NAPA, Ca. – Brandt Snedeker didn’t qualify for the Tour Championship, but made his kids watch Tiger Woods pick up his historic 80th win at East Lake. Snedeker didn’t make the U.S. Ryder Cup team, either, but he watched that on TV, too, as the Americans got clobbered.
Not long ago, Snedeker played in those select tournaments, so when he watched them from afar he wasn’t just keeping track of his friends, he was also reminding himself of where he wants to be. He’ll soon return to that rare air if his play Thursday is any indication; Snedeker shot an opening-round 66 under overcast skies at the Safeway Open at Silverado Resort & Spa.
He’s tied for fourth, three behind Web.com Tour graduate Sepp Straka.
“It was kind of a disappointing year, even though I won,” Snedeker said of the season just ended, when he got off to a slow start only to shoot 59 on the way to winning the Wyndham Championship, the last tournament before the FedExCup Playoffs. “One week can almost make up for a poor year, but I didn’t play up to my standard. East Lake is kind of the bar for me; if I don’t make East Lake, it’s a bad year.”
Playing with Fred Couples and Patrick Cantlay in the first round of the new season, Snedeker made over 106 feet of putts and, finishing on the front nine, birdied five of his last six holes.
So far, so good for the nine-time Tour winner and 2012 FedExCup champion Snedeker as he begins a bounce-back season that will hopefully take him all the way back to East Lake.
“The last two months I’ve really started playing better golf,” said Snedeker, 37, who last played the Safeway three years ago, when he finished T17.
His first-round 59 at the Wyndham was the 10th sub-60 score in PGA Tour history, and he went wire-to-wire for the win, his second at Sedgefield Country Club. Now he’s looking to notch his 10th victory in fitting fashion; Snedeker already has four wins in California, two apiece at the Farmers Insurance Open and AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-am.
“California for whatever reason has always been good to me,” he said. “I like the lifestyle here, I like the people. Kind of where my career got started was at Torrey in my rookie year in ’07, and ever since then I’ve just loved it when I get on a plane that’s going west.”
MICKELSON SURPRISES: By his own admission, Phil Mickelson came into the Safeway playing terribly. He got nothing going at the Ryder Cup at Le Golf National in France, where the fairways were too narrow for him, and had one of the worst warm-up sessions of his career at Silverado on Thursday morning. He expected to be home by Friday night.
Instead, Mickelson birdied six straight holes in the middle of his round and shot an opening-round 65, leaving him just two off the lead of late finisher Sepp Straka.
“I’m not playing well, I’m not at my best,” said Mickelson, who hit just 7 of 14 fairways but made over 118 feet of putts. “Today, I had a couple of things click and I got in a nice little rhythm, but the bottom line is I’m not playing well, I’m tired and so forth. So I’m trying to save every ounce of energy I have for the course and maybe it will click.”
It’s been a bounce-back year for Mickelson, who won for the first time in over five years at the World Golf Championships-Mexico Championship. But he finished last at the TOUR Championship, went 0-2 at the Ryder Cup, and was hitting fences on both sides of the range at Silverado until an eleventh-hour tip from his coach, Andrew Getson.
“I certainly didn’t expect this,” Mickelson said. “I expected to be going home after tomorrow, but now I don’t. Now I think I’ll have maybe a good day tomorrow. Who knows?”
WRIGHT’S SUPER START: Chase Wright had quite a week last week, getting engaged to his girlfriend, Gretchen Zoeller, daughter of the former TOUR pro Fuzzy. Wright, 29, is having a big week this week, too, after making six birdies and an eagle in his opening-round 64 to take the early lead in his first start of his rookie season.
“Good first day at the office,” Wright said after hitting all 18 greens in regulation and making 100 feet of putts. He was the leader in Strokes Gained: Putting after the morning wave.
The University of Indiana alumnus was having a solid if unremarkable round before he went 6-under for his last seven holes, including an eagle at the par-5 16th.
Wright is a Web.com Tour graduate who has won at every level, most significantly at the Rust-Oleum Championship last season, which made him enough money to ensure he would graduate to the PGA Tour. He once lived in Bloomington, Indiana, with Jeff Overton, the former TOUR pro who has battled back injuries of late, but recently moved to Naples, Fla.
As for advice from his future father-in-law Zoeller, Wright said, “He’s seen me play enough, so he’s just like, ‘Just relax and go play. It’s just a game.’” Wright smiled. “That’s how some of those old guys like to think of it. We make it a little harder than it should be sometimes.”
BRENDAN STEELE – Seeking to become the first to “three-peat” on TOUR since Steve Stricker at the John Deere Classic (2009-’11), Steele played with buddy Mickelson and got off to a solid start with a 5-under 67 after birdies on his final two holes.
MARK MULDER – Playing on a sponsor’s exemption, the former Major League Baseball pitcher was 2 under through six holes and 1 under through 13 before it all fell apart. Mulder double-bogeyed the 14th hole and tripled the 16th on the way to an opening-round 75.
FRED COUPLES – Making his first non-major PGA Tour start in 2 ½ years, the 59-year-old Hall of Famer hit 10 of 14 fairways and 14 of 18 greens but putted terribly for a 1-over 73. “If I could have putted for him,” said playing partner Brandt Snedeker, “he’d have shot 63 or 64.”
SAM SAUNDERS – Crediting his new right-to-left ball flight, Arnold Palmer’s grandson shot 66. “I played a big cut the last few years, and last year a lot of my good play was due to just driving the ball a lot longer and straighter,” Saunders said. “This golf course fits my eye a lot better now, being able to turn it over off the tee.”
SUNGJAE IM – In his debut PGA TOUR season after leading the Web.com Tour money list from start to finish last season, Korea’s Im, 20, saved par on his last hole for a 6-under 66.
Low round: 9-under 63 by Web.com Tour graduate Sepp Straka, who birdied his last three holes late in the afternoon for a one-shot lead over fellow rookie Chase Wright.
Longest drive: 372 yards (Chad Collins/No. 6)
Longest putt: 65’ 11” (Jason Dufner/No. 6)
Toughest hole: The 455-yard, par-4 13th played to a 4.194 average.
Easiest hole: The 549-yard, par-5 5th played to a 4.521 average