Napa Valley Register article
By MARTY JAMES
It was five years ago and it was a low point for Brendan Steele.
In 2012, playing in his first Masters, Steele shot rounds of 76 and 80 at Augusta National Golf Club and missed the cut.
He won the Valero Texas Open in 2011, but just a year later, Steele was struggling with his game on the PGA Tour.
“It was kind of a down time, kind of a bummer,” Steele said Sunday. “I was having a really hard time just figuring out what types of shots to play and what I was really doing with my career. There were a lot of things that I wasn’t very good at.
“I’ve been telling everybody that five years ago I was a mediocre chipper, a poor wedge player, a mediocre putter. I hit the ball about 15 yards shorter. I couldn’t move it left to right.”
Times sure have changed.
He won the Safeway Open, the opening event of the PGA Tour’s 2016-17 wrap-around schedule, by shooting a 7-under-par 65 in the final round on the North Course at Silverado Resort and Spa in October. He came back from four shots off the lead to start the day, closing with three consecutive birdies to finish one shot ahead of Patton Kizzire.
It was Steele’s first win in 141 starts on the PGA Tour dating to his rookie season in 2011.
“That’s the exciting part about this golf course. There’s some opportunities right at the end,” said Steele.
“Fortunately, I felt really good with the putter and was able to hole some nice ones on the way in.”
Rainy weather caused the final round to be delayed two hours. Steele finished at 18-under 270 and won $1,080,000.
The victory also got Steele into the Masters Tournament, which starts on Thursday in Augusta, Georgia, exempt status through the 2018-19 season and 500 FedEx Cup points.
The Masters, golf’s first major of the year, was the first thing that Steele said he thought about after winning the Safeway Open.
“Obviously, FedEx Cup points and World Ranking points and all that stuff is really nice,” he said. “But you want to be in the Masters. I’ve been trying to plan my whole schedule around it and my preparation around it for the last six months or so.
“I was able to take a couple of trips (to Augusta) over the last couple of weeks and try to get some of the butterflies out and learn a few more of the shots that I maybe didn’t learn the first time I was there or forgot about, because I haven’t been there in five years.
“It’s been really good. Just trying to get really ready and rested and be excited to play, which I obviously am.”
There are 94 players in the field for the 81st Masters, which is played at the par-72, 7,435-yard Augusta National Golf Club. Danny Willett is the defending champion. Willett shot a 67 in the final round and became the first player from England to win the green jacket since 1996.
“When I played there five years ago, my game wasn’t very good and the course just seemed like it was kind of impossible for me at the time,” said Steele. “I was going through a stretch with my game where it was just about as bad as it could be.
“But going back now, when I see the shots, they all kind of make sense to me and I feel comfortable. I really like the look of everything. It’s really an exciting time and it’s going to be a really good week.
“As you play it more and more, you kind of start to understand that they’re giving you space and places to miss, but you have to miss in the right spot. There will be holes where you can hit it long, but you can’t be short. So you’ve got to make sure that, no matter what happens, you get it over the false front. You just try to learn where the misses are, and if you get in trouble, kind of where you can play from. You just have to favor those sides on every hole.”
It’s been a very good season for Steele, who is from Idyllwild, California (Riverside County). He tied for sixth at the SBS Tournament of Champions (Plantation Course at Kapalua, Maui, Hawaii) and tied for sixth at the CareerBuilder Challenge (Stadium Course, La Quinta, Calif.) in January. He tied for 16th at the Waste Management Phoenix Open (TPC Scottsdale, Arizona) and tied for 14th at the Honda Classic (PGA National, Palm Beach Gardens, Florida) in February.
“I haven’t played my best over the last couple of weeks on Tour, but overall the season’s been really solid and I’ve been really happy with everything,” said Steele. “Being a California guy, it’s fun to win in your home state. It’s such a fun week in Napa, with all the great food and the wine. I really enjoy it there. To start the season that way it’s just really, really cool.
“I feel really good right now. I feel like my game is in a really good spot.”
Steele is No. 9 among PGA Tour FedEx Cup leaders and is 56th in the Official World Golf Ranking.
At the Safeway Open, Steele tied for fifth in driving accuracy, tied for 21st for greens hit in regulation, and tied for first in sand saves.
He had earlier rounds of 67, 71 and 67. Steele got into the Tournament of Champions with his qualifying win at the Safeway Open. He also gets into the PGA Championship in August at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“It was really validation for all the work and changes that I’ve done, working on my chipping and my wedge play and my fitness and being able to work the ball left to right,” he said, looking back on his victory at Silverado. “It’s showing me that I’m going in the right direction.”
To become as familiar and adjusted as possible to the course and conditions, Steele has played two practice rounds at Augusta National over the last two weeks.
He played a practice round with a member of Augusta National, Ed Herlihy.
Steele played a practice round with Phil Mickelson and a member of Augusta National, Jimmy Gunne.
“That was fun to go back and play a couple of practice rounds and just see that it is doable and that the shots make sense,” said Steele. “There’s a lot of positive stuff. We had some really cool rounds out there. Every day was different. There’s really no place like it in the world.
“I think it’s really most people’s favorite golf event for the season. It’s a really special thing with the small field, as well as it’s the hardest one to get into. I feel like I understand how to play the golf course a lot better than I did five years ago for sure and that I have the shots that are required. I expect to be able to get out there and contend to win the tournament, and that’s the way that I have to look at it. I know there’s a lot of great players and they’ve got a little more course knowledge than me for the most part.
“But I expect to be able to get out there and play really well. I expect to really enjoy it this time and to be aggressive and try to have a really good week.”