Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 3, 2012

Low Scores And High Drama At The Deutsche Bank

A NOTE TO READERS: As previously noted, attendance at the PGA Tour’s second FedEx Cup playoff event delayed this post. In addition, scheduled travel plans mean that Thursday’s post will be delayed until Saturday. The regular Sunday and Thursday posting schedule will resume next Sunday, September 9th.

This was the tenth anniversary of the Deutsche Bank Championship, the PGA Tour event played every Labor Day weekend in Norton, Massachusetts. But instead of receiving presents in honor of the occasion, the TPC Boston course was giving out gifts in the form of low scores every day of the tournament. An early starter in Friday’s opening round, Tiger Woods claimed the clubhouse lead with a 64, in a round that featured six consecutive birdies. But by the end of the day Woods wasn’t alone at 7-under par, and that score wasn’t good enough for the lead. Jeff Overton and Ryan Moore had tied Woods, but all three trailed Chris Kirk by one stroke and 21-year old South Korean Seung-yul Noh by two.

The low scoring continued under perfect conditions on Saturday, when four players returned rounds of 6-under 65. One of the four was Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy, whose second straight 65 was good enough for a one stroke lead at minus-12 at the tournament’s halfway point. Right behind McIlroy was another of Saturday’s low scorers, South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen.

Then in Sunday’s third round, with the crowds building in anticipation of this event’s traditional Monday finish, native New Englander Keegan Bradley went out early and thrilled the fans with a round of 63. Bradley, who won earlier this year at the Bridgestone Invitational, had already cleaned out his locker after Saturday’s second round; thinking that his 2-over total for the first two days wouldn’t be good enough to make the cut. But late in the day the cut line ticked up one stroke, giving the winner of the 2011 PGA Championship a second chance. He made the most of the opportunity, starting with an eagle 3 on the par-5 second hole, and adding seven more birdies before his sole bogey at the par-4 17th dropped him back to “only” 8-under for the round. The result catapulted Bradley up the leader board, from a tie for 67th at the start of the round to a tie for 19th by day’s end.

If Bradley started the day with a flourish, Oosthuizen ended it with a bang as he recorded his own 63. In doing so the 29-year old, who exploded into the consciousness of American golf fans with his runaway win at the 2010 Open Championship, set three Deutsche Bank Championship records and tied two others. Oosthuizen’s round included a 7-under 29 on the front nine, breaking the record of 30 held by nine players. He ran off seven straight birdies from the 4th through the 10th, breaking the record of six straight set by Charlie Wi in 2010 and matched by Woods on Friday; and his 54-hole total of 19-under was two strokes better than the previous mark. The 63 along with his 65 on Saturday matched the mark for the lowest score for the middle two rounds of the tournament, and the three shot lead he held at the end of the day tied the record for the largest 54-hole lead.

But the fact that Oosthuizen merely tied that last record was itself a sign of the volatility on the leader board. As he poured in birdie putt after birdie putt, at one point in the round his lead ballooned to six strokes. It was still six at round’s end over Woods and Dustin Johnson, who were tied for third at 13-under. But between that pair and Oosthuizen sat McIlroy, who must have felt like a mere spectator during his playing partner’s sprint through the front nine. But the two-time major champion hung in after a poor drive into a fairway bunker led to a costly bogey on the par-5 7th hole. As the Oosthuizen Express slowed down on the back nine, McIlroy offset a second bogey on the 15th with four birdies of his own to finish with a 67 and a 54-hole total of 16-under par.

The golfers who previously led the Deutsche Bank by three strokes after three rounds, Adam Scott in 2003 and Vijay Singh in both 2004 and 2008, both went on to win the event. That was the good news that Louis Oosthuizen could sleep on Sunday night. But the fact that the golf course seemed to have no shortage of low scores to hand out had to make him toss and turn more than a little.

An early overcast had burned off and thousands of golf fans had spread out over the expansive TPC Boston layout by the time the leaders teed off Monday afternoon. World number one McIlroy wasted little time eating into Oosthuizen’s lead with birdies at the 2nd and 3rd holes. With the rest of the field starting six or more strokes behind, there was a match play feel to the final pairing, and it seemed like the match might have turned on the par-4 5th hole. Oosthuizen hooked his drive into trees left of the fairway. The ball might well have been lost in a bog, but it fell straight down from the treetops. While forced to take a penalty for an unplayable lie, the South African was at least able to advance his third stroke down the fairway. McIlroy also found trouble off the tee, with his ball coming to rest high in the face of a fairway bunker. Unable to do more than chip out, he then put his third shot on the green but well left of the hole. When Oosthuizen lofted a short iron close to the pin, it looked like both might leave the green with matching bogeys. But after McIlroy two-putted for his five, Oosthuizen missed his short putt. The double bogey meant that after just five holes the entire three stroke advantage with which he had started the round had vanished. When McIlroy promptly birdied the 6th, the Deutsche Bank Championship had a new leader.

McIlroy added two more birdies at the 8th and 12th to get to 21-under par; and while Oosthuizen had steadied himself, the lead had grown to three strokes. But then in a mirror image of Sunday, it was Oosthuizen who rallied while McIlroy stayed in place. Birdies at the 13th and 15th brought the third round leader back to within one, and set the stage for the tournament’s final act.

On the dogleg par-4 17th hole, McIlory pulled his approach from a difficult lie into deep rough left of the green. With his ball in the fairway just 135 yards from the hole, the advantage seemed to have swung to Oosthuizen. But he came out of his shot, leaving the ball short and right of the green. McIlory blew his third across the green, but Oosthuizen returned the favor by chipping twelve feet past the hole. When McIlroy holed a nervy 5-footer for a bogey that matched Oosthuizen’s five, the two went to the final tee still one stroke apart.

Again at the last, the initial advantage swung to the pursuer, when the leader hit too good of a tee shot. McIlroy’s drive rolled past Oosthuizen’s in the fairway, right into deep rough surrounding a fairway bunker. But again Oosthuizen failed to play his trump card, as his second to the short par-5 flared well right of the green into the rough. Given a reprieve, McIlory laid up and then hit his third onto the putting surface, twenty feet left of the cup. Oosthuizen’s chip nearly went in, but instead rolled thirteen feet past the hole. After four rounds the tournament was reduced to two putts.

McIlroy’s was brilliant, but hung on the edge, leaving Oosthuizen with a chance to tie. But his effort slid by the hole, giving the world number one his third PGA Tour victory of the year. As Oosthuizen’s putt trundled slowly past the hole and it became apparent that McIlroy’s fine final round of 67 would be good enough to win, thousands of New Englanders in attendance collectively exhaled. Caught up in the midst of a thrilling finish, most hadn’t even realized that they had been holding their breath.

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