With the conclusion of the Presidents Cup and The Football in full swing, we’ve officially reached golf’s extremely unofficial offseason. That doesn’t mean there’s no golf happening — more on that in a bit — but it does give you some freedom as consumers. You should feel free to have Golf Channel on at all times, of course. But I’m here to tell you you’re not considered a bad golf fan if you didn’t watch the Sanderson Farms this weekend; there’s no legal recourse against those who don’t recognize the PGA Tour’s fall season as an entity worthy of your full attention.
As a native New Englander, I believe in the changing of the seasons. And while a proper golf-life balance includes challenging the chill and sneaking in as many on-course afternoons as you can before the leaves get covered by snow, there’s really no pressure to keep tabs on the pros’ birdies and bogeys this time of year. There’s a reason the PGA Tour stopped putting its playoff events up against the start of the NFL season, and it will be interesting to monitor the viewership levels of the upcoming LIV events in Bangkok, Saudi Arabia and Miami. This time of year, golf tends to feel supplemental.
Why is this top of mind? I woke up Sunday morning thinking about this space. I’ve enjoyed the Monday Finish since the first edition in early 2021, and have continued to enjoy beginning my weeks with all of you, right here. The format has continually evolved, but my mandate is fairly simple: Write about the week in golf. And given we’re now in the aforementioned offseason, it’s a good time to think about how to keep doing that differently and better. (Suggestion jar at the bottom of the article.) And while I don’t want to take on the burden of telling you everything that matters from the golf world, if I can tell you at least one thing, that seems like a win. That would be properly supplemental. And in return, you have my full support to spend October weekends however you want to.
Anyway, before the subject matter of this column becomes the subject matter of this column, let’s get to the golf!
I woke up early on Sunday morning, inspired by the promise of a new day and the after-effects of a particularly adventurous Mediterranean dinner. Wouldn’t you know it: Competitors at the Dunhill were just beginning to reach the back nine at St. Andrews. I’d been generally aware of the tournament and had even tuned in to watch some of the early-round carnage — shoutout to Alexander Knappe and his Friday back-nine 52 — but certainly hadn’t committed to the Dunhill as a mandatory Sunday morning activity. But then, confronted with the reality of a sunny, competitive afternoon at the Old Course, I was quickly glad I’d flipped it on.
There was third-round leader Richard Mansell, giving away his advantage. There was Rory McIlroy, coming from nowhere with a characteristic Sunday charge. There was Ryan Fox, chipping away, a birdie here and a birdie there. There was a very good dog. There were two talented twins, dressed the same. And there was the sense that regardless of world rankings or strength of field, this tournament matters. The European circuit always seems to nail that feeling. St. Andrews certainly helps.
There’s no denying that part of my fascination came from visiting St. Andrews earlier this summer. I’m wincing at myself here, because few things are more cringingly American than telling someone they won’t understand links golf until they see it in person. But for one thing, any golf course you visit in person will immediately gain texture on television. For another, St. Andrews left a particular impression because, even though it’s golf’s mecca, it is also just a small town that hosts a giant golf tournament. The golf course is in the middle of that town. It’s the heartbeat of the town. It’s the identity of that town. But it’s still a small town. As a result, just by spending a week there, you begin to feel a greater sense of familiarity and ownership than you might were the Open held in, say, London. Golf, like nearly everything, is best when it feels local. The Dunhill feels distinctly local.
Before we get to the winner, a word on fourth-place finisher Rory McIlroy. Per DataGolf, McIlroy has been playing golf at the highest level of anyone in the world — and it’s not particularly close. He’s gaining 2.47 strokes on the field per round, nearly a half-shot better than the No. 2 player, recent LIV defector Cameron Smith (1.99). For comparison’s sake, McIlroy’s lead over Smith in that metric (0.48) is larger than Smith’s lead over 14th-ranked Max Homa, who sits at 1.56.
Watching McIlroy actually play tournaments both confirms and undercuts this statistical reality. The fact is that he works his way into contention nearly every time he tees it up. At the Masters in April, he finished runner-up thanks to a Sunday 64 that kicked off a run of 13 events in which he had more top-three finishes (five) than results outside the top 10 (three). That’s preposterously impressive. Tournaments are instantly more compelling when McIlroy is in the mix, and he’s in the mix a lot.
McIlroy also wins more often than just about anyone else in the game, but his omnipresence on leaderboard first pages plus his major championship drought (zero since 2014) gives us plenty of opportunities to wonder why he isn’t winning more. Nobody has more firepower, and nobody runs hotter, and that’s why it felt possible that McIlroy could still chase down the Dunhill title from eight shots behind entering Sunday.
“If I could maybe get to the number that Richard [Mansell]’s on right now, 15 [under], shoot 8-under tomorrow, at least you’d go out and you’d have to make him shoot under par,” he said on Saturday post-round. That would prove prophetic. McIlroy got to six under through 13 holes in his final round, reaching solo second in the process, with plans to birdie the par-5 14th and the drivable 18th in his head. Instead, he made par at 14 and bogey at 17 before a closing birdie left him at 13 under, two shots off the eventual winning score. His prediction was right.
