Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 8, 2015

On The PGA Tour, It’s Deja Vu All Over Again

The PGA Tour plays on a different course with varying fields every week, facts that suggest there are virtually unlimited possibilities for how each tournament can unfold. Yet against that powerful logic is the fact that for three weeks in a row the Tour’s event has played out in an identical manner. On three successive Sundays a golfer appeared to have victory in hand, only to learn that the result is never certain until the final putt is holed. As each seemingly sure winner faded, he was replaced at the top of the final leader board by an improbable champion. And first at Riviera Country Club, then at PGA National and finally at Doral, it can fairly be said that the golf course was at least as big a winner as any player in the field.

The pattern started at the Northern Trust Open, the final stop of the Tour’s West Coast Swing. Late in the final round Sergio Garcia appeared to be in control, leading by a stroke and playing well. But before he could claim his 9th PGA Tour win and 28th worldwide victory as a professional, his drive on the par-5 17th hole drifted left into the trees lining the fairway. While the error robbed Garcia of a chance to go for the green in two, he still appeared in good shape to make par after laying up in the fairway. But his short iron third short only traveled about 140 of the 160 yards remaining, leaving him still short of the green. An indifferent chip left the Spaniard with a 6 foot to save par, which failed to find the bottom of the cup.

Then on the 18th, where a par would have earned him a place in a playoff, Garcia repeated his errors. Again his approach shot came up short of the green; and this time his chip wasn’t indifferent, it was awful. From more than 20 feet his putt to save par never had a chance, and the back-to-back closing bogeys had turned the apparent winner into an also-ran.

Last week the Tour arrived in Palm Beach Gardens for the Honda Classic, the first of four straight Florida stops. Rain played havoc with the schedule, with the third round not wrapping up until mid-afternoon on Sunday. With 18 to play it was another European Ryder Cup hero, Englishman Ian Poulter, who had staked himself to a 3-shot lead. In addition to his heroics in the biennial team event, Poulter has won 12 times on the European Tour. But his only two PGA Tour victories were the 2010 Match Play Championship and the 2012 WGC-HSBC Champions, an event sanctioned by the Tour but played in China. Finally Poulter seemed poised to win a stroke-play event on U.S. soil.

That was until he put five balls in the water over the course of the final round, which began late Sunday and wrapped up Monday morning. Two of the five were on the 14th hole, where he also had a plugged lie in a greenside bunker. The only good news for Poulter on the hole was the 20 foot putt he sank; but it was for a triple bogey. Two late birdies left the third round leader exactly where Garcia had found himself one week earlier, on the outside looking in at a playoff by a single shot.

This week it was an American’s turn to have the sweet taste of success turn to vinegar as a tournament came to a close. J.B. Holmes scorched Trump National Doral in Thursday’s opening round of the WGC-Cadillac Championship, shooting a 10-under par 62, more than 11 shots better than the average score of the rest of the field. He did it largely on the strength of a hot putter, holing more than 140 feet of putts over the 18 holes.

Holmes began Sunday’s round with a fat 5-shot lead, but that was gone before the final group made the turn. From five ahead to two behind, then back into a tie ever so briefly before being finally and fully betrayed by the same club that had been his best friend just three days earlier. His final round putts made distance statistic was boosted by a 48 footer holed on the 16th for his lone birdie of the day. But that distance was greater than the total of all of the other putts Holmes sank on the other seventeen holes. After one final tap-in on the 18th he finished, of course, one stroke behind the winner just like Garcia and Poulter before him. The only variation to the theme was that this week there was no playoff.

Two weeks ago the playoff winner was James Hahn, while last week it was Padraig Harrington, neither of whom would have been on any pundit’s list of likely winners before the tournament. At the time of their victories both were ranked 297th in the world. Hahn had never won on the PGA Tour, nearly quit in 2008 and once sold shoes at Nordstrom’s in order to make ends meet. But the golfer until now best known for entertaining the throngs at the 16th hole of the Phoenix Open two years ago by doing the Gangnam Style dance was the last man standing at Riviera when he drained a 25-foot birdie putt on the third playoff hole.

With three major championships Harrington is vastly better known than Hahn, but his game had slipped badly in recent years as shown by his world ranking. He readily admits to overthinking on the course, and has turned to a sports psychologist for help. This year he was forced to beg for sponsor’s exemptions to get into tournaments, including the Honda. Now with a victory even he may not have seen coming Paddy is back in the Masters next month, and back in the game.

This Sunday the winner was Dustin Johnson, whose closing 3-under 69 was the best of anyone in the top eleven spots on the leader board. Johnson might not seem as unlikely a victor as Hahn or Harrington, but for the fact that he has only recently returned from a six-month absence from the Tour. Whether that leave was truly voluntary, as Johnson insists, or a Tour-mandated suspension remains the stuff of hearsay and guesswork. The long-hitting 30-year old admits that he left to deal with “personal challenges,” which the rumor mill casts as everything from alcohol to cocaine. But with a large support team, an apparently strong relationship with Paulina Gretzky and a two-month old son, Johnson appears to be both newly mature and in a good place. As he showed Sunday, his golf game is as good as ever.

With the winning score just 6-under par at both the Northern Trust and the Honda, and 9-under at the WGC-Cadillac, it’s fair to say that this portion of the PGA Tour schedule is being played at courses that can more than hold their own against the finest golfers in the world. Riviera is a venerable and classic layout. Jack Nicklaus’s reworking of PGA National a number of years ago turned it into a stern test, as did Gil Hanse’s recent remodeling of Doral. Next week the Tour moves on to the Copperhead Course at Innisbrook, another layout that generally yields low scores only grudgingly. It’s a pity that Englishman Steve Webster isn’t in the field. Given how things have been going on the PGA Tour, as the golfer currently ranked 297th in the world, he’d be a good bet to win.

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