Alexander: Brendan Steele keeps hot streak going at Torrey Pines

LA JOLLA — Momentum does exist on the golf course, although much of it is mental. During the course of a round, string a few birdies together and you feel you’re invincible. Of course, it’s just as likely to make you feel too invincible, and perhaps prone to take an unnecessary chance here and there, but confidence is never a bad thing.

“The right answer is to try to keep each (hole) on its own,” said Sam Ryder, who was part of a three-way tie at 8-under-par 64 after the first round of the Farmers Insurance Open on Wednesday at Torrey Pines. “But when you start to see good shots early on and then when you start to get to 6-, 7- or 8-under, sometimes it turns into trying to manage that, too, and (continuing) to keep your foot on the pedal and stay aggressive and keep doing things.”

But does momentum exist from tournament to tournament as well as from hole to hole, especially at this point of the PGA Tour season with such an extreme difference in venues in consecutive weeks?

Brendan Steele, who played in the same early group with Ryder on Torrey Pines’ North Course on Wednesday and shot a 7-under 65 to Ryder’s 64, can speak to the subject. Steele was hot the last two days at The American Express in the Coachella Valley, shooting 64 and 66 to finish at 17-under in an event won by Jon Rahm at 27-under.

That was the traditional desert go-low or go-home weekend, with the cut line at 10-under. The Farmers is significantly different, but Steele picked up where he left off Wednesday with a birdie on his first hole, the 10th, and strung together four in a row mid-round for his 65.

Ryder, a former Stetson University golfer, started his round with an eagle and created his own momentum. Over the course of the day, Englishman Aaron Rai and another Floridian, Brent Grant, matched Ryder’s 8-under. Meanwhile, former Pepperdine star Sahith Theegala shot a 66 and La Cañada’s Collin Morikawa a 67.

Steele’s 271 last week at La Quinta earned him a tie for 32nd, which helps illustrate the challenges of keeping up at that birdie-fest of a tour stop.

“I was feeling really good about how I was hitting it, so that definitely carried over” to this week, he said Wednesday. “Just the confidence level in the ball-striking was good.

“I did feel like I made a change. I needed to shoot a really low round Saturday last week to make the cut. I was at 3-under, the cut was going to be 10, I kind of knew that going into the day, and I shot 8 (-under) on Saturday with a different mindset. So I tried to carry that over on Sunday and I shot 6 (-under)  there. And I tried to carry it (over) today and shot 7 (-under) today. So definitely the mindset change is really important there.”

Thursday will be the test this week. The North Course is harder than it used to be before the latest round of renovations, but Steele said, “I like it better now,” as he walked toward the scoring area after his round. The South Course is more rugged, and it’s expected the task will be complicated Thursday with forecasts for gusts from 10 to 20 mph.

Steele, 39 and an Irvine resident and UC Riverside alumnus, is accustomed to the variances. Traditionally, he starts the new year at the Sony Open in Honolulu, then the Coachella Valley, then Torrey Pines. Last year he skipped this tournament but then played Phoenix, Pebble Beach and Riviera in successive weeks. He said he shoots for playing 23-25 events per year and tries to take two-week breaks when possible for rest and recovery purposes.

“My first year out here, I played 32,” he said. “So things have changed a lot.”

Courses have changed, and the competition has changed – and toughened – a lot. Steele reminisced about coming on the tour in 2011 and playing alongside a lot of fortysomethings, and now he’s about to join those ranks in April.

“It’s become a young man’s game out here, and it’s less about experience and more about athleticism and (club) speed,” he said. “And the guys are more fine-tuned at a younger age.

“I feel like the limiting factors as you get older would be health and speed. So as long as I have those two things, I feel like I can still play my best golf. My speed’s really good right now, probably as good as it’s ever been, And in general, my health has been pretty good. I’ve had a little back thing here and there, but I just have to spend more time working on it than I did when I was 25.”

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Steele is still on the paleo diet he adopted nearly a decade ago, but with more cheat days factored in. He still works with Orange County trainer Brad Davidson, and their emphasis on strength has enabled Steele to maintain his club speed “without trying to hit it harder, because just swinging hard for me doesn’t work,” he said. “I don’t necessarily hit it any harder or faster. I hit it more offline.”

He has made a career out of being a grinder, with three career victories, 35 top-10 finishes, 88 top-25 finishes and $20.6 million in winnings in 295 tournaments since turning pro out of UCR in 2011. Last season he had four top-10s and seven top-25s, including a tie for ninth at the PGA Championship in May, his best performance in a major.

Maybe that momentum will work in his favor this week.

“I felt like I played really well on the weekend in Sony in Hawaii two weeks ago,” he said. “I didn’t play well on Friday last week in the desert and I was down on myself. I was really bummed because I thought I was really carrying something good there. And then I decided to change the mindset and just go be more aggressive … try to have the mindset that you need to make a ton of birdies rather than limiting all the mistakes.”

Sometimes, being bold creates momentum.

jalexander@scng.com

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