American Express – Record rounds, no fans, a ‘pinky putt’ and a deserving champ
The 62nd version of the desert’s PGA event is in the books, and 2021 was an unusual one to be sure.
No fans, no concerts, no amateurs and no La Quinta Country Club made for an entirely different feel.
But some things remained the same. There was plenty of drama, some goofiness and a ton of birdies. These are the 20 moments I’ll remember most from the 2021 American Express:
1. Top spot goes to Si Woo Kim, the 2021 champion. Kim was remarkable in his consistency throughout the week playing the final 36 holes bogey-free and making only two bogeys for the entire tournament. Simply amazing.
2. Patrick Cantlay, a UCLA product, put together one of the greatest rounds in the history of this tournament with an 11-under 61 in the final round. It wound up being one stroke short, but that’s not bad for someone who made the cut on the cutline.
3. Tony Finau was certainly the fan favorite entering the final day, and when he started with two birdies, it felt like he might finally shake his Sunday blues. He did not. He played the next 12 holes even par and was not in contention in the end, despite birdies on 15 and 18. It’s surprising for most golf fans to learn that Finau only has one win, because he has been in contention so often. Another opportunity slips away.
Tony Finau hits a shot on the 3rd hole of the Stadium Course during the American Express at PGA West in La Quinta, January 24, 2021.
4. There’s no doubt that not having fans this year was a bummer and did take away from the atmosphere. Never more so than on the first tee when the announcer would loudly say the player’s name to absolutely zero applause. “Now on the tee, Rickie Fowler!” Dead silence.
5. The best new addition to the tournament in 2021 was definitely the Charity Challenge with Phil Mickelson hosting a two-on-two match between the teams of Finau and soccer legend Landon Donovan and Paul Casey and country singer Jake Owen. It was fun, made-for-TV and dished out $1 million to local charities. Hope to see it again next year.
6. Win your bar bet: Tony Finau’s first name is short for Milton, not Anthony.
7. Shot of the week (actual category): Cantlay’s clutch 37-foot putt on the 18th hole had all the trimmings of a remarkable winner. No one let Kim in on that, apparently. When he sunk the long putt, Cantlay pumped his fist and said to his caddie “That’s as good as I can play.”
8. Shot of the week (fun category): The thing I saw this week that I enjoyed the most was the “pinky putt” by Mark Hubbard. On his final putt before missing the cut, he reached out his right hand, put his pinky in the air and slowly reached down to the bottom of his putter shaft by the head and grabbed it with his pinky. He then hit the awkward-looking putt and … missed it. Oh well.
9. International winner. Kim became the first Asian to win this event and only the sixth international player to win. He joins Jon Rahm (Spain, 2018), Jhonattan Vegas (Venezuela, 2011), Mike Weir (Canada, 2003), Jesper Parnevik (Sweden, 2000) and Bruce Devlin (Australia, 1970).
10. A great under-the-radar effort from 2020 runner-up Abraham Ancer who fired a 66 on Sunday to move up into a tie for fifth. That makes for back-to-back top-five finishes here. Last year’s champion Andrew Landry, on the other hand, finished in a tie for 64th place.
11. Sorry, Charlie: Cantlay’s remarkable round supplanted Palm Desert High grad and local favorite Charlie Reiter, who had the competitive round record on the Pete Dye Course at PGA West with a 9-under 63. He set that mark in 2019.
12. When it catalogs the dreaded “others” meaning double bogey or worse, the PGA doesn’t separate a double bogey from a triple bogey, but I’m willing to bet there were more triple bogeys this year than any one year at this event. Michael Thompson’s on No. 13 on Sunday was probably the most painful.
13. Learning about new players (new to me at least) is one of my favorite parts of this event every year. These are some of the players I’ll be looking forward to follow moving forward: Cameron Davis, Doug Ghim, Brandon Hagy and Russell Knox.
14. Speaking of Hagy, he got into the event as an alternate when Jon Rahm withdrew and made the most of it. He showed his readiness by posting an 8-under 64 to take the Day One lead. He faded, finishing in a tie for 21st, but adding credence to how impressive his effort was is that two other alternates that got into the field had the two worst scores of the entire event and missed the cut.
Brandon Hagy tees off on the 10th hole of the Stadium Course during the American Express at PGA West in La Quinta, January 22, 2021.
15. Despite his amazing play, Cantlay will look back at one stroke on Saturday that may have changed things. In Cantlay’s last 27 holes, he made a remarkable 16 birdies. But on his 17th hole Saturday, he hit his second shot into someone’s patio, which cost him a penalty stroke and produced his only bogey during that stretch. If he doesn’t interrupt that garden party, he may be hoisting the trophy.
16. One of the more entertaining pars came from Andrew Putnam, whose approach shot on 18 on Sunday hit the flag and the flagstick, scored a bunch of water fowl hanging out by the green and rolled into the water. Unlucky and undaunted, Putnam dropped his ball greenside and chipped it in for a par. Nice.
17. Thanks for playing: Brooks Koepka played in the event for the first time in his career. He said it was so he could practice for next week’s event, which he cared more about. He played two rounds and missed the cut. Prediction: Those will be the only two rounds he ever plays here.
18. My No. 18 spot was an easy one. That was reserved for Phil Mickelson’s immaculately average round on Friday: 18 holes, 18 pars. He had never done that before.
19. You can’t arrest people for a bad golf shot, but if you could, Jake Owen, the country singer who played in the Charity Challenge, would be behind bars. He skulled a sand shot over the green and hit a police officer in the thigh. He was apologetic and gave the officer a fist bump. The officer had a good laugh, and was not hurt and told me if he knew Owen was an amateur and not a pro, he would have been on higher alert.
Jake Owen, right, and Paul Casey chat with Mike Scott and Arnold Iniguez with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department after Owen struck Scott with a golf ball that landed during the American Express Charity Challenge at PGA West in La Quinta, January 20, 2021. Scott was unhurt.
20. I usually reserve my last item to thank Mother Nature for another beautiful four days. I’ll give her a solid three-and-a-half this year. I felt a few raindrops during Saturday’s round, which marks her down from a perfect score, but otherwise, beautiful.
Shad Powers is a sports columnist for The Desert Sun. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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