There was rain and wind and fog and lightning plaguing this week's PGA Tour stop, but when it absolutely, positively had to finish on time, the FedEx St. Jude Classic, naturally, delivered.
With U.S. Open week beginning on Monday, nobody wanted the venerable Memphis event to overstay its welcome, least of all Ben Crane. Leading since an opening 63, Crane limped home on a 30-hole Sunday, but had enough cushion to hold off Troy Merritt for his first Tour title since 2011.
Crane played 12 holes Sunday morning to complete his third round with a three-stroke lead over Merritt. Then, without the golfers re-pairing, he shot a 3-over 73 to win by two. In capturing his fifth Tour title, Crane became the first golfer since Justin Leonard in 2005 to win without a final-round birdie. In fact, after a chip-in on No. 7, his first hole of the day, Crane did not log a birdie in the next 29 holes.
He had some big names chase after him, but all were too far behind to put intense pressure on the best performer but worst golfer among the singing Golf Boys quartet.
As for Merritt, he was just happy to be in the conversation, and his solo second represented his best career showing, after a solo third in 2010 in New Orleans. This season, he had made only three prior cuts, with not even a top-40 logged. To illustrate how important one good week can be for a fringe golfer, Merritt vaulted from around 200 in the point standings to inside the top 125, at No. 111. And in the OWGR, he soared from No. 805 to 286.
While Crane is far more accomplished than Merritt, likewise, there was nothing in his recent play that signaled this week. Crane is amid a swing change and had missed five straight cuts before a T37 at the Byron Nelson two weeks ago, leaving him 150th in the point standings. His lone T25 all season was a T9 at the Humana in January. Now, he's No. 41 in the FedEx Cup chase. Further, he moved to just outside the top 100 in the OWGR, at 101, up from 267 last week.
And so it goes in the unlikeliest of PGA Tour seasons, one that began with the new wraparound format and, for the first time in almost a generation, has taken place largely without Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.
A long, long time ago, way back in October, Simpson won the Shriners, then finished third in January's Tournament of Champions. His strong start had become an afterthought, as the 2012 U.S. Open champ meandered through the first half of 2014. But his T3 in Memphis, replete with two 66s, comes at just the right time. Simpson is 15th in the point standings, but more important, is held in high regard on Tour. For the first two rounds at Pinehurst, he's grouped with Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell.
On the short list of best players to have never won a major, Poulter closed the St. Jude with a 64, best round of the week after Crane's 63, to wind up T6 for his best Tour showing since November. The Masters and Open Championship are traditionally Poulter's two best shots to end his major drought. He's never had so much as a top-10 in a U.S. Open.
Horschel tweeted last week after a T15 at Memorial, stained by a final-round 74, that his game was coming around. Perhaps he was right. In tying for sixth at Memphis, he's put together his best back-to-back showings all season. And Horschel recorded a T4 at last year's U.S. Open in only his second foray at a major.
What can we say about Mickelson that we haven't said in prior weeks? Probably nothing. We've reached the point in the PGA Tour season that he supposedly has been gearing his whole year around: trying to complete the career grand slam at Pinehurst No. 2 (perhaps not the best course name at a tournament in which Mickelson has been runner-up six times, including last year). He still doesn't have a top-10 this season, but barely, after notching a T11 at Memphis. Mickelson was actually in the mix until back-to-back bogeys on Nos. 13 and 14 on Sunday ended his chances. And we've probably said that before, too.
Fowler closed the week with three straight rounds in the 60s for a T13, far better than his recent play that saw him break 75 only once in his five previous rounds coming in. And combined with a top-10 last year at the U.S. Open, it would be easy to say Fowler has turned his game around in time to contend at Pinehurst. But we can't say it. Fowler is still too erratic for such lofty predictions.
McDowell has had some top finishes this year, but not in the big events. He missed the cut at the Masters and was T62 at The Players Championship. He wound up T24 at Memphis. No matter, it's the U.S. Open ahead. McDowell, of course, won it at Pebble in 2010, but he also was T2 last year, so he has to be considered in more than a cursory fashion.
Johnson certainly has not been playing his best golf, with only one top-10 in three months. He finished T24 in Memphis. But he's got the talent to win almost any week, and has five top 10s in majors going back to 2010. It seems his talent always can get him that far, but then he needs what's between his ears to take the next step. So far, Johnson has been unable to do that. As a South Carolina native who attended Coastal Carolina University, Pinehurst is not quite a home game, but he'll likely feel comfortable there.
For a golfer who was among the hottest around with a win at the Tournament of Champions kick-starting three successive top-10s, it sure has been a quiet five months, with a T53 at Memphis the last example. Further, Johnson has never fared well at the U.S. Open, making only five of 10 cuts with nothing inside the top 30.
Coming back to defend his St. Jude title, English disappointed in not making the cut. But he's still eighth in the point standings and on a short list of golfers with victories in each of the past two seasons (English won the OHL Classic at Mayakoba in November). This will be his first U.S. Open. In his first Masters back in April, English missed the cut.
Senden missed the cut in Memphis, but that's likely a mere blip in his stellar bounce-back season. As one of the best in Greens in Regulation year-in and year-out, Senden is a good candidate to do well at the U.S. Open. In fact, after his first try in the major, he's made three straight cuts, including a T10 last year.
Reed missed another cut last week, albeit in his first tournament in a month after being with his wife/caddie for the birth of their child. Reed's maiden appearance in a major came in April, when he missed the cut in the Masters. It's hard to see him contending at Pinehurtst. First, his game fell off after his second win of the season at Doral. And now, he simply hasn't had enough reps.