wine country.