Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 23, 2014

Time For Golf Fans To Learn Some New Names

When the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational got under way on Sunday golf fans had every reason to expect a decisive duel over the difficult Bay Hill layout between two established stars. Australian Adam Scott held the 54 hold lead at 15-under par, three strokes clear of American Keegan Bradley. The 33-year old Scott is getting ready to defend his Masters title at Augusta National in three weeks, one of 10 PGA Tour and 26 worldwide victories in his career. He teed off with the added incentive of knowing that a win at Bay Hill would vault the current world #2 past Tiger Woods to the top of the Official World Golf Rankings, making Scott just the second Aussie after his mentor and friend Greg Norman to be ranked as the best golfer on the planet.

Scott had opened the tournament with a scintillating round of 10-under par 62, matching the course record held by Andy Bean and his friend Norman. Needing just 23 putts to make his way around the 18 holes during that Thursday round, Scott had raced to the top of the day one leader board and stayed there since; adding rounds of 68 and 71 on Friday and Saturday. Thus he was trying to accomplish one of the more difficult feats in sports, winning a PGA tournament by leading from wire-to-wire. Still if he could set aside thoughts of the enormity of that task and focus just on the fact that he was the leader going into the final walk along the fairways, Scott would seem to be in good shape. He’s a good closer, have won six out of nine tournaments in which he held the 54 hole lead.

But if the tournament leader was comfortable playing in front, his closest pursuer was in his own comfort zone. The 27-year old Bradley exploded into the consciousness of golf fans at the 2011 PGA Championship, his very first major tournament appearance during his rookie season on the Tour. One stroke back going into the final round at the Atlanta Athletic Club, Bradley fell five adrift of leader Jason Dufner after a disastrous triple-bogey six at the par-3 15th hole. Bradley then rallied with birdies on two of the final three holes, which were enough to force a three-hole playoff when Dufner stumbled down the stretch. The Tour rookie won that playoff by two shots, becoming just the third golfer to win in his very first appearance at a major.

The come from behind victory was Bradley’s second of that year. Three months earlier he won his first PGA Tour title at the Byron Nelson Championship after starting the final round four shots behind. In 2012 Bradley won his third and most recent event when he made up a four shot deficit on third round leader Jim Furyk over the final 18 holes. So it could be said that both members of the final pairing were exactly where they wanted to be as they stood on Bay Hill’s first tee just before two on Sunday afternoon. A pair of major champions and winners of multiple events, ready to provide golf fans with a duel between the broomstick putter favored by Scott and the belly model used by Bradley.

Close to four hours later a two-shot swing at the par-3 17th hole proved the difference in the standing of the tournament’s final twosome. Scott’s tee shot found the right front greenside bunker, and his second from the sand stopped seven feet from the hole. His attempt to save par slid past the hole, just after Bradley rolled in a ten foot birdie putt. After starting the day three behind Scott and twice falling to four shots astern, the birdie moved the American star ahead of the world #2. But despite the expectations for this marquee pairing by the time Scott’s short bogey putt found the bottom of the cup at the 17th the tournament leader was up ahead playing the final hole.

Scott played the final round in 4-over par, while three birdies on the back nine allowed Bradley to get back to even par for the 18 after a poor front side. Meanwhile 30-year old Matt Every, making his 90th start since earning his PGA Tour card in 2010, seized the lead with the best round of all those on the first page of the 54 hole leader board. Every started the day at 11-under, got to as low as 15-under at one point on the back nine, and then held on despite two late bogeys to record his first PGA Tour victory.

Every’s triumph continues a trend this season that is both reflective of the enormous depth of talent on the PGA Tour and something of a nightmare for commissioner Tim Finchem, the Tour’s marketing department, and the television networks broadcasting each weekly event. The Palmer Invitational was the 19th event on a season calendar that began back in October of last year. Eleven of those nineteen events have been won by a list that includes, in addition to Matt Every, Harris English, Chesson Hadley, Russell Henley, Chris Kirk, Patrick Reed (twice), John Senden and Jimmy Walker (three times). That is a list that combines obvious golfing talent with near absolute public anonymity.

If not the best golfers in the world, Reed and Walker are certainty the hottest based on their multiple wins, and it should be noted that Reed won his first Tour title last August so like Walker he has three victories in a matter of months. But odds are both they and the others on the list can safely walk through a public space with little chance of being accosted by overeager fans demanding pictures or autographs. Indeed, when Reed had the temerity to suggest after winning the World Golf Championship event at Doral earlier this month that he believed he would soon be ranked among the top five golfers in the world he was widely criticized for his braggadocio. Yet one can’t possibly succeed on the PGA Tour without a ton of self-belief, and those who knocked Reed would think nothing of a comment by Tiger or Phil or Rory, or for that matter by Adam Scott or Keegan Bradley, that acknowledged their own preeminence.

Perhaps the familiar names will reassert themselves in three weeks time when a larger audience tunes in to watch the drama in the Georgia pines. Perhaps by the time the national championship tees off at Pinehurst in June, or the Open Championship begins play at Royal Liverpool in July, the natural order of things will have been restored. Or perhaps an era of astonishing depth and parity has begun. The PGA Tour markets itself with the slogan “These Guys Are Good.” That they unquestionably are, leaving only one inquiry; who are these guys?

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