Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 4, 2014

A Day Of Herd Mentality Ends In A Not So Magic Moment

We are fans because we love our sports, but as fans we all tend to love them just a bit more when the teams or individuals to whom we have pledged our fealty come out on top. No matter the sport, fans flock to winners. That was as apparent as always last Monday in Norton, Massachusetts, half an hour south of Boston. There on the sprawling and muscular 18 holes of TPC Boston the best of the PGA Tour played the final round of the Deutsche Bank Championship, the second leg of the Tour’s four event playoff series.

Over 7,200 yards in length, TPC Boston offers the pros generous fairways with strategically placed bunkers and slick greens that run to a speedy 13 on the stimpmeter during the tournament. It’s a course that tends to favor those capable of bombing the ball off the tee. Long hitters have a legitimate shot at reaching each of the three par-5s in two, and the 298 yard 4th hole is a drivable par-4 for more than a few in the field.

Like most courses in the Tournament Players Club family, TPC Boston is fan-friendly in that it offers numerous natural viewing areas on a number of holes. But the layout can also be a challenge for those fans who choose to follow their favorite player rather than staying put at a single location. The holes are spread out over vast acreage, with several lengthy walks through the woods of southern New England between one green and the next tee. Still that doesn’t deter many thousands from getting a week’s worth of exercise in a single day. From the MetLife blimp high overhead, it must be easy to determine where the best-known golfers are from the parade of densely packed fans following along in their wake.

On Sunday morning that meant a jostling mass of humanity tracking the pairing of Phil Mickelson and Jerry Kelly. The 47-year old Kelly, a three-time winner on the PGA Tour, would be the first to acknowledge that all of those people weren’t there to see him. Never mind that Mickelson’s recent strong showing in the PGA Championship was his first top-ten finish of the year. Lefty has thrilled golf fans for more than two decades with his exquisite short game and willingness to try any shot at least once. Starting the final round 14 strokes off the pace, on this day Mickelson was far and away the people’s choice among fans arriving early, well before the leaders teed off in mid-afternoon.

About the time Mickelson was closing out his round with three straight birdies to post his best score of the tournament, Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler were being introduced on the 1st tee. The combined ages of Spieth and Fowler add up to a number barely greater than Mickelson’s 44, and the single PGA Tour victory that each of them has recorded is far short of Phil’s 42 wins, including 5 majors. But Spieth and Fowler embody the growing youth movement on the Tour, and there can be little doubt that multiple wins lie ahead for both of them. The chance to see them together brought another great mass of fans to the parallel fairways of TPC Boston’s 1st and 2nd holes, prepared for the long afternoon walk with their favorites.

Just short of an hour later the next to last twosome of the day teed off, and it seemed that virtually everyone who had decided not to follow Spieth and Fowler was there for the chance to watch Rory McIlroy and Chris Kirk. In that pairing Kirk was to world number one McIlroy as Kelly had been to Mickelson in the morning. With victories in three straight starts in July and August including back-to-back majors, the 25-year old McIlroy has firmly established himself as a proven winner and a golfer who when he’s on his game can make any event his own.

Finally, following along in the wake of McIlroy and Kirk was the final group. Russell Henley at 12-under and Billy Horschel at minus-11 had the rather important distinction of being the two golfers who were actually leading the tournament at the start of the final round. But while they could also be categorized as young guns, Henley and Horschel, who played collegiate golf against each other while at Georgia and Florida, lack the marketing magic of a Spieth or a Fowler. To most of the fans walking the big course in Norton they were just two names on the pairing sheet. Despite their vaunted place on the leader board, for much of the day the crowd following them, if one could call it that, consisted mainly of the tail end of the long line following the McIlroy pairing just ahead.

But while the Monday crowd reaffirmed the star power of proven winners and those believed to be about to join their ranks, golf tournaments are still played out over four days and 72 holes, and the result is not so easily predictable. Mickelson’s fine finish merely moved him from 59th place to 45th. Spieth and Fowler, both of whom started the day five back of Henley, never got going. Spieth’s two over par 73 included a pair of double-bogeys, the first at the rather uncomplicated opening hole. Fowler posted an even par 71, in a round in which he was in red numbers for a grand total of three holes. Rory McIlroy’s scorecard featured four bogeys in the first twelve holes.

But all was not lost for those who chose to follow the world number one. They got to also watch Kirk, who rolled in a pair of lengthy birdie putts and an equally long and crucial par save on the back nine on his way to a 5-under 66. That was good enough to move him to 15-under for the tournament. After he missed a 9-footer for another birdie at the 18th, Kirk left the green with a one shot lead over Horschel, who is highly regarded for his ball-striking and was standing in the middle of the fairway after a perfect drive.

As every golf tournament nears its conclusion and the number of players left on the course dwindles, the crowds that have been spread out all day inevitably converge on the final hole. So late on Monday afternoon, Henley and Horschel finally had an audience. After an indifferent round and a poor drive the former’s chances were gone, but the latter was 211 yards from the hole on the par-5 with an iron in his hand. The green was easily reachable, and an eagle would spell victory. Even a two-putt or a chip and putt birdie would secure a spot in a playoff. But with thousands finally watching, Billy Horschel hit one of the worst golf shots of his career. The badly chunked iron never threatened the putting surface, disappearing into a large waste area well short of the green.

We are fans because we love our games, and because we love winners. They play because they have the talent, and because they love the cheers and the audience. Our greatest memories as fans are of those moments where the two converge; we faithful roaring our approval as a favorite delivers a moment of pure magic. But in every sport and for every athlete there is also another kind of moment. A moment more desperate, a moment in which the player is achingly alone. A moment like Billy Horschel had late Monday afternoon. Finally playing in front of thousands, his big moment was filled not with cheers, but only gasps and groans.

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Responses

  1. Horschel may yet redeem himself.


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