Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 20, 2011

Fight For A First Win Goes Down To The Last Stroke

The PGA Tour was in Palm Harbor, Florida this weekend, twenty miles northwest of Tampa, for the Transitions Championship. Like most Tour events, the tournament is named for its chief sponsor, the eyeglass company. But the name is apt in more ways than one. Sandwiched between the World Golf Championships event at Doral and the Arnold Palmer Invitational next week at Bay Hill, the Transitions’ field is usually lacking in big names. Of the top ten golfers in the World Rankings, only #1 Martin Kaymer and #7 Paul Casey teed it up on Thursday. But the absence of big names means the opportunity for the Tour’s stars of tomorrow to take a turn on the stage; and by doing so perhaps be changed forever.

A star-studded field is about the only thing the Transitions usually lacks. It’s a full-field event offering a $5.5 million purse, with $990,000 going to the winner; and it’s played on a demanding golf course. The Copperhead Course at the Innisbrook Resort is a tight, tree-lined par-71 layout with some significant elevation changes; more reminiscent of a course in the central Carolinas than the Florida Gulf Coast. It yields birdies only grudgingly. When Jim Furyk shot 13-under par last March to claim the first of his three 2010 victories, it was the first time in three years that the winning score was in double digits under par.

This year England’s Justin Rose held a one-stroke lead through 54 holes. The 30-year old Rose is hardly unknown, having won twice on the PGA Tour last year. He also has four European Tour wins and played in the 2008 Ryder Cup. Still it was not entirely inappropriate that he should be leading a field rife with lesser lights and struggling golfers. Rose burst onto the scene as a 17-year old amateur at the 1998 Open Championship. After playing well all week at Royal Birkdale, he holed a dramatic chip from the rough on the final hole to finish tied for 4th. Rose immediately turned pro, and quickly sank into oblivion on the European Tour, missing the cut in his first 21 events. While a lesser man might have taken that as a sign to consider another line of work, Rose persevered. He finally broke through with his first win in 2002, and since 2004 has played fairly regularly on this side of the Atlantic.

But Rose stumbled today, making four consecutive bogies from the 7th through the 10th holes. When he did so, the top of the leader board quickly filled with the names of young men seeking a breakthrough win. As the final groups made the turn, there was 26-year old Gary Woodland, playing his second full season. Right behind him, both on the leader board and on the golf course, was 25-year old Webb Simpson, in his third year on Tour. Playing with Simpson and in 3rd place was another 25-year old, Tour rookie Scott Stallings. Coming into this week these three had played in a combined total of 111 PGA Tour events, finishing in the top 25 just twenty-two times.

Over the Copperhead’s closing holes, each would face the unique pressure of being in or near the lead on Sunday afternoon. Professional golfers readily acknowledge the difficulty of recording their maiden win. It is a game that is as much about mental focus as it is about physical ability. Faced with the chance to seize one’s first victory, the great challenge is to stay in the moment.

At times all three hit shots that showed the raw edge of the nerves they had to be feeling. In the end Stallings was the first to truly crack. After pulling within one of the lead by holing a short birdie putt following a great tee shot on the par-3 15th hole, perhaps he let his thoughts drift ahead to another imagined birdie or two. Whatever the cause, he hit his drive on the 16th absurdly off-line. The ball splashed down in the middle of the lake guarding the right side of the par-4’s fairway. With that Stallings was headed for a double-bogey and a 3rd place finish.

Just a few minutes earlier, Woodland had stood on the same tee after stubbing a chip and making bogey on the 15th to fall into a tie with Simpson. He was able to put the miscue out of his mind. After hitting a safe 2-iron off the 16th tee the three previous days, Woodland pulled out driver and split the middle of the narrow fairway. On his very next shot though, the nerves showed again. His approach flared right, landing in a greenside bunker.

Sand play is the one glaring weakness in Woodland’s game. He came into the Transitions ranked 156th on Tour in sand saves percentage. Predictably, a poor sand shot led to a lengthy missed putt and a second consecutive bogey, leaving him one adrift of Simpson.

The latter was able to watch this from the 16th fairway, where he waited to hit his approach. That shot rolled through the green, but Simpson had shown a remarkably deft touch around the putting surfaces all day. He did so again, cozying a chip up to tap-in range to save par.

At the penultimate par-3, Woodland again appeared able to block out what had just happened. He struck a 5-iron up the hill to the elevated green, the ball landing softly and stopping eight feet from the cup. When his putt fell in for just the second birdie of the day on #17, the tournament was once again tied.

In the end it came down to the 72nd hole of the week for two golfers trying to become, for the first time, PGA Tour champions. Both in turn found the fairway with their drives, and then both in succession hit approach shots that stopped some fifty feet past the cup. Woodland’s ball was on the very back of the green, leaving a challenging putt up and over a ridge. A few minutes later Simpson’s ball ran just a yard further, into the back fringe, leaving the 25-year old with a chip along the same line.

The superstars of the game make it look easy; but it isn’t, of course. Some golfers use their first win as a springboard to greatness. Others never come close to winning again while still making a marvelous income on Tour. Some golfers find valuable lessons and resilience in the pain of defeat. Others never get over it. How the Transitions Championship will change Gary Woodland and Webb Simpson is unknown, though change them it almost certainly will. All we know right now is that Woodland ran his first putt ten feet past the hole, and then calmly rolled his second into the heart of the cup. Simpson sent his chip even further past, and his putt to remain tied was left of the hole all the way. The former, a young man who less than two years ago was rehabbing from surgery to repair a torn shoulder labrum, and couldn’t know for certain that he would again be competitive, has an invitation to next month’s Masters. The latter, a young man who was a 3-time All American in college and who three years ago was the ACC Player of the Year; is left to wait, and wonder what if.

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