03/13/2016

A green theme is taking over golf as both St. Patrick’s Day and the season’s first major approaches.

The last four winners on the PGA Tour are Masters Champions. Bubba Watson took the Northern Trust Open for victory number 10 of his career. Adam Scott swept the next two events. Then on Sunday, Charl Schwartzel beat Bill Haas in a playoff to win the Valspar Championship. The triumph marked Schwartzel’s first tour victory since the 2011 Masters.

The Augusta connection is more than just a coincidence. After all, good players win everywhere, not just in major championships. You’d expect a few to show up at the top of leaderboards. It also makes for a good storyline. As if the Masters needed any more hype, the quality of play coming from top contenders is only adding to the expectations.

And few, if any, would have put Schwartzel in that mix. The South African has played well off and on, but his countryman and good friend Louis Oosthuizen has been the more consistent golfer. It’s not that there’s room for only one South African stateside. It’s just that we tend to group like players together. Both won major championships in 2010 & 2011. Both hailed from the same country.

Schwartzel showed this weekend that he’s still a force to be reckoned with. During a windy, difficult final round, he delivered the day’s lowest score. Schwartzel came out with two birdies in the first three holes to set the tone.

Then after six consecutive pars, he battled the tricky Copperhead course to a back-nine 33. He bogeyed 10 and 12. He birdied 11, 13 and 14 to offset the miscues. The putt on 13 punctuated Schwartzel’s run, although we use the term putt lightly. His tee shot on the 200-yard, par-three settled 65 feet from the hole. Somehow Schwartzel drained the putt.

Just to show it wasn’t a fluke, he produced two more birdies—including a 25-footer on 17—to go into the clubhouse at 7-under.

Meanwhile, Haas, the 54-hole leader, held on as he came down the stretch. Following three bogeys on the front-nine, the 33 year old rallied on the back. He converted back-to-back birdies on 11 and 12 to right his ship. But a crucial bogey on 16 set up extra holes.

The playoff lacked the drama that we saw a season ago when Jordan Spieth picked up his first win of 2015. Haas drove his tee shot to the right of the cart path on 18 and was forced to take a drop. His approach then found a divot in the greenside bunker. Haas bogeyed.

That made Schwartzel’s task easier. He took the more traditional route from tee to fairway to green. Two putts gave him career PGA win number two.

This may be the Florida swing, but it’s also colloquially known as the nickname swing. Each stop—the Bear Trap, the Blue Monster, the Snake Pit—has lived up to its name. Consider that only three players who finished in the top-10 at Innisbrook shot under par on Sunday. Schwartzel was one, Oosthuizen, coincidentally, was the second and 22-year-old amateur Lee McCoy was the third. He fired two-under playing alongside his contemporary, Spieth.

Arnie’s stop is next. Tough tracks are producing quality winners. It’s all you can ask for as we eagerly await Augusta.