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  • Through tears and emotion, Cameron Champ validated his case as golf's Next Big Thing. Plus, addressing Tony Romo's golf critics and Rory McIlroy's latest diss to the European Tour.
By Daniel Rapaport
September 30, 2019

Almost exactly one year ago, Cameron Champ won the Sanderson Farms Championship and instantly became the Next Big Thing. It’s not hard to see why—he’s the longest hitter professional golf, he's from a working-class family, and he has a certain star quality about him.

The months following that life-changing win were a whirlwind for the soft-spoken Californian. He graced the covers of magazines. The Tour promoted him relentlessly, pushing him on their social channels and putting him in featured groupings seemingly every week. Somewhere along the way, his game failed to keep up. After an initial period of post-win success, he did not post a single top 20 and missed 11 cuts in his final 20 starts of the season. Amid his struggles, an electric triumvirate of even younger players—Matt Wolff, Collin Morikawa and Viktor Hovland—emerged and hijacked the up-and-comer's thunder.

But only one of those players can call themselves a multiple-time PGA Tour winner. It’s Champ, who picked up his second victory at the Safeway Open this weekend. And what an emotional victory it was—Champ’s grandfather Mack, who taught him the game, is in hospice care with stage IV stomach cancer. Champ had odes to “Papa Champ” adorned on his shoes, balls and clubs. He’s been driving 90 minutes back and forth from Napa to Sacramento to spend time with his grandfather all week. You have to think he made that same drive Sunday night with the trophy in hand.

“No matter if I win one more tournament, 10 more tournaments, no matter what it may be, this will be the greatest victory of my golf career,” Champ told Golf Channel after the final putt dropped.

Here’s how it happened: Champ held a comfortable lead for most of the back nine before things got really interesting down the stretch. Adam Hadwin birdied 16, 17 and 18 to reach 16–under. Meanwhile, Champ bogeyed 17 to drop back to 16–under, meaning he’d have to birdie the par-5 No. 18 for the win. After a 369-yard (!) drive, he hit an 8-iron short and right of the green, leaving himself an awkward chip from a downhill lie. He nipped it perfectly, hearted the winning three-footer and let the emotions wash over him. There wasn’t a dry eye at Silverado as Champ polished off a win for Pops. 

From an x’s and o’s perspective, Champ’s performance this week is a reminder of his jaw-dropping talent. His swing is Sam Snead-level good. He can swing it 130 miles per hour while looking like he’s grooving a little butter cut. His speed is profoundly effortless and he never looks out of balance.

Champ is always going to do most of his damage with the driver, but the putter was actually the difference maker on Sunday. After sleeping on a three-shot lead, he got off to a shaky start but covered it up with a scorching flatstick. Champ one-putted five of his first six holes, including making four putts over eight feet, to preserve his advantage. In the end, he needed every single one of those putts.

We’ll now see if Champ, 24, can avoid another post-victory slump. When you watch his unique blend of power and putting prowess, it’s hard to believe he can ever play a stretch like he did toward the second half of last season. If everything between his driver and putter can be close to average, there’s no reason to believe he can’t make good on that whole Next Big Thing business.

Let’s stop complaining about Tony Romo

People were mad that Tony Romo teed it up in the Safeway Open this week. The argument against him playing boils down to two points:

• He’s not good enough to compete. In his three previous PGA Tour starts, he’d never missed the cut by less than 10.

• He’s taking the place of a deserving player. There are a number of players who oscillate between the PGA and Korn Ferry Tours, and these are guys who need paychecks to support themselves and their families.

I find no issue with either of those points. Romo is nowhere near good enough to contend with the best players in the world. Heck, he’s not even good enough to contend with the best amateurs—he has played a number of elite amateur events and had little success. Despite an opening-round 70 this week, his lowest score ever on Tour, he still wound up missing the cut by a full six shots.

And yes, if Romo didn’t play, another, more deserving player could have taken his place.

But these arguments miss the point. Romo got his spot via a sponsor’s exemption. Each week, the tournament sponsor—which funds the prize money!—gets a handful of spots in the tournament to hand out to whoever they want. These are almost always used on young up-and-comers (17-year-old Akshay Bhatia also got one this week), local guys or big-name players who, for whatever reason, aren’t exempt into the field. The idea here is to give spots to players who will bring attention to the tournament. More attention means more eye balls. More eyeballs means more return on investment.

Tony Romo absolutely brought attention to this tournament. How many non-golf diehards would be paying attention to Thursday at the Safeway Open if it weren’t for him? But then again, Charles Barkley would bring attention to a PGA Tour event, so that alone doesn’t mean it’s okay to give a guy an exemption. Giving a spot to a player who can’t even compete, let alone contend, would cheapen the event. This happened back in 2010, when a Web.com Tour event gave Jerry Rice a sponsor’s exemption…and he shot an embarrassing 92. But Romo is the furthest thing from an embarrassment—on Thursday, he beat Justin Thomas and Phil Mickelson and Hideki Matsuyama and Collin Morikawa and Kevin Chappell, who shot 59 a few weeks ago.