That’s who McIlroy is. That’s who he has been. That’s who he was in his last start, a near-miss fourth-place finish at the Italian Open, and it’s who he was in the start before that, a near-miss T2 at the BMW PGA, and it’s who he was in the start before that, a fantastic comeback win at the Tour Championship. If McIlroy was a pizza delivery guy with a 30-minute deadline, he’d drop your pizza down a storm drain, fix someone else’s flat tire, scooter back to the shop, stop for a quick chat with a first-time customer, make you a new pizza himself and haul full-throttle back to his destination, arriving just two minutes outside the promised window. Sometimes that’s enough, of course. But other times there are competitors who seem to be playing a simpler game. Driving a simpler route.
As for the man who actually won the Dunhill? His name is Ryan Fox. He’s a New Zealander, a 35-year-old late bloomer who is just hitting his peak right now. Fox fired a final-round 68, lapping Mansell (who shot 76) and keeping just enough of a cushion to fend off Alex Noren and Callum Shinkwin, who each finished one shot behind his 15-under total.
The Dunhill is a team event, a fact I haven’t mentioned until now because when it comes to the relevant professional leaderboard, the team bit isn’t what we much focus on. But the competitors certainly do. And the past five years, Fox’s partner at the Dunhill has been Australian cricket legend Shane Warne. The two good mates had their best finish last year, coming in second, before Warne died from a suspected heart attack last March at age 52.
“To be honest, the only person I can really think of at the moment is Warney,” Fox said on the 18th green afterward. He elaborated on that feeling later: “He was missed by a lot of people this week, especially me. It was a strange feeling at the start of the week but also felt like he was there helping out and it was certainly nice to do it for him this week.
“I probably can’t say what he would be saying, to be honest, knowing Warney. But he would be also trying to figure out how many vodka Red Bulls we could get in that trophy, which I’m thinking is quite a few.”
Fox already had two DP World Tour titles under his belt, but he was honest about the challenge of trying to close out coming down the stretch at the Old Course.
“Just trying not to make mistakes,” he admitted, recognizing his three-shot lead. “As bad as it sounds, I was just trying to not hit really bad shots, and thankfully I got away with it.” Any mental coach will tell you that’s a recipe for disaster. But it’s tough to follow your coach’s exact advice when you’re actually in that position. Here, Fox’s lack of “really bad shots” was a recipe for just good enough.
There’s something else interesting about Fox: He’s been terrific. He nearly made his way onto the Presidents Cup team, even though he doesn’t play on the PGA Tour. Armchair captains had lobbied for Fox in real time, and in hindsight, Fox’s absence seemed like an obvious omission — although in fairness, the Internationals’ captains picks fared quite well and actually outperformed the automatic qualifiers. But now Fox is No. 25 in the world, behind just three of his would-have-been teammates.
It was a good post-Presidents Cup week for its snubs. While two Canadians did play at Quail Hollow, Mackenzie Hughes was left on the cutting room floor. But he was top chicken by week’s end in Mississippi, winning the Sanderson Farms in a playoff. It was the second PGA Tour win of his career and first since the 2016 RSM Classic, putting Hughes back in the field for the Masters and Tournament of Champions as he ascends to the edge of the top 50 in the world.
“The first win came in my fifth tournament as a PGA Tour member,” Hughes remembered on Sunday. “I felt like, oh, man, this is going to be easy, I’m going to be able to rack up a few of these. And it’s been six years since I did that.”
Hughes’ words were echoed by Charley Hull, this week’s winner at The Ascendant LPGA in Texas. Like Hughes, Hull hadn’t won since 2016. Like Hughes, this win was her second. And like Hughes, victory was sweet.
“Well, got my confidence up and now I can’t wait to play more and hopefully get in more wins,” she said. While Hull wasn’t a recent team snub — she was on last year’s winning European Solheim Cup team — it was validating to lift the trophy. “I feel like I know what it takes to win now. I kind of remembered myself,” she said.
The wins of Hughes and Fox reminded me of Max Homa winning last year’s Fortinet Championship the week after he was left off the Ryder Cup team, proving something to the world and to himself. He won this year’s Fortinet, too, the week after being named to the Presidents Cup team. Then he went 4-0 in Charlotte. It also made me think of Matthew Fitzpatrick, who had a heartbreaking point-free performance at the 2021 Ryder Cup, only to win the Andalucia Masters his very next start. And it reminded me of something McIlroy said early Dunhill week, reflecting on his return to St. Andrews, where he’d come oh-so-close to a major this summer.
“In 20 years’ time, it’s probably one of the things I’m the most proud of is that I have bounced back from setbacks very, very well and I’ve become more resilient as I’ve gone on in my career,” he said.
In sum, the week was a reminder that in professional golf, competition and validation come in all manner of forms. And there’s nearly always another chance around the corner.
McIlroy said something else about the Dunhill stuck with me.
“It’s a pure form of the game, playing with your father,” he said, referring to his partner for the week, his dad Gerry. “Sort of reminds myself where I started and playing at the golf club with him and all that sort of stuff. That’s the real nice thing about this week.”
Father-son golf was a nice thing about last week, too. One of the reasons we didn’t see Tiger Woods at the Presidents Cup, we learned, is because he was caddying for his son, Charlie, at a qualifier. It’s worth being wary about over-covering Charlie’s actual junior career, but given Charlie is now playing every December on national television and now giving brief post-round interviews, it’s worth noting that his swing looks powerful and fantastic. Even better is the moment that came post-round: a hug between the son and his proud father. That’s the good stuff.
And now, a palate-cleanser: Dogs and links golf — and below that, a links golf adventure of my own. We’ll see you next week!
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