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Monday Finish: Five things from the Fortinet Championship
September 20, 2021
By Ben Everill, PGATOUR.COM
Max Homa cards a 7-under 65 to win 2021 Fortinet Championship
The engraving pen that added Patrick Cantlay’s name to the FedExCup is still warm to the touch but the new chase for glory began this week as the 2021-22 PGA TOUR Regular Season started in Napa Valley at the Fortinet Championship.
California native Max Homa won for the second time in the Golden State having also claimed The Genesis Invitational in February at Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles.
Homa gets the distinction of being the early leader in the season-long points race with the knowledge Stewart Cink leveraged a win in the opener all the way to the TOUR Championship last season.
Here are five storylines you may have missed from wine country.
1. Hole-out eagle lands for Homa
Max Homa is one of the best social media follows you can find. Now he’s proving to be one of the best golfers on the PGA TOUR. Homa collected his third TOUR win, and second of 2021, with an incredible late flourish at Silverado to win the season opener.
Homa was starting to flounder behind pace-setter Maverick McNealy on Sunday and needed a surge. What he produced was a brilliant hole-out eagle from 95 yards on the 12th hole to turn the tournament on its head.
But it’s one thing to pull off a shot like that. It’s another to leverage the momentum, control the spike in adrenalin, and notch up three more clutch birdies to close out a victory.
The brilliant shot dragged Homa from three back to one behind and instantly turned the screws on McNealy who to that point had been ultra-impressive chasing his first TOUR win.
Another birdie a hole later gave him control of the narrative but it wasn’t until a sensational curling 18-footer on the 17th that Homa showed he wasn’t messing around. Soon after hearing the roar ahead, McNealy imploded with a double bogey on the same hole and the absorbing contest was as good as over.
Homa played with world No. 1 Jon Rahm during the first two rounds and beat him. He beat a surging Phil Mickelson while playing with him on Saturday. When he won The Genesis Invitational in February he played with Dustin Johnson before taking down Tony Finau in a playoff. He bested Rory McIlroy on his way to winning at Wells Fargo.
It turns out Homa is at home with the big guns, even if he didn’t always believe it himself. Now he’s full of belief.
“I think I've always struggled a bit with confidence and walking around like I'm the man out here,” Homa said.
“When I'm out here playing with people like Rahm and Phil and DJ and Rory and JT and Berger and all the guys… I see that, yes, there's a level of excellence that's incredible, but it's not – I don't feel like I'm chasing a ghost.”
Nope, he’s not chasing ghosts, he’s chasing wins. Don’t be surprised to see more to come.
2. McNealy makes waves despite late fade
Maverick McNealy was playing like a veteran for most of the week at Silverado and rarely looked like a player trying to break through for their first PGA TOUR win.
History will show that the former amateur standout from Stanford imploded at the Fortinet Championship with a double bogey on the penultimate hole to end his battle with Max Homa. But it should require an asterisk.
McNealy had shown incredible resilience all week long and when things went awry on Sunday, he showed great strength of character to finish off with a lovely, if not moot, eagle before facing the music. It was all class. And gave him a more than deserved runner-up finish.
During the second round, McNealy surged to the lead with five birdies in eight holes before tacking on three straight bogeys. A cynic quipped he’d seen his name on the leaderboard. His response was to play his final six holes in 6 under with four birdies and an eagle.
In Saturday’s third round, McNealy was out of sorts early, 2 over through his first 12. But he found four birdies coming home to sit tied for the lead. On Sunday he fashioned a three-shot advantage over those near him on the course over the front nine and was unphased by a fast-finishing Marc Leishman setting the clubhouse lead.
In other words – while it was not the finish he was after – it was an impressive week that showcased he’s the type of player who will bounce back from the disappointment.
The problem came off the tee at 17 just moments after Homa birdied the hole up ahead to lead by one. Taking iron on the short par 4, McNealy clipped a tree and managed to advance the ball just 166 yards into the rough. It left him with 189 yards still to cover and after failing to find the green he then chipped back off the surface and eventually took double bogey.
“I was just trying to hit the same shot I hit yesterday, which is a low 2-iron. Caught it off the heel and it caught the last branch of the tree and dropped straight back,” he lamented afterward. “Standing there from 195 yards with a 6-iron and… it was a great second shot… exactly where I wanted to play to and just misjudged the lie. That's something that I want to work on going forward.
