Brendan Steele stayed cool under pressure from Phil Mickelson, Tony Finau and others Sunday to win the Safeway Open going away. His 72nd-hole birdie when he needed only a par to win capped a strong performance that established him as a solid championship competitor on the PGA Tour. The 34-year-old now has three PGA Tour victories in 178 starts — two in his last 26 starts.
The Idyllwild native posted a 15-under-par 65-67-72-69 — 273 to win by two strokes over Tony Finau and three over Phil Mickelson. Past winners of the Safeway include Mike Weir, Rocco Mediate, Jimmy Walker and Emiliano Grillo, but no other player has won twice, much less successfully defended his title with a second consecutive win.
Brendan’s game appears to love the Silverado Resort and Spa course. Since the Safeway has been played on that course the past three years, Brendan is 50 under par, better than any other pro.
Brendan collected 19 birdies and an eagle against 6 bogeys on the way to victory last week. One of his best moments under pressure came at the par-4 14th on Sunday. He hit his drive into a fairway bunker, then came out into the rough, and clunked his third shot into a greenside bunker. His out from there left him a 7 ½-foot put for bogey. It was an intensely pressure-packed moment to keep from posting a double. The putt drifted right to left, caught the right lip and dropped. Brendan described that putt as a “huge” factor in keeping his momentum.
Brendan was no. 1 in the field in driving distance at 327.8 yards, while hitting 67 percent of the fairways and 79 percent of the greens in regulation, and his proximity to the hole on approaches averaged under 30 feet. He gained 2.241 strokes on the field putting, needing only 1.8 putts per green.
Heavy, gusty winds blasted the competitors on Sunday, a major change from the first three days. Although wind-aided shots produced huge drives (Brendan’s final drive at no. 18 Sunday traveled 369 yards), Brendan related that it was easier to play into the wind than with it. Club selection was a major question all day under these gusty conditions, and throughout the day Brendan communicated heavily on this issue with his substitute caddy, Chris Mason, who is one of his coaches.
Last year’s win in the first tournament of the season propelled Brendan into his best year ever on the PGA Tour, and he said in an interview that he was expecting to get that same springboard effect from this year’s early victory. Most immediately, this win makes him eligible for the Tournament of Champions in Hawaii in January, but it also opens doors to World Golf Championship tournaments and majors as well. It also jumped him from 59th to 47th in the Official World Golf Ranking.
Brendan said he learned a lot from the last season. Specifically, in a post-tournament interview he acknowledged that from the British Open on, he found himself playing for points rather than playing for wins, which he now feels was a mistake he will correct this year.
Brendan competes this week in Malaysia in the $7 million CIMB Classic. His regular caddie, Christian Donald, will be on his bag. His tee times have not yet been set, but will be available on the Town Crier website later this week.
Jack may be reached at [email protected].