So long as sponsors keep thinking Romo will be a good addition to their event, and so long as he keeps his golf game sharp, there's no real issue with using exemptions on him. These sponsors are the lifeblood of professional golf—without them there is no money, and without money there is no Tour. Let them do as they please, within reason. And this is within reason.

A mixed-bag week McIlroy

Let’s check in with Rory McIlroy, who fired up the PJ and hopped across the pond for a string of events immediately after winning the $15 million FedEx Cup grand prize. This week found the world No. 2 at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, which is basically the European Tour’s equivalent of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. Like the AT&T, the Dunhill is played across three world-class courses: Carnoustie, Kingsbarns and St. Andrews. And like the AT&T, the best players in the field often partner with celebrity amateurs (Justin Timberlake and Luis Figo played alongside Justin Rose and Matthew Fitzpatrick, respectively).

McIlroy opted for a more familiar partner: his father, Gerry, who is a stick in his own right. McIlroy said during the week that he’d rather win the pro-am than the actual golf tournament, and Team McIlroy got as close as you possibly could—no team posted a lower score than their 39–under total for the week, which included Gerry shooting three-under 69 on his own ball at Kingsbarns. They “lost” the pro-am to the team of Tommy Fleetwood and Ogden Phipps because the tiebreaker was the professional’s score on Sunday, and Fleetwood’s 64 bested McIlroy’s 67.

No matter. Both McIlroys clearly had as good a weekend as a golfer possibly can. They were haggled over strokes in the practice round. They fought tooth-and-nail against each other for bragging rights. They laughed after hitting putts way too hard. One of the best parts of golf is the cross-generational bonds it fosters, often between fathers and sons. We can’t relate to the way these pros play the game, but we absolutely can relate to the special feeling of playing golf alongside your old man. Despite not ever being in contention—more on that in just a second—Rory couldn’t wipe the smile off his face all week.

The week wasn’t all roses and rainbows. McIlroy made some pretty eye-opening comments about the course setup on Sunday: “I’m sort of honestly sick of coming back over to the European Tour and shooting 15–under par and finishing 30th,” he said after shooting 70-66-70-67 to finish

“I don’t think the courses are set up hard enough. There are no penalties for bad shots. It’s tough when you come back and it’s like that. I don’t feel like good golf is regarded as well as it could be. It happened in the Scottish Open at Renaissance. I shot 13 under and finished 30th again. It’s not a good test. I think if the European Tour wants to put forth a really good product, the golf courses and setups need to be tougher.”

First of all, is he suggesting the non-major PGA Tour setups are much better? Is he forgetting the BMW Championship, where he shot 11–under for four days and lost by 14? But the larger point here is the continued deterioriation of the McIlroy-European Tour relationship, which has been fractured for quite a while now. The four-time major winner decided to play a much more PGA Tour-centric schedule last year, a decision he says was validated by his remarkably consistent season and FedEx Cup title. McIlroy was actually considering giving up his European Tour membership before his wife convinced him to reach a special arrangement with the circuit’s CEO. Pelley must be mighty glad that agreement was reached last week, because at this point it’s clear that McIlroy wants to play European Tour events like he wants a hole in the head.

He’ll play one more “regular” European Tour event, the year-end DP World Championship, before the year is over. He will then return to his Florida home, to hang out with his American wife and play on the American tour. Which begs the question: Can we have him for the Ryder Cup?

Chip ins

• For a moment there, it looked like Kristoffer Ventura spit on Tony Romo’s ball after the QB hit up on his group. Turns out it was exactly the opposite—Ventura was checking to make sure he didn’t step in Romo’s line.

So cynical, we are.

• Lin Yuxin of China won the Asia-Pacific Amateur in a playoff over Takumi Kanaya of Japan, the top-ranked amateur in the world. With the victory, Yuxin gets a place in the 2020 Masters.

• Just a dirty, dirty long bunker shot here from Justin Timberlake.

That’s the hardest shot in golf. What can’t this guy do?

• We should mention that Victor Perez won the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship for his first European Tour victory. And he did so with J.P. Fitzgerald on the bag. If that name sounds familiar, it probably is—Fitzgerald was on McIlroy’s bag for each of his four majors.

• This bird’s-eye-view, pro-tracer perspective on a hole-in one is mesmerizing

 • Champ’s caddie, Kurtis Kowaluk, was monumental this week, frequently talking his player through decisions and explaining his reasoning for suggesting a certain shot. Here he his on Saturday, imploring his boss not to get too cute.

Caddie-player conversations might be the best content there is.

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