Planet Golf — 13 May 2022 by GW staff and news services
KH Lee slips through to defend AT&T title

MCKINNEY, Texas — Something about the AT&T Byron Nelson brings out the best in K.H. Lee.

He won it last year. He won it again Sunday. He beat a stout field with a final-round 63 that included two clutch putts in the last three holes and a two-putt birdie on the par-5 18th.

Lee knew he would need it. In the group behind him, Jordan Spieth nipped at Lee’s lead throughout the back nine as other players faded. Lee figured Spieth would birdie the last hole — so he would need to, too. He coasted his 24-foot putt to 4 inches. Lee won by a shot at 26 under par.

He joined Tom Watson, Jack Nicklaus and Sam Snead as back-to-back winners of the AT&T Byron Nelson. He also moved up 88 spots on the FedExCup points list, from No. 116 to No. 28.

Lee, who was born and educated in South Korea, said his second career victory modified his goals for the current season. He wants to make the cut in the PGA Championship, which he missed last year. He also said he intends to make the TOUR Championship, which he missed last season by one spot.

“Hopefully this season will be better than last year,” he said.

Lee proved to himself Sunday that he can achieve his goals. He wanted a solid front nine. He made five birdies. He wanted to keep his momentum on the back. He played it in 32 strokes, including an eagle on the par-5 12th. He had a tricky putt of 11 feet on the par-3 17th. He said a short prayer and buried it.

He held off a number of tested players, most of them with more wins than he, on a day when low rounds were plentiful.

The leaderboards around TPC Craig Ranch could barely register scores fast enough. Xander Schauffele and Hideki Matsuyama, who played early, ascended. Charl Schwartzel, Alex Noren (64), Matt Kuchar (64), Peter Malnati (66) and Christiaan Bezuidenhout (67) made charges as the blazing afternoon wore on. But those who started near the lead kept pace.

Those players — Jordan Spieth, Sebastian Munoz, Justin Thomas and James Hahn — had their own opportunities. With the entire field clear through the front nine, 10 contestants had a realistic chance to win.

Schauffele, who survived the cut on the number, shot a near-flawless 61 to lead briefly. Spieth tied Lee minutes later at the ninth with a birdie, his fourth in five holes, and when Spieth took three putts from 8 feet for a bogey on the next hole, Matsuyama birdied the 15th to replace him. The race was on.

Then Lee eagled No. 12 to reach 24-under. Schauffele was done. Lee birdied the 13th. He was now the one to catch.

No one could.

“Last year I missed the cut at the PGA Championship,” Lee said. “So my first goal is next week play well, hopefully make the cut.”

There are two other majors. Then the FedExCup Playoffs.

“This helps,” Lee said. “This is really good.”

THIRD ROUND

MCKINNEY, Texas — Players know what to expect at the AT&T Byron Nelson. The gentle and spacious TPC Craig Ranch yields low scores, especially on that rare springtime day in Texas when the heat swells, the wind stills and every hole looks like a sure birdie.

That was Saturday in the Dallas suburbs. Sebastian Munoz, who set the course record Thursday with a 12-under 60, shot 66 to lead by one at 21 under. Jordan Spieth and three other players shot 64s that looked effortless. Spieth’s was good enough to elevate him into second at minus 20. Joaquin Niemann shot 65 for third alone. James Hahn briefly entertained the prospect of a 59.

He shot 61 instead. He shared fourth with Justin Thomas. Thomas shot 64, too, and said he did nothing special.

“The greens are pure, the fairways, we’re getting a perfect lie every time in the fairway,” Hahn said. “As long as you’re in the fairway I feel like every hole can be a birdie opportunity.”

The leaderboard suggests Sunday will include another preponderance of short birdie putts and frequent opportunities for eagle. The conditions — high 90s, with just a breeze — will be identical. The course will be there for the taking, again. Through three rounds, TPC Craig Ranch has distributed 1,779 birdies and 89 eagles. The field has played it in 1,023 shots under par.

“It’s very open,” Thomas said. “A lot of short clubs. And with the groans rolling this well you know if you’re putting it well you can make it from about anywhere.”

There will be no margin for mistakes in the last tournament round before the PGA Championship. Every error will punish. Ryan Palmer, for example, came to the par-four 16th hole Saturday a shot behind Munoz. He made double on the hardest hole on the course. Then he bogeyed the par-5 18th, one of the easiest. He slipped into a tie for sixth, four shots behind.

Ten players, including defending champion K.H. Lee and No. 1-ranked Scottie Scheffler, finished within five strokes of Munoz, a Dallas resident who played at the University of North Texas. Five shots at the Nelson, with four reachable par-5s and a one-shot par-4, can vanish or materialize in no time. Pars lose ground.

After a slow start in the second round that led to a 3-under 69, Munoz collected himself in the third. He holed a bunker shot on the par-4 sixth for eagle. He made five birdies and a lone bogey in the last group with Palmer.

“I got off to a good start and kind of kept pushing,” he said.

