10 Players to Watch: Safeway Open

  1. Phil Mickelson, United States — Mickelson played his best golf late in the season, including his 3-0-1 record in helping lead the United States to another Presidents Cup last week at Liberty National Golf Club in Jersey City, N.J. Not only did he excel on the course, but the 47-year-old was a leader for his younger teammates in the team room. Mickelson helped finish the victory by beating Adam Hadwin of Canada, 2 and 1, in his 100th career match for the United States in the Ryder and Presidents Cups. He is the highest-ranked player in the field for the 2017-18 PGA Tour Opener at No. 30 in the world and wants to get off to a good start after he made it through the first three events of the FedExCup playoffs last month before falling short of the Tour Championship. Mickelson has claimed 11 of his 42 career titles in California, but is winless since the 2013 Open Championship at Turnberry. He is making his third start in the tournament and missed the cut in 2007 before tying for eighth last year.
  1. Brendan Steele, United States — Steele will defend his title in the Safeway Open after a two-week break since he finished 33rd in the FedExCup point standings and missed the Tour Championship by three spots. He had four finishes in the top 10 and 10 in the top 25 last season, including his second victory on the PGA Tour in the opener at Silverado, the other coming in the 2011 Valero Texas Open. Steele trailed Patton Kizzire by five strokes entering the final round of the Safeway last year before making birdies on the last three holes to finish off a 7-under-par 65 and beat Kizzire by one shot. The run started with a three-foot birdie putt on the 16th hole, followed by an 18-footer on the 17th and was capped by a seven-footer on the last hole to wrap up his ninth victory as a professional. Two years ago, Steele took the lead into the final round before closing with a 76 to slide all the way to a tie for 17th.
  1. Webb Simpson, United States — After finishing the 2016-17 season with a strong run, Simpson is looking forward to getting the new campaign off on the right foot after taking a week off since his tie for 13th in the Tour Championship. He had three top-10 finishes in his last five starts and a total of six for the season, including a playoff loss to Hideki Matsuyama of Japan in the Waste Management Phoenix Open and wound up 17th in the final FedExCup point standings. Simpson struggled for a while after the ban of his anchored putter at the start of 2016, but was much better with a conventional putter last season. He could be close to his first victory since the 2013 Shriners Hospitals for Children Open, his fourth PGA Tour title, which came a year after he won the U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. Simpson is making his fifth start in what is now the Safeway Open, with his best result a tie for 13th in 2009, but he missed the cut the last two years at Silverado.
  1. Tony Finau, United States — Following a season in which he reached the Tour Championship for the first time, Finau is looking to get out of the gate quickly this week when he makes his fourth start in the Safeway Open. He tied for 12th in his first appearance at Silverado in 2015, but hasn’t played as well the last two years with a tie for 32nd and a tie for 26th. However, Finau is looking to pick up where he left off in the playoffs two weeks ago, finishing the season with ties for seventh in both the BMW Championship and the Tour Championship. He recorded in the top 10 on eight occasions in 2016-17, with his best result a tie for third in the Valero Texas Open, and finished 19th in the FedExCup standings. There is sentiment on the PGA Tour that Finau is a blooming talent who is ready to break out in a big way and add to his only title on the circuit, which came in the 2016 Puerto Rico Open, when he turned back Steve Marino with a birdie on the third playoff hole.
  1. Kevin Na, United States — Not only is Na coming off a tie for fourth in the Wyndham Championship and a tie for sixth in the Dell Technologies Championship in two of his last four events of last season, he has a terrific record in what is now the Safeway Open. Two years ago, he took the lead after the third round with an 8-under-par 64, but managed only a 70 on the final day and lost to a birdie by Emiliano Grillo on the second playoff hole. Last year, Na finished solo seventh in his title defense, and before the tournament moved to Silverado he tied for 15th in 2011 and tied for third in 2014 by shooting 64-64 on the weekend. His only PGA Tour victory came in the 2011 Justin Timberlake Shriners for Hospitals Children Open, and last season he posted five top-10 finishes and made it through three rounds of the FedExCup playoffs before bowing out, but shot 8-under-par 63 in his final round of the season.
