Alexander: No stars, no problem as Matthieu Pavon makes PGA Tour history

LA JOLLA — In one sense, the final round of the 2024 Farmers Insurance Open Saturday might have been an argument for star power. The five guys at the top of the leaderboard for much of the day were the essence of anonymity, a bunch of players seeking their first PGA Tour tournament victory for whom even the devoted golf fan might ask “Who’s that?”

But maybe we should look at it another way. One man’s life changed Saturday afternoon, in dramatic fashion, and it’s a testament to the unforgiving nature of this tour. No guarantees, you consume what you can capture, and the rewards of winning a tournament can transform a player’s career.

It happened last Sunday in La Quinta, when amateur Nick Dunlap won the American Express and, a few days later, announced he was turning professional to take advantage of the exempt status he’d earned by winning. And it happened Saturday at Torrey Pines, as Matthieu Pavon became a first-time Tour winner with all of the privileges that come with it.

(And, according to the PGA Tour communication staff, Pavon is the first French player to win a Tour event since World War II. Who knew that this week would be historic as well?)

Even when the field seems weak or unimpressive or unknown from the outside, there’s always the potential for drama. As Saturday began, the leader at 11-under was Stephan Jaeger, who was born in Germany, came to this country as a 17-year-old exchange student and now considers Chattanooga, Tenn. his home. He was followed by Denmark’s Nicolai Højgaard and Pavon at 10-under and Germany’s Thomas Detry at 9-under. (And that was after Detry had his approach on 18 Friday roll into the water for a 7 that cost him a share of the lead, which foreshadowed his final round of 2-over 74).

By Saturday afternoon, Nate Lashley and Costa Mesa’s Jake Knapp finished at 11-under and were waiting to see if Pavon, still in the lead at 12-under but having bogeyed 17, and/or Jaeger at 11-under would cough it up on 18. There was even the distant possibility of a five-man playoff at 11-under consisting exclusively of players who had never won a PGA Tour event – Pavon, Jaeger, Højgaard, Lashley and Knapp.

“Coming that close, I think kind of towards the back nine today we kept on saying we just want to giveourselves a chance,” said Knapp, a former UCLA player who turned pro in 2016 and has spent all of his time before this year on the Korn Ferry and Canadian tours, and for a change had the benefit of friends and family rooting him on this week.

“We were able to do that and kept hitting good golf shots. (I) was definitely more focused on trying to win it rather than too excited over finishing second or third.”

As Knapp tried to keep track on the practice putting green, the drama intensified when Pavon hit his drive on the par-5, 541-yard 18th into a fairway bunker to the left, then blasted out of that into the severe rough for which Torrey Pines is so famous, 145 yards from the hole.

And then came the shot of the round, and maybe even the shot of Pavon’s life. He seemed to pull off the ball on contact, but it landed on the green and rolled, tantalizingly, to within 7 feet, 8 inches of the hole, a makeable putt that he didn’t miss. It was his only birdie on the back nine, but it was exquisitely timed.

“We see Nicolai hitting the green and my caddie was like, ‘OK, we should probably lay up and get ourselves a wedge and kind of try to make par and get a playoff or something,” Pavon recalled. “The lie doesn’t look too bad. I feel like I can do it. He said, ‘OK, but it’s your call.’ “

Pavon laughed.

“It’s my call,” he said. “And I was so pumped at that time, I know I had the energy to lift that ball up on the green. I kind of aimed to the middle of the green knowing the face would close a little bit because it’s quite deep and thick.

“That ball came out like a butterfly.”

Pavon’s victory on the DP World Tour last year in Spain provided a wave of confidence that seems to have carried over.

“It proved to me that I’m capable to do great things,” he said. ” … Then (I) birdied the last four (holes) in Dubai (last November) to get myself into the PGA Tour, and since then I’m like on a cloud, I’m flying. It’s incredible.”

Understand, the Tour landscape has gotten tougher for rookies. The shift of some tournaments to “Signature Events,” with 80 professional entrants and no cut after 36 holes, was an obvious response to the rival LIV Golf tour, but it also made it harder for players trying to work their way up.

A guaranteed spot in those events was at stake Sunday – including this coming week’s pro-am at Pebble Beach and the Genesis Invitational three weeks from now at Riviera – as well as for the majors. Plus, this victory gave Pavon a leg up toward a high enough spot in the Official World Golf Ranking to represent his country in the Paris Olympics this summer. Going into the week, he was 78th.

So there was a lot at stake beyond the $1.62 million winner’s share and 500 FedEx Cup points. But maybe Pavon’s approach to this American adventure is the best one.  He said he’d dreamed of coming to this country since he was 16 – he’s now 31 – but said he hadn’t felt undue pressure in his 11 starts on this tour, three of them this season.

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So far so good. In his first two events this season he tied for seventh at the Sony Open and was tied for 39th last week in La Quinta.

“I had almost no pressure coming, playing in America,” he said. “It’s like it’s just an opportunity. If I fail, I could just go back in Europe and I start again. So it was just like trying to do your best every day, enjoy every moment because they are special ones.

“I can tell you there are very special ones, and it looked like it worked.”

Saturday, it absolutely did.

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