Without the return of Tiger, a new PGA Tour season begins
NAPA, Calif. – Bill Haas, Max Homa and Harold Varner III have something in common at the Safeway Open.
They were fill-ins for Tiger Woods.
Another PGA Tour season begins Thursday at Silverado in what was billed as the return of Tiger Woods, right up until the point that Woods decided his game was "vulnerable" and not where it needed to be for him to compete. The announcement at the start of the week spoiled the plans of the Safeway Open to make the golf course — and not the vineyards — the place to be.
Woods was going to play the pro-am on Wednesday with Stephen Curry, the two-time MVP for the Golden State Warriors. Then, he was to be in the same group as Phil Mickelson and defending champion Emiliano Grillo for the opening two rounds.
Varner took over as the pro in Curry's group, with both going to college in North Carolina (Varner at East Carolina, Curry at Davidson).
"Got to thank Tiger," Varner said. "If it wasn't for Tiger, I wouldn't be here. I had a good time."
Haas is a six-time winner on the PGA Tour. One of those victories was at Congressional for the AT&T National where Woods was the host.
As for Homa?
The former Cal star made it back to the PGA Tour and was an alternate for the Safeway Open. He got into the tournament when Woods withdrew. Homa tweeted later that day, "Thanks Tiger. Next time we hang out, dinner's on me. Get back out here soon plz. Sincerely, Your biggest fan."
In the meantime, the 2016-17 season begins without him.
MICKELSON RIDING HIGH: Mickelson has played 24 times in 35 weeks this year, and the 46-year-old was full of energy when he arrived at the Safeway Open. Attribute that to the Ryder Cup, were Lefty was the vocal leader for the Americans and turned in the top performance on the final day of an American victory. He made 10 birdies and needed them all for a halve against Sergio Garcia.
Mickelson hasn't won since 2013, but that team victory at Hazeltine filled a void.
"I'm still on an emotional high, and even though I've been running around this last week, my energy level is up and I'm optimistic about having a good week," Mickelson said. "I love the golf course and the feel. It's in California and I'm excited to play."
The first tournament of the new season is also the last tournament for Mickelson this year.
THE COMEBACK: One player dressed head-to-toe in Nike has chosen the Safeway Open to return from a back injury.
And yes, Nick Watney is playing.
Watney had a herniated disc and last played at Torrey Pines in January. Instead of surgery, he opted to take eight months off for rest and therapy. He began chipping and putting in August. His back specialist put him on what amounted to a pitch count so he wouldn't overdo. Watney was excited to be back on the tour, and several players did a double take when they saw him head to the practice range Wednesday. It had been a long time.
THE SHOW: Curry brought some star power to the pro-am, and he put on a show with a birdie on his final hole.
But the biggest shot came from Varner.
Someone set up a makeshift basketball goal in the bleachers, and Curry and Varner took turns heaving shots into the grandstand at the hoop. None came particularly close until Varner let one fly and banked it in.
"I don't know if he was really trying," Varner said.
THE ROOKIES: The players who make their PGA Tour debuts as card-carrying members can seek inspiration from the defending champion.
A year ago, Grillo won the Web.com Tour Championship, and two weeks later began his PGA Tour career with a playoff victory at Silverado. He wound up making it to the Tour Championship and finishing 11th in the FedEx Cup.
The previous two winners since the tour went to a wraparound season in 2013 also reached the Tour Championship — Jimmy Walker and Sang-moon Bae.