Munoz said he hopes to continue to ride sturdy iron play and a positive attitude. He ranks first in Strokes Gained: Approach the Green (4.476) and Strokes Gained: Tee to Green 5.935). He’s finding fairways, hitting greens and making putts; he ranks third this week in Strokes Gained: Putting at 4.27.

Munoz’s teacher said they’ve been working on simplifying — just “playing the game,” said Troy Denton, the director of instruction at Maridoe Golf Club in nearby Carrollton.

“His skill is letting go,” Denton said. “We’re not doing anything magical. My biggest goal is to keep him doing less.”

Munoz last played in the U.S. at the World Golf Championships-Dell Match Play. He then took off the entire month of April.

He returned last week at the Mexico Open at Vidanta, where he tied for 29th.

His opening-round 60 at the Nelson told him he was ready to contend. His second-round 69 told him to take nothing for granted.

“I think we’re ready for whatever they shoot,” said Munoz, a one-time winner on the PGA TOUR. “We’ll just try to do our best. That’s all we can do.”

Spieth, meanwhile, continued his torrid play with a one-bogey, nine-birdie performance that could’ve been better. He had four eagle putts Saturday that he failed to make.

“This will be kind of the best chance I’ve maybe ever had (at the Nelson) going into Sunday,” said Spieth, who will play with Munoz. “I just wanted to get into contention and obviously see what needs to be sharpened for next week. But there’s no better prep for a major than winning the week before, I think, so go out there tomorrow and try and do what I did the last couple days.”

SECOND ROUND

MCKINNEY, Texas — Jordan Spieth thought the course for his hometown Byron Nelson would play more difficult after yielding more birdies in its debut than any other tournament on the PGA TOUR last season.

The three-time major winner says he couldn’t have been more wrong, and is frankly surprised over how little he thinks was done the first two days to make TPC Craig Ranch a stiffer test.

Ryan Palmer, one of the Dallas-area players in the shadow of Spieth and Masters champion Scottie Scheffler, shot a 10-under 62 on Friday and was tied at 15 under with Sebastián Muñoz and 40-year-old TOUR rookie David Skinns.

Muñoz, a Colombian who lives in the Dallas area and went to college at North Texas, was even through 13 holes coming off his second 60 of the season — a first on the PGA TOUR — before birdies on three of four holes for a 69. Skinns shot 63.

Justin Lower, another older TOUR rookie at 33, was alone in fourth, a shot behind the leaders after a 66.

“I mean, a 60 yesterday and a lot of 8s (under) and 7s all over the board,” said Spieth, who shot 65 and was three shots off the lead in a group that includes defending champion K.H. Lee.

“It’s just, a lot of tees are up, it was very surprising,” Spieth said. “I think they were looking at the weekend as a lot less wind and so they used more of the easier pins the first two days because I can only name one or two pins on this golf course that were not the easiest two locations that are on the greens. I’m a little surprised at how, on a not-so-difficult golf course they have also set it up a little easier for us, too.”

The Nelson was the only 2020-21 tournament with more than 2,000 birdies (2,007). There were 38 eagles in the first round Thursday, the most for a single round this season.

Charl Schwartzel had one of the Friday eagles in a round of 65 that put him at 13 under. The 2011 Masters winner drove into a greenside bunker on the 316-yard, par-4 14th and holed out from there.

The top-ranked Scheffler, who came in with four wins in six individual events capped by the Masters victory, shot a 68 and was 9 under after two rounds alongside his fellow former Texas Longhorns in Spieth and Lee.

Palmer, who finished his opening round with an eagle on the par-5 18th, started on the back nine and birdied six of the last seven holes on that side, then added four more on the front in a bogey-free round.

The 45-year-old hasn’t won an individual event since 2010 in Hawaii. Palmer lives in nearby Colleyville and is a member at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, where the TOUR returns in two weeks after the PGA Championship at Southern Hills.

Palmer had a two-shot lead halfway through his last Texas stop in San Antonio in early April before shooting 7 over on the weekend. He is a four-time winner, including the 2019 Zurich team event in New Orleans with Jon Rahm.

“I spent 19 years doing this, unbelievable that I’ve been here that long, and these young guys … you got to play such great golf to beat ’em,” Palmer said. “We’re in position again and we’ll learn from what we learned in San Antonio and try and do it here.”

Lee won the rain-plagued Craig Ranch debut at 25 under while Spieth tied for ninth, his personal best in a tournament he badly wants to win because of his remarkable pro debut at the Nelson as a 16-year-old Sunday contender in 2010.

There’s no hint of rain this time in McKinney, about 30 miles north of downtown Dallas, and the wind was brisk the first two days. Combine that with the expectation of the rough being more of a factor a year after a February deep freeze wiped it out, and Spieth figured scores would be higher.

Instead, he found himself calling out the moved-up tee box on the par-5 ninth, which played just 474 yards and an average nearly three-quarters of a stroke below par Friday. It was the easiest hole on the course.

The Tom Weiskopf-designed course also has wide fairways and large greens.

“Some familiarity to me with some of the courses I played back in South Africa,” said Schwartzel, who tied for third at 21 under last year. “I don’t feel claustrophobic off the tee. It gives me a bit of space, and once I can get it in play, iron play is not much of a problem. So just really comfortable.”

