The most captivating stretch of the grueling PGA Tour season is over as the West Coast swing has ended and the tour heads for Florida before the Masters, which -- this is not a typo -- starts in just six weeks. A lot happened over the last two months that will reverberate throughout the rest of the golf season, and much of it centered around somebody who did not win at all.
Much of it swung around those who did, though, as is often the case. And while it's easy to just run down the list of tournament champions when it comes to winners, I want to dive a bit deeper than that to see who's playing truly great golf and who perhaps changed the trajectory of their season or career with a good run in California, Arizona and Hawaii.
There was also some bad, too, although for the most part bad is pretty relative. Justin Thomas did not have a great two months, but he also missed two of three cuts to start 2020 and went on to win later in the year. This is simply a snapshot in time of what has transpired of late. So let's start with someone who has seemingly fueled the last three weeks even though he hasn't lifted a trophy in over 40 months.
Jordan Spieth: He didn't win, but only Elon Musk has left California for Texas with more momentum over the last few years. Spieth was thrilling at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, steady at the Pebble Beach Pro-Am and then a bit of a tease at Riviera where he petered out late and lost ground on the weekend after momentarily contending for the third straight tournament. Still, that's three straight top 15s, and he enters March as one of just 11 players gaining 2.0 or more strokes per round this year. That's better than Rory McIlroy, Brooks Koepka, Webb Simpson, Bryson DeChambeau and a host of the other top players in the world. I still haven't mashed the "Spieth is back!" button, but my fingers are tapping it.
Joaquin Niemann: It got buried because he did not play a ton, but his runner-up finishes in Hawaii were impressive, and he's also on that list of 11 players gaining 2.0 or more strokes a round. Additionally, he's one of just seven players who are gaining 2.0 strokes or more from tee to green alone. He didn't have his best stuff at Riviera, but his three-tournament run over the last two months has made me think differently about what his year (and maybe even his career) might look like.
Patrick Cantlay: I've long thought Cantlay was a terrific golfer, but this West Coast swing may have been the first time I realized how few holes he has in his game. Only Paul Casey has a better strokes-gained number since Jan. 1, and Cantlay is pretty close to +0.5 strokes gained in every category (which is unfathomable). He's my early pick to win the Players Championship.
Brooks Koepka: Three years ago, he probably would have been aghast at the idea that winning a Phoenix Open would be as meaningful to him (and us) as it was. But this is not the same Koepka as it was three years ago. It's a Koepka who's labored through injury, not won an event since the summer of 2019 and asked some pretty existential questions of himself over the last year. That he won in Phoenix was a big deal with major championship season forthcoming, and it was equally cool to see him leak a bit of vulnerability we rarely get from one of the best of his generation.
"There was a period maybe for about two months where I just questioned whether I was ever going to be the same, whether I was even going to be somewhat remotely the same golfer that I ever was," Koepka said.
"My knee, no matter how much work and pain I was doing ... it just felt like it wasn't progressing. And that's the frustrating part, when you feel like it's not going anywhere. But we stuck with it. Those dark places, a lot of tears, questioning yourself, and in dark places mentally. You've got to come out of that. ... I'll tell you what, it takes a lot of effort just to get out of those places."
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Justin Thomas: I'm not sure any star had a tougher run when you take into account both on-course play and off-course fallout. J.T. obviously got popped for his derogatory remark at the Tournament of Champions, but that and the ensuing sponsorship bail by Ralph Lauren sort of covered up the fact that he's also not playing very good golf right now. He's missed two cuts in three events going into Florida, and while somebody who exists at his talent level is capable of flipping it around in literally any week, only Collin Morikawa (of the top players in the world) is playing at a worse clip compared to his baseline than J.T.
Patrick Reed: Sure, he raised a trophy but at what cost? How many rules incidents does he have to endure before he realizes that his price of admission to enter the winner's circle is so much more expensive than what he might pay in short-term loss of a stroke or two to regain some modicum of his perceived integrity? Or is that number incalculable? Reed will almost certainly play his way onto yet another Ryder Cup team, and everyone will do the song and dance about how Captain America is back and how this time is different, but that will be a good reminder that the U.S. struggles at Ryder Cups in part because it has to do that song and dance to begin with.
Bryson DeChambeau: He's been ... what, fine? OK? Good enough? DeChambeau hasn't been slogging his way to multiple missed cuts and slumming on leaderboards, but his gaming of the system has not been as useful so far in 2021 as it was at the end of 2020, and expectations are higher than ever. Again, this means nothing in the long-term, but his trend -- T7-T18-MC -- is not a great one heading into Florida. The lone bright spot for him is that the USGA and R&A seem intent on rolling back equipment, which will be disproportionately beneficial to someone who, if his commercials are to be believed, is the longest player of all time.