Insider: What we learned from first Finals event, and what to expect

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Trevor Immelman made the most of his opportunity in the Finals' first event.
September 04, 2013
By Jeff Shain, PGATOUR.COM

DAVIDSON, N.C. – The first chapter of the inaugural Tour Finals gave us a little bit of everything.

A major champion won the debut event. One of the game’s top young guns finished one shot behind.

Another stroke back was someone who endured a stretch of 14 missed cuts in 15 starts between early March and mid-July. He was one shot ahead of a guy bumped out of his PGA TOUR card when the final event of the Tour regular season went to a playoff.

The man with nothing to gain from the Finals found something to play for. The guys who finished right behind him from the regular season are scrambling a little. In some cases, a lot. Vets sidetracked by injury – even for years – found renewal.

Talk about a melting pot.

“It’s a very interesting dynamic,” said Trevor Immelman, whose come-from-behind triumph at the Hotel Fitness Championship was his first since winning the 2008 Masters. “I’m just glad to have the opportunity. The PGA TOUR guys that are here are those who kind of struggled this year, whereas the guys from the Tour are the ones who played well. … I don’t think any of us knew what to expect.”

It sets up for more good theatre as the Finals heads to the Carolinas for the second of its four stops, the Chiquita Classic.

It certainly didn’t hurt that the Finals’ first tournament winner was one of its biggest names. No less important, though, was Sunday’s gripping horse race to chase down a fading pacesetter.

Though Patrick Cantlay took a three-shot lead into the final day in Fort Wayne, the back woes he had been fighting all week allowed him to be reeled in. Five men held at least a share of the lead on the back nine.

Eventually, Immelman’s 15-foot birdie at No. 18 lifted him above the rest. Cantlay, who spent nearly a year atop the world amateur rankings before turning pro, finished a shot back when his birdie try drifted off below the hole. Four others were no less than three shots back.

“It’s a good mix of players,” said Brendon Todd, who tied for 15th on Sunday.

Nor was there any advantage in a field divided roughly evenly between PGA TOUR and Tour professionals. Of the top 14 names above Todd’s on the leaderboard, seven came from the top 75 in Tour earnings and seven were among Nos. 126-200 in FedExCup points.

Of the 71 players who made the cut at Sycamore Hills, the scorecard showed 36 from the Tour, 33 from the PGA TOUR and two who qualified in both categories.

“It’s very competitive,” Todd said. “A PGA TOUR player and a top Tour player are playing the same caliber of golf, just at different venues. I do think the PGA TOUR is deeper than the … but the competition is there and these guys can play.”

Consider that of the three Tour players who finished right behind Immelman, Kevin Kisner already has one of the cards previously given to the top 25 on the regular season money list. Cantlay and John Peterson were knocked out on the final weekend.Cantlay might have had his card, too, if not for the back injury that forced him to the sidelines for nearly three months. He headed to Omaha for the final regular season event at No. 25, but missed the cut and slid out.

Peterson, meanwhile, was awaiting a card in Omaha until Bronson La’Cassie birdied the final hole of regulation. Not only did that force a playoff that La’Cassie eventually won, it knocked Peterson from a share of second to solo third.

Now both men are in good stead to cash in a second chance.

“The 25 cards that come out of here are just as good as the ones that came out of the regular season,” Peterson said. “If I can finish No. 1 on the money list, it’s the same as Michael Putnam. And that’s what I’m going to try to do.”

Putnam already is guaranteed a higher priority category and automatic berth in THE PLAYERS Championship after taking the regular-season money title. But he was no less motivated in Fort Wayne, tying for seventh and grabbing a share of the course record with a 63.

“I come out here to play well and win tournaments,” Putnam said. “I’d be very [unhappy] if I came out here and acted nonchalant and missed the cut and went home without making a check. That’s not why we play golf.”

With priority ranking still at stake for the rest of the Tour graduates, though, the Finals have been a rude awakening for those right behind Putnam in the promotion class.

No. 2 Ben Martin tied for 32nd, which dropped him near the bottom third on the priority list. No. 3 Chesson Hadley and No. 4 Edward Loar were at the bottom of those who made last week’s cut.

They still fared better than Nos. 5-9, none of whom saw the weekend in Fort Wayne. (In fairness, No. 7 Benjamin Alvarado didn’t play, continuing an extended absence.)

“Now I’ve got to go beat everybody that I’ve beaten all year,” Hadley said. “... At the end of the day if I play well it’ll take care of itself.”

Kisner would have been 25th on the old system’s priority list. He now stands fourth. So does Scott Gardiner, the Aussie who took home exactly one paycheck from that 15-event odyssey of PGA TOUR futility.

Gardiner did make three of his last four cuts before the Finals, though, so the momentum has been building for this second chance.

“That gave me a lot of confidence,” said Gardiner. “I feel like I’m playing smarter and can be aggressive within certain aspects.”

The Finals also have been a breakout stage for Arron Oberholser and Scott McCarron, for whom 2013 was largely a lost season on the road back from injuries. In Oberholser’s case, it’s a Hail Mary-type opportunity after four years seeking a solution after hand surgery.

“I think my record on tour speaks for itself,” said Oberholser, who won the 2006 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am and wears extra padding on his glove to guard against nerve damage. “It’s just a matter of whether the body will hold up at this point.”

This week, the Finals welcomes two other recognizable names from the PGA TOUR’s medical list – Jonathan Byrd (wrist) and Spencer Levin (thumb).

And so the scene is set for the Finals’ second chapter. Let's hope it brings as much intrigue as the opener.