  1. Zach Johnson, United States — Having missed the Tour Championship and the Presidents Cup, Johnson comes off a two-week a break as he tries to regain the form that made him a two-time major champion. His last victory came in the 2015 Open Championship in a playoff over Marc Leishman of Australia and Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa on the Old Course at St. Andrews. Last season, he recorded only four results in the top 10, the best second in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, and he wound up 48th in the FedExCup standings to make it through three rounds of the playoffs before failing to qualify for the Tour Championship. Looking to make his quick turn-around become a fast start to the new season, Zach is playing in the Safeway Open for the first time. He usually waits until the RSM Classic at his home in Sea Island, Ga., to get started and figures to be in the field for that event next month since the title sponsor also is one of his backers.
  1. Adam Hadwin, Canada — Coming off an 0-2-1 record in the Presidents Cup even though he played better than the record might indicate, Hadwin will try to put that in his rear-view mirror quickly when he makes his fifth start in what is now the Safeway Open. He tied for seventh in 2011 at CordeValle, but in the last three years he tied for 53rd, tied for 41st and missed the cut last season at Silverado. Hadwin bounced back from that opener last year to finish in the top 10 on five occasions and the top 25 a total of 10 times, including his first PGA Tour victory in the Valspar Championship. Hadwin, who also won the Chile Classic and the Chiquita Classic on the Web.com Tour in 2014 among his 12 victories as a pro, made it all the way through the FedExCup playoffs last month before tying for 23rd in the Tour Championship to wind up 26th in the final point standings.
  1. Emiliano Grillo, Argentina — Another player from the International team who is looking to put last week’s Presidents Cup defeat to the United States behind quickly, Grillo is coming back to the Safeway Open, in which he claimed his only PGA Tour victory two years ago. After earning his card on the big circuit by winning the 2015 Web.com Tour Championship, he made won his debut as a PGA Tour member a few weeks later by shooting 69-65 on the weekend at Silverado before defeating Kevin Na with a birdie on the second playoff hole. That kick-started a season in which he was voted the PGA Tour’s Rookie of the Year, but last year was not nearly as good, starting with a tie for sixth in his Safeway title defense. Grillo had only two top-10 finished last season, the best a tie for seventh in the Arnold Palmer, but he wasn’t that far off with seven results in the top 25, including solo 11th finishes in the Players Championship and the WGC-HSBC Champions.
  1. Bill Haas, United States — Disappointed by barely missing the Tour Championship, which he won in 2011 to wrap up the FedExCup, Haas will be trying to get the new season off to a good start with his fourth appearance in the Safeway Open. He tied for 20th last year in his only appearance at Silverado, and also tied for 20th in 2008 at Grayhawk Golf Club in Arizona. Haas recorded only four finishes in the top 10 last season, but did post 12 results in the top 25 and was on the bubble to make the top 30 and qualify for the Tour Championship before he could manage only a tie for 53rd in the BMW Championship. He has six victories in his PGA Tour career, the last in the 2015 Humana Challenge, and the highlights of his 2016-17 season were third in the Dell Technologies Match Play, a tie for fourth in the WGC-HSBC Champions and a tie for fifth in the U.S. Open at Erin Hills.
  1. Ryan Moore, United States — A five-time winner on the PGA Tour, Moore finished off a sub-par 2016-17 season when he tied for 20th in the BMW Championship, third event of the FedExCup playoffs, and failed to qualify for the 30-player field in the Tour Championship. He is another player trying to turn things around and start the new season on the right foot in the Safeway Open at Silverado, where he tied for 10th in 2016. He also tied for eighth in 2009 and tied for sixth in 2007, when the tournament was played at Grayhawk Golf Club in Arizona. Moore, whose last victory came in the 2016 John Deere Classic, finished in the top 10 only twice last season with a tie for third in the SBS Championship and a tie for ninth in the Masters. He did post 10 results in the top 25, including a tie for 13th in the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow two months ago. Part of the reason for his down season was a shoulder injury that caused him to miss the U.S. Open.

–Courtesy of The Sports Xchange, TSX Golf Editor Tom LaMarre

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