“It was a great week. I learned a lot. I was really proud of my round today. Obviously it's an uncomfortable situation, but yesterday prepared me a lot for today and I was really, really proud of how I came out of my front nine. I love the way I was feeling, I love the way I managed myself and I love the shots that I executed.
“It was one shot on 17 which, to be fair, if it gets through that tree I'm just dumping it to the back of the green, two-putting for par and I've got a chance for that eagle on 18. I wouldn't do anything over.”
3. Phil Mickelson fans will need to follow PGA TOUR Champions this fall
A rousing Saturday 67 from Mickelson at the Fortinet Championship put the veteran just four shots off the lead heading into the final round and those in attendance were hoping for some Sunday heroics at Silverado.
Unfortunately Mickelson was unable to muster the form that saw him became the oldest major champion in history in May at the PGA Championship, as he carded just one birdie and four bogeys.
The 51-year-old now heads to the Ryder Cup as one of Steve Stricker’s Vice Captains for the U.S. Team, the first time he’s not been a playing member of the side since making his Ryder Cup debut in 1995.
He plans to take most of the next three months off, except for the Constellation FURYK & FRIENDS presented by Circle K, a new PGA TOUR Champions event hosted by fellow Vice Captain Jim Furyk at Timuquana Country Club in Jacksonville, Florida, Oct. 8-10.
“So this will be my last regular TOUR event this year and then I'll play Timuquana and I may play a couple more and I may not, we'll see how I feel,” Mickelson said. “I wanted to help out Jimmy and he's got his first event this year and I just wanted to support him, he's a good man.”
4. Rumbly tummy sees Rahm Miss Cut before Ryder Cup
World No. 1 Jon Rahm headed to Napa as one of the shortest-priced favorites to win a golf event since the dominant days of Tiger Woods, but a stomach ailment pre-tournament conspired against the Spanish star on his way to a rare missed cut.
Fresh off a huge battle at the TOUR Championship with FedExCup winner Patrick Cantlay, Rahm was looking to atone and keep some momentum in his game heading to the Ryder Cup.
But rounds of 72-71 came after he was forced to forego practice – and a place in the pro-am on Wednesday – with illness. The lack of energy and focus was apparent but to his credit he battled hard through the two rounds before missing his first cut since May.
“It's unfortunate to start the year with basically one of my worst TOUR rounds in a while,” he said. “It's what it is. Course was tough out there today and just need to be better.
“Just a little run down from the season. That's my best guess. Maybe having a little bit too much good rich food Monday and Tuesday just did it for my stomach.”
5. Jason Dufner gym sightings are real
Jason Dufner was literally famous for a while for his own special version of not moving. But now he’s a regular at the gym as he looks to recapture some of his best form.
The 2013 PGA Champion, a five-time PGA TOUR winner, went viral around the world after being photographed at a youth center visit sitting against a wall, legs straight out in front and his arms pinned to his side.
“Dufnering” as it is called, became a photo fad as people recreated the pose in as many weird and wacky places they could.
But while his laconic ways weren’t an issue in the past thanks to his talents as an extremely accurate ball-striker a 45-year-old Dufner admits the speed and length of today’s young golfers forced his hand.
Determined to make the most of whatever time he had left on the PGA TOUR, he sought out Vancouver-based rotational strength and conditioning specialist Jason Glass last September to try to gain speed and distance. Together they’d added some clubhead speed to his game that helped him scare the leaders in the early rounds before ultimately finishing T42 in Napa.
“I’m 45 years old, almost, trying to compete with guys that are 15, 20 years younger than me,” Dufner said. “You don’t see that in sports very often. A couple cases here and there, but distance has really changed the game.
“Back in the day the top 50 were the top 50, right, those guys were good at everything. And then after that you could kind of manage and navigate your way through with some different skills that didn’t involve distance, if you’re a good pitcher and chipper and shot maker.
"But now you’re seeing guys coming out of college… when they first turn pro, they’re all over 170, 175 ball speed. It just makes it significantly easier; it’s hard to keep up with that when guys are hitting sand wedges and you’re hitting 8-iron."