PGA Tour Report Card: Grades for season’s first five events

Given that the trend of "new is better" has completely engulfed the PGA Tour as the ’15 season ended and the ’16 season got going, it seems appropriate to kick off our new series where we examine, and grade, each tournament on the PGA Tour.

Throughout the season, we will take a close look at each event, giving it a grade based on how entertaining it was, what quality of field it had and who the eventual champion was (for instance, the U.S. Open last year would have been boosted heavily by the fact that Jordan Spieth, the best golfer in the world at the time, hung on to beat Dustin Johnson, the most talented golfer in the world, with other huge names falling just short on a shootout Sunday — while the PGA Championship, despite having two of the new big three in the final group, didn’t give us the drama we had hoped for on Sunday, thanks in large part to Jason Day playing like an alien man).

If we thought the PGA Tour might have a letdown year, it sure hasn’t shown any signs thus far, with five first-time winners taking the first five events of this wrap-around season. Some hate the thought that golf happens all year long, but the wraparound year gives breakout stars a chance to compete, and win, when some of the bigger names are overseas working on boosting their bank accounts with appearance-fee money (and frankly, can you blame them?).

TEE IT UP

So starting with the Frys.com Open, and going through to the WGC-HSBC Champions, here are our grades:

Considering this was the week after the Presidents Cup, and people had seriously turned all their attention to other sports, the Frys.com somehow still lived up to its reputation of giving new names a break. This was the event that put Rickie Fowler and Jamie Lovemark in a playoff all the way back in 2009 (sadly for those guys, it was Troy Matteson who pulled off the shot he needed to outlast those two rookies). Sang-Moon Bae won his second PGA Tour event here a year ago, and while he wasn’t necessarily young when it happened by today’s standards, Jimmy Walker got his first ever PGA Tour win at this event in ’13, leading to a run of five wins in 17 months.

Justin Rose, Charl Schwartzel and Hideki Matsuyama gave the event the credibility it needed before it began, but it was who lasted in the end that was the most impressive. Emiliano Grillo made a bomb for birdie on the 72nd hole in regulation, eventually missing a bunny of a birdie putt to take down Kevin Na on the first playoff hole, but bouncing back with a birdie on that same hole to claim his first ever PGA Tour win at the age of 23.

Considering the way it ended, the drama that occurred with Grillo missing that short one to end it in a playoff and the way he bounced back and gritted it out, it was a really impressive start to the year and gave us a champion that some think could be the breakout star of the ’16 season.

Listen, when a 23-year-old plays his final 11 holes like this, the tournament is getting a high, high grade.

Just look at that scorecard! My goodness. It might have just been the second event of the season, but that will most likely go down as round of the year unless Sergio Garcia fires a 59 to claim the Claret Jug in July.

On top of that, for the rest of this event’s lifespan, the name "Smylie" will be somewhere on the trophy, which has to worth something.

Smylie Kaufmaun’s ridiculous scorecard.

Also, we got the inevitable Emiliano Grillo missed cut after his win the week before, which seems like exactly what would happen to me the week after I won a million bucks playing golf and got an invite to the Masters at 23. Understandable, Emiliano. Totally understandable.

It’s always nice when you can shake whatever title was unceremoniously attached to you, like Justin Thomas had with "Jordan Spieth’s good buddy Justin Thomas."

Thomas is just 22, meaning the combined age of the first three winners on the PGA Tour this year are seven years younger than Jack Nicklaus (now you feel old?! Me too! You’re welcome!), and probably should have won PGA Tour Rookie of the Year if not for that late run in the FedEx Cup playoffs by Daniel Berger.

But the longer it takes you to win on the PGA Tour, the harder it gets, and Thomas is one of those kids that thinks he is ready for that next step, and just hasn’t been able to close a tournament out. 

It looked like that might be the case again in Kuala Lumpur when Thomas made a nasty double-bogey on the par-4 14th on Sunday as he was in a battle with big names like Adam Scott, Kevin Na, Brendan Steele and Hideki Matsuyama, but Thomas went on one of those runs it takes to win at this level, making birdies on 15, 16 and 17, needing just that closing par on the 18th to escape by one.

The event had plenty of drama, the field was top-heavy on Sunday, and the winner was one we had hoped would raise a trophy before the tour took their hiatus for the holidays.

No offense to the names that ended up atop this leaderboard in early November, but it felt like the Sanderson Farms was the first event of the wraparound season that was more Web.com than PGA Tour.

It isn’t easy going up against a World Golf Championships event the same week like the Sanderson Farms did, and while that might make the tournament feel lacking in buzz, it still gave us a deserving winner.

Peter Malnati, the eventual champion, doesn’t fit the exact mold of the first three champions, playing a full season already on the PGA Tour back in 2014, but at 28 he is still a talented young man with potential to add another win or two before the year ends.

Malnati outlasted William McGirt, David Toms and Aaron Baddeley on his way to his first win, names you’ve heard of, no doubt, but not exactly Adam Scott and Hideki Matsuyama pushing you as you’re going for that first victory.

It’s never easy comparing yourself to a younger version of yourself, like the HSBC Champions had to do this year. You couldn’t turn on the coverage without seeing a flashback of what Bubba Watson miraculously did here a year ago, holing a bunker shot on the 72nd hole to force a playoff, which he eventually won.

Bubba was in the field again, as was Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy, Luke Donald, Sergio Garcia, Jordan Spieth and Dustin Johnson, and while those names include major winners and former (and current) world No. 1s, it was Russell Knox who outlasted everyone to take home the WGC title.

The star-studdedness (I made that word up) of the final round was helped when Spieth went Craisins on Saturday with that bogey-free 63 (the 11th time this year that Spieth broke 65 on the PGA Tour), but he couldn’t keep it going on Sunday, and that left the door open for a host of others, including Danny Willett, who tried to go all Smylie Kaufman on the field, coming up a shot short.

Knox, now 30, snagged his first PGA Tour win with that final-round 68, and his story of how he got to this event (he found out a week prior that he was in after J.B. Holmes withdrew) helped, but that Sunday finish felt like a man preparing for a major firework show only to realize he forgot his lighter.

That said, the fact that we got this photo, with Hao Tong Li and Yao Ming, makes it all better.

Different strokes.