Five things we've learned through four events

Steve Stricker walks up the 18th hole en route to his victory at the Cologuard Classic. (Darren Carroll/Getty Images)

Four official tournaments are in the books for 2018, and the fifth gets underway this week in Newport Beach at the Toshiba Classic. Our Insider takes a look at what has transpired and what to expect.

1. It’s difficult to say what we’ve learned through four events on PGA TOUR Champions in 2018 besides the fact from top to bottom it just keeps getting deeper and better.

As first-timer winner Steve Stricker said on Sunday after his emotional breakthrough at the Cologuard Classic, winning doesn’t come easy.

“It's tough winning anywhere on any tour,” Stricker said. “They don't give it to you. You've got to go and try to get it and fortunately I was able to make a couple more putts than anybody else.”

Stricker’s much-anticipated victory came at Omni Tucson National, where he very nearly won in his PGA TOUR Champions debut one year ago before hitting his tee shot in the water on the difficult par-4 18th.

In fact, the Wisconsin native had doubled the 18th on Saturday to yield the overnight lead to Tommy Tolles. He said he’d been thinking about the tee shot on No. 18 during his entire final round. But on Sunday he split the crowned fairway while his closest pursuer, Scott Dunlap, watched helplessly as his tee ball went left and rolled into the water.

“It's just a challenging hole and it doesn't fit my eye very well,” Stricker said. “I like to draw the ball. Everything is telling you to cut it off that tee, and I don't do that very well and thus I've hit it in the water a couple times. It is a challenging one.”

Despite his foible, Dunlap had nothing but praise for the challenging 18th.

“You can't get left of the top of the mound. If it gets left of the top of the mound it's just a pull and it's going [in the water],” Dunlap said. “That's why the hole, it's really just one of the best finishing holes you'll ever see. It's perfect. You've got to stand up there, shape one, right side of the mound and don't hit it in the right water. If you do that, it's all right there in front of you. You'll probably get your 4 and get out. But if you don't, you're working for 5 like I was.”

Dunlap’s putter was a bigger problem than his driver during the final round. Dunlap was seeking just his second PGA TOUR Champions victory; his first came in the Boeing Classic in his first full season in 2014.

He came away impressed with Stricker and in particular his short game. Stricker played a bogey-free final round and sank any number of 6-plus feet par putts to beat Dunlap, Gene Sauers and Jerry Kelly by two strokes.

“It's always fun to watch someone like him because he has such a unique style, dead-handed style,” Dunlap said. “His wedging is just -- if there's anybody better I don't know it because he just takes so much spin off of it, he just hits the ball to 2 and 3 feet with those wedges, short game. He putts it beautifully.”

For Dunlap it was his best finish since a solo second at the Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic in 2016.

Here are four more things we’ve learned besides how Stricker finally closed his first victory and that No. 18 at the Cologuard Classic is a quintessential finishing hole:

2. It’s hard to stay hot: The only player with a top 10 in each of the past three starts had only one top 10 all of last year. That would be 55-year-old Rocco Mediate, who’s on fire after a miserable 2017. Mediate had the low round of the day on Saturday at the Cologuard Classic with bogey-free, 8-under 65 and he ended up finishing in a tie for fifth. He has dropped a lot of weight and is swinging freely. His average driving distance for the year is 274.6, which ranks only 62nd. But his average on Sunday at the Cologuard Classic was 299.

3. Langer no longer? Bernhard Langer hasn’t won yet. Sure, it has been only four tournaments, and he was runner-up at the Boca Raton Championship. But he was T36 at the Chubb Classic ant T54 at the Cologuard Classic. No one would dare bet against Langer shaking loose. But you have to go back to 2015 to find the last year in which he didn’t win in his first four starts. He won only twice that year. Yes, he has a good track record at the upcoming event, the Toshiba Classic, but he also had won the Chubb and been third twice in Tucson.

4. McCarron’s start: Scott McCarron posted four victories and 14 top 10s in a dream season in 2017. He was a contender nearly every time he teed it up. He does have two top 10s so far this year, but he also has a T24 at Boca Raton and a T50 at Cologuard, his worst finish since 2016. Statistically speaking, the putter hasn’t been up to par for McCarron. He was second in putting average in 2017; so far this year he ranks 50th in putting average, including 56th at the Cologuard.

5. Next to break through: In January we offered five players who would get their first victory on PGA TOUR Champions in 2018. Stricker was low-hanging fruit, but still he delivered. Here is how the other four guys on that list have performed so far this year.

Steve Flesch: T19 at the Boca Raton Championship and T20 at the Chubb Classic before a T54 at the Cologuard Classic. Outlook: Trending the wrong way.

Billy Mayfair: T31 at Boca Raton, T2 at the Chubb, T13 at the Cologuard. Outlook: Victory coming soon.

Scott Parel: T44 at Boca Raton, T25 at Chubb, T18 at Cologuard. Outlook: Trending the right way.

David Toms: Three consecutive top 10s, including a T2 at the Chubb, before a T30 at the Cologuard. Outlook: Victory coming soon.


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