Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 9, 2010

Laid-Back Charley’s Excellent Labor Day

Every Labor Day weekend the PGA Tour returns to New England. The Deutsche Bank Championship, now in its 8th year, is held annually at the Tournament Players Club of Boston course in Norton, Massachusetts. TPC Boston is an Arnold Palmer design, built specifically to host a PGA event in New England. Anyone who has ever been to there knows that Arnie and company (a lot more company than Arnie, as with most all signature courses), used virtually all of the land at their disposal to place the 18 holes that make up the 7,200 yard, par 71 layout.

The result is a far-flung golf course stretching over vast acreage. The Tour considers the rigors of walking the course an integral part of the game; but actually allows players to ride in carts from one green to the next tee twice at Norton, because of the distance involved. For spectators, it means many good viewing locations and a whole lot of healthy exercise. Every year I am one of those getting a workout, usually on Sunday with a group of friends and on Monday by myself.

Because of the Labor Day holiday, the tournament is the only event on the annual golf calendar with a planned Monday finish. Since the advent of the PGA Tour’s four-week FedEx Cup playoff series The Deutsche Bank has been the second stop in these limited field events. The top 100 players in the season-long FedEx Cup points standings are entered in this tournament, down from 125 at the first playoff event, the previous week’s Barclay’s. In similar fashion, only the top 70 in the standings will continue on to the next week’s event outside of Chicago, with only the top 30 advancing to the Tour Championship.

With a quality field assured, the tournament has produced a number of well-known winners, including Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Steve Stricker, Vijay Singh and Adam Scott. While all five were in the field this year, along with virtually all of the other big names of men’s golf, I think it fair to say that the man who wound up holding the trophy late Monday afternoon was just a tad less well-known.

Australian Jason Day shot 63 in the first round on Friday, and would lead or be tied for the lead through the weekend. By the time the final round started on a warm and bright Labor Day, Day was at 17-under par, one stroke ahead of former PGA Tour Rookie of the Year Brandt Snedeker. They were followed by England’s Luke Donald and Stricker. Australian Geoff Ogilvy, Justin Leonard, Scott and Mickelson were all within striking distance. Given the beautiful conditions and the fact that the TPC Boston can yield some low scores, even the likes of Singh and the previous week’s winner Matt Kuchar couldn’t be counted out, though they were 7 shots off the pace.

As the day progressed I was first a witness to, not for the first time by any means, the peculiar mob psychology of PGA fans. Standing in the landing area along the 12th fairway and looking back toward the tee, just out of site around a slight dogleg, I saw the throng appear. Like marchers in a Labor Day parade, the seemingly endless line came around the corner. Five and six abreast they made their way down the other side of the fairway up to a crosswalk. Faced there with a decision, many continued straight ahead but a greater number opted to cross over to the side of the hole I was on; thus putting themselves in a better position to advance on to the 13th hole at my back.

This tide of humanity could mean but one thing; Tiger had just hit his tee shot on the 12th. Sure enough, a few seconds later the man in the red shirt came into view, paired with Vijay Singh. His drive had landed in the far rough. After a seemingly interminable delay while he considered the effect of the gusting breeze, he stroked an iron that landed on an upslope just short of the green, bouncing backwards into a hazard as the throng groaned its collective disappointment.

Three-quarters of an hour later I had walked backwards along the course and found myself seated in the bleachers behind the 9th green, a sharp dogleg left. From that position it was impossible to see the tee, but I could see two golf balls appear from that direction and land safely in the middle of the fairway. Moments after the second ball came to a stop, another great fan parade came into view along the ropes separating spectators from competitors. Smaller than Tiger’s but no less impressive, this second human wave assured me that one of the two balls in the fairway was a Callaway that had been driven by Phil. Again sure enough, a few moments later Mickelson came into view, walking beside playing partner Adam Scott. His throng had a happier time on #9 than Tiger’s did on #12 as Phil hit safely onto the green and two-putted for par.

When both men are in the field, it often seems like 60% of the spectators are following Tiger, 30% are following Phil, and the entire rest of the field must share the remaining 10%. This is true even when neither is in contention, as was the case on Monday by the time I saw the two superstars. It’s even true despite the fact that the very size of their galleries ensures that those at the back of the parade or too many rows deep will do well to catch more than a glimpse of either player.

With the two superstars having moved on, and the afternoon getting to the point where more and more final scores were being posted, I was next reminded that in a sense there were two tournaments underway. One of course was for victory, but for many in the field a more important one was to finish well enough to get into the top 70 in the points standings and move on to the BMW Championship in Chicago. Both Woods and Singh started the week outside of the 70-man field for the following week and played their way into it.

Others were not so fortunate. With each position up the leaderboard more points are awarded, which means that sometimes a single stroke over four days can make all the difference. Steve Marino played well enough to move from 78th in the FedEx Cup standings to 72nd. Kris Blanks did even better, moving from 91st place all the way up to 71st. Close, but not quite. Both will have next weekend off; and both would be in the top 70 and playing on if their total score for the tournament had been just one stroke less.

If each move up the leaderboard means more points, then each slip down it yields the opposite. Both Lucas Glover and Charles Howell III started the week safely in the top 70. But the former played the final two rounds in five over par and the latter was one stroke worse. Both tumbled right out of the field for the third round of the playoffs.

Finally, as the sun began to slide west, it was time for a tournament champion to emerge. And here something remarkable happened. Monday was bright and sunny; breezy yes, but seemingly conditions that should yield some low scores on a course where low scores are certainly possible. But of the 17 golfers who started the day at 10-under par or better, 16 of them averaged an even par 71. On a beautiful Monday afternoon, the first three pages of the leader board decided to stand still.

All except for Charley Hoffman, that is. Hoffman, a 33-year old California native who went to college at UNLV and liked Las Vegas so much that he now lives there, had one previous win on the PGA Tour. He came into the Deutsche Bank Championship in 59th place in the FedEx Cup standings and 132nd in the World Rankings. He is by all accounts an affable fellow, well-liked by his fellow players in no small part because of his laid-back attitude. He is certainly instantly identifiable out on the course thanks to his long flowing blonde locks. He started the final round four strokes adrift at 13-under par. And while everyone else was standing still, all Charley did was make eleven birdies offset by two bogies to tie the course record with a 9-under par 62. As he blew by the field recording birdie after birdie, including one right in front of me when his tee shot on the par-3 16th hole stopped little more than a yard from the flag, he was clearly in a zone that every athlete can find, from time to time. For a few precious hours the game was surpassingly easy.

For laid-back Charley Hoffman, those few hours were worth $1.35 million and a guaranteed place in the Tour Championship. All in all, not a bad walk, even if it was a very long one.

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