Tony Finau finished alone in second place yesterday at the Safeway Open, two shots behind winner Brendan Steele, and one shot clear of both Phil Mickelson and Chesson Hadley. Finau is a fun player, and certainly a rising star in the game. But on Sunday, he was the latest player to benefit from an unfortunate recent trend on tour.
Here’s Finau’s bunker shot on 12. Buried in a fried egg lie (reducing the spin Finau would be able to impart) and faced with a downslope landing area, Finau was looking at a very difficult up and down. The shot went about as expected, coming out low and hot, running with little to no check, and racing by the hole. Finau would have been faced with a very lengthy par putt, except for one thing:
That’s Jason Kokrak’s unmarked ball serving as a backstop for Finau. Under the rules of golf, Finau’s ball is played from where it stopped, while Kokrak’s is replaced to its original position. A no-lose situation for both players.
A golf tournament is more than just two players, though. Finau may have made the putt, but that ball is racing past; he would have been looking at 20 or so feet. And even if he hadn’t made it, there’s no guarantee he wouldn’t have made up for the lost stroke at some point over the final six holes. But, on the other hand, if he makes bogey, there’s no guarantee he doesn’t lose more shots either; it’s impossible to play out that particular bit of chaos theory.
But what’s definitely true is that if Finau had finished the tournament one shot worse, he’d have tied for second with Mickelson and Hadley, and that’s a very big difference:
This one shot save for Finau allowed him to finish solo 2nd. Earning $669,600. PM and Chesson made $360k. If they all tie, each make $463K.
— Lincoln Duff⛳ (@lincolnduff) October 9, 2017
That’s a $200,000 gain for Finau based on the one-shot difference, and perhaps more importantly for this discussion, a $100,000+ loss for Mickelson and Hadley. On top of that, there’s the FedEx Cup to consider, even though the last one just ended a few weeks ago. The Safeway Open is the first official event of the 2017-2018 PGA Tour season, and the points do count. For a player like Hadley, a former winner on tour who played last season primarily on the Web.com Tour, they’re incredibly valuable.
Hadley regained his PGA Tour status this past year via his success on the Web.com Tour, and recently won the Web.com event in Boise. He earned 163 FedEx Cup points for his T3 finish at the Safeway, after earning just 53 all of last season. The top 125 players in the season-ending standings earn their cards again, meaning for some players, every point very much counts. If Hadley had finished T2 yesterday, he’d have picked up about 100 more points. And considering last year’s 125th-place finisher ended up with 365, that’s a big difference.
He could have been, theoretically, 2/3 of his way home after just one event. And while it certainly looks like he’s in good shape now, with an entire season ahead of him, anything can happen.
Again, Finau and Kokrak weren’t doing anything that isn’t being done all too regularly on tour. Paul Azinger pointed it out during the U.S. Open:
Azinger correctly calls out Brian Harman for leaving his chip shot as a backstop for Justin Thomas: “you’ve got to protect the field there."
— Geoff Shackelford (@GeoffShac) June 18, 2017
And then Rickie Fowler did the same thing on Sunday of the PGA Championship, also while playing with Justin Thomas, the eventual winner. When Paul Azinger says “protect the field,” he’s getting to the heart of the problem. Justin Thomas (an incredibly talented and likable player) tweeted his support for the practice:
It MAYBE happens 5 times a year. It’s a part of the game, if I want to rush and hit a shot for that reason, it’s my right…
— Justin Thomas (@JustinThomas34) October 9, 2017
The problem with that sentiment, though, is that the rules of the game are pretty clear on the subject. The ball should be marked, and players aren’t allowed to hurry their shots to prevent a ball from being marked:
That's a total non-sequitur. But yeah, rushing so your playing partner doesn't have the opportunity to mark is totally within spirit of game pic.twitter.com/q2jDEqbGhD
— Tron Carter (@TronCarterNLU) October 9, 2017
Nor are they allowed to come to an agreement to leave a ball down to potentially help a competitor. And yet, here we are. Finau, for his part, said he didn’t even know Kokrak had hit it that close to the hole:
— Will Gray (@WillGrayGC) October 9, 2017
And, hey, that isn’t exactly outside the realm of possibility. Players who protest in favor of the practice bring up pace of play as a reasoning. Yet they never seem to mind waiting for players in their group to mark a ball when it’s on their line to the hole. Nor do they seem to mind pushing the limits of pace of play in just about every other area except this specific one, wherein they stand to gain a competitive edge, however remote the chances.
But as we saw with Tony Finau and his extra $200,000, there’s a reason they do it.
And as we saw with Chesson Hadley, there’s a reason it’s against the rules, both letter and spirit.