Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 17, 2021

Amid Birdies And Eagles, History And Hope

When the CJ Cup was added to the PGA Tour’s schedule in 2017, the new event stood out for several reasons.  Primary sponsor CJ Group, a massive Seoul-based conglomerate with interests in a wide range of industries, guaranteed a purse closer to that of one of the majors or WGC events than of a typical weekly Tour stop.  The chance for a rich payday coupled with a limited field made the long trip to South Plus, as the Tour’s only stop in Korea, the tournament’s location at the Nine Bridges Golf Club offered fans watching on television a look at a different and entertaining venue.  In the event’s first three iterations, Justin Thomas won twice, bookending a victory by Brooks Koepka, giving the CJ Cup the gloss of familiar names as its champions.

But what no one in the tournament’s field knew when Thomas won by two shots in mid-October 2019, was that like every other major sports league the PGA Tour would come to an abrupt halt five months later.  The pandemic that upended professional golf’s familiar rhythms in March of last year is still forcing the Tour to adjust its schedule because of COVID-19 travel restrictions.  Unlike some other events, the CJ Cup has at least been played, but both last fall and this, its home has been very far away from the Korean peninsula.  Relocated to Las Vegas, the tournament was staged at Shadow Creek last year before moving this season to the Summit Club, a Tom Fazio design that serves as the centerpiece of an exclusive residential enclave in the foothills of the Spring Mountains overlooking the Vegas strip.   

The eighteen holes winding through the Nevada desert may be a tough challenge for the well-heeled residents whose homes have views of the course, but they were sitting ducks for the Tour players.  After he vaulted up the leader board with a 10-under par 62 in Saturday’s third round, Rory McIlroy observed that every single hole was a potential birdie opportunity.  He wasn’t simply bragging about that day’s performance.  McIlroy’s 62 was one of five during the tournament, and they were all just second-best to a pair of 61s – by Robert Streb on Thursday to claim the first-round lead, and by Emiliano Grillo in the final round.

With the Summit Club’s layout yielding lots of low scores, the list of potential contenders extended past the first page of the leader board as Sunday’s final round got underway.  Fresh off his own Saturday stroll around the premises that included eight birdies and a closing eagle, McIlroy surely knew that when he teed off as part of the final threesome.  He no doubt also knew that as much as he is a fan favorite, many were pulling for one of his playing partners.  It has been more than two and a half years since Rickie Fowler’s last PGA Tour victory at the 2019 Waste Management Phoenix Open.  Finishes in the top five at all four majors in 2014 and a victory at the 2015 Players Championship propelled Fowler to fourth in the world rankings, and his legion of fans believed that many more victories, including major wins, would naturally follow.   

But for more than five years now Fowler’s career has been stalled, and he arrived in Las Vegas having fallen to 128th in the world rankings.  He remains one of the Tour’s most popular players, though the fact that his commercial appeal has always outstripped his results on the course continues to rankle some.  But that appeal, especially to young fans – a cohort the Tour desperately wants to attract – remains strong, so it’s likely that every sign of a Fowler comeback is greeted warmly not just by those behind the ropes but also by Tour officials and other players.

There were plenty of those signs this week.  Fowler posted three straight rounds in the sixties, and his 66-66-63 gave him the 54-hole lead in a tournament for the first time since that win in Phoenix.  He was two clear of McIlroy and three ahead of Abraham Ancer, the third member of Sunday’s final group.  But the CJ Cup was 72 holes, and when Fowler offset three front nine birdies with a sloppy double-bogey on the par-5 6th hole, he made the turn just 1-under on the day and tied with McIlroy.

Both needed to look beyond their own grouping however, as Collin Morikawa was proving the bit about a deep leader board by going out in just 29 strokes.  In the end though, the two-time major champion’s final round 62 ended up being just one more great score at the CJ Cup. 

That’s because McIlroy seized control of the tournament on the back nine with aggressive play on two holes.  At the drivable par-4 12th, he put his tee shot on the front right edge of the green, then swung a sharply breaking eagle try up to five feet and converted the birdie opportunity.  Two holes later, a couple mighty swings at the par-5 14th left him two yards short of the green, thirty-five feet from the front hole location.  McIlroy pulled out his putter, a club choice that is unusual for pros, but commonplace at clubs and munis where amateurs regularly choose to putt from off the green, staying within their comfort zone.  The effort proved extremely comfortable for McIlroy, who watched his putt drop in the hole for an eagle that all but ended Sunday’s drama.

McIlroy’s win is his 20th on the PGA Tour, making him just the 39th player to reach that milestone.  More impressive is the company he’s now in for achieving it before his 33rd birthday.  That list includes just six names other than McIlroy’s – Arnold Palmer, Billy Casper, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Tiger Woods, and Phil Mickelson.  It’s easy to imagine Rory winning many, many more tournaments, including majors.  Doing the same for Rickie Fowler requires a more creative imagination.  But at least after this week, Rickie’s fans can hope.

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