Skinns, an Englishman with no top-25 finishes in 20 PGA TOUR appearances spread out over nearly a decade, had five consecutive birdies starting on the par-3 seventh in his career-best round.

Lower hasn’t finished higher than tied for 15th in an individual event. He paired with Dylan Wu to tie for 10th in the team event in New Orleans.

The ninth-ranked Spieth and No. 17 Joaquin Niemann, also at 12 under, lead the list of 10 among the world’s top 30 in the field.

No. 13 Hideki Matsuyama was 11 under, a shot better than eighth-ranked Justin Thomas, who spent the first two days in the group ahead of Spieth, his good friend and house guest for this week.

No. 11 Dustin Johnson was 7 under, and 12th-ranked Xander Schauffele rallied from 3 over for the tournament early in the second round with eight birdies over 10 holes to make the cut on the number at 5 under.

The rest of the top 30 players missed the cut: 10th-ranked Sam Burns, the runner-up to Lee at the Nelson last year; Will Zalatoris (28th), another player in his hometown event; and Kevin Kisner (30th).

FIRST ROUND

McKINNEY, Texas — Sebastian Munoz was standing in the middle of the fairway on the 18th hole thinking about his shot at a 59 in the first round of the Byron Nelson. After missing the green, he became the first player in PGA TOUR history with two rounds of 60 in the same season.

Munoz made a nice flop shot from the right of the green, then holed the 12-foot birdie putt to wrap up his 12-under round that included an impressive surge after his only bogey.

“I mean, I wanted to give myself a chance. … It was 250 (yards) to the pin into the wind. I kind of wanted to hit like a bullet, like a little draw,” Munoz said. “I knew if I want to hit it close, had to be a fade, soft-landed shot. I tried to do that. Overdid it and ended up with a 60, which is really good around here.”

Good for a four-stroke lead over defending champion K.H. Lee, Mito Pereira, Peter Malnati and Justin Lower. Kyle Wilshire, a Monday qualifier making only his third career PGA TOUR start, was alone in sixth after a 65 that included a near hole-in-one when he banged the flagstick with his tee shot at the 230-yard, par-3 seventh.

Lee won the 2021 Nelson at 25-under par when his low round was a 65. He played in the same group Thursday with Scottie Scheffler and Justin Spieth, the major champions from Dallas whose first PGA TOUR events were both as teenagers at the Nelson when it was still at TPC Four Seasons.

Scheffler, the No. 1 player in the world, and Spieth both shot 67. So did 11th-ranked Dustin Johnson, who started on the back nine with five birdies and then had four more, along with four bogeys.

It was the first individual start for Scheffler since winning the Masters five weeks ago. Three-time major champ Spieth, ranked No. 9, played for the first time since his RBC Heritage victory the week after the Masters.

Munoz was 2-under after a one-stroke penalty because of a wayward tee shot at the eighth hole. The 29-year-old Colombian, who also lives in the Dallas area, then went 6 under in the next four holes. He eagled the ninth and 12th holes and had 3-foot birdies on both holes in between those par 5s.

After just missing a long birdie chance on No. 13, he made four birdies over the last five holes — the longest of those putts being the last one after only his second missed green in the round.

“It’s a great feeling whenever everything is clicking, hitting the tee shots, ball is coming out in the window that you imagined, the putts, that you’re reading good the putts. The speed,” Munoz said. “When everything is going, it’s just stay out of the way and just kind of let it happen.”

Munoz also had a 60 in the opening round of the RSM Classic at Seaside in Georgia in November, although that was a 10-under score. He went on to finish third. This is his seventh time as a first-round leader, but his only PGA TOUR win came at the Sanderson Farms Championship two seasons ago when he was 43rd after an opening 70.

TPC Craig Ranch, the second-year home of the Nelson, is about 30 miles north of downtown Dallas and 30 miles east of the University of North Texas in Denton, where Munoz went to school.

Even though Munoz lives in North Texas, he said he hadn’t played TPC Craig Ranch since the Nelson’s debut there last year. Munoz finished 10 under for the four rounds combined last year, when he tied for 55th. He said he played the course a few times while in college.

Spieth started with seven consecutive pars before hitting his approach at the par-4 No. 8 inside four feet and made the birdie. He then missed the fairway of the tee at No. 9, but still got his second shot on the green and made a 12-foot putt for eagle.

Wilshire, who turned pro in 2014, earned $8,000 last weekend when he tied for second place during a mini-tour event in Oklahoma. The Nelson purse is $9.1 million, with the winner taking home more than $1.6 million and the runner-up almost $992,000.

After having knee surgery in 2018 and not playing well the following year, Wilshire took a job as a trash porter at his girlfriend’s apartment complex for four months during the pandemic shutdown in 2020. It was an evening job that allowed him to work on his game during the day.

“It wasn’t the most glamourous job, but I wouldn’t say it humbled me, but allowed me to work on my game,” Wilshire said. “It kept me in good shape and I just think it made me a little tougher. Made me just appreciate the opportunity to play.”

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