Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 19, 2015

For Jim Furyk, A Different Kind Of Breakthrough Win

Jim Furyk won a PGA Tour event on Sunday. Kevin Kisner did not. On the face of it those are two unremarkable statements, scarcely worthy of being called news. For Furyk came into the RBC Heritage at old Harbour Town Golf Links with 16 Tour titles to his name, including the 2003 U.S. Open and the 2010 Tour Championship. The 44-year old American stalwart played on the last nine U.S. Ryder Cup teams and represented his country on seven consecutive Presidents Cup squads, most recently in 2011. When Furyk teed it up for Thursday’s opening round, he did so as the number 10 golfer in the world according to the latest rankings, making him the second highest ranked player at this year’s Heritage.

In contrast Kisner is a 31-year old who was a standout college golfer at the University of Georgia. A four-time All American, Kisner anchored the 2005 Georgia team that won the NCAA Division I Men’s Championship. But since turning pro in 2006 he has been unable to match his collegiate glory, bouncing back and forth between golf’s big league and its minors. While he has two wins on the developmental Web.com Tour, Kisner has never come close to winning on the big tour. In 89 PGA Tour starts prior to the Heritage, the South Carolina native posted just six top-10 finishes and managed to make the cut barely more than half the time.

But in sports, as in life, outcomes are not always as obvious as they might at first glance appear; and seemingly simple storylines can mask more complex tales. While Furyk’s consistent play kept him among the game’s elite as evidenced by his world ranking, he had not tasted victory since capping the 2010 season with that Tour Championship win in the rain at East Lake Golf Club. As weeks gave way to months and months yielded to entire seasons without another win, fans and pundits were left free to question whether Furyk had lost the necessary mental toughness to close out a triumph on a Sunday afternoon.

The whispered speculation was fueled by the bitter reality that during the long victory drought that reached 100 events this week, he either held or shared the 54-hole lead nine different times. On some of those occasions he faltered down the stretch, often with poor putting at crucial moments; while on others he acquitted himself well enough only to see another player storm past him with a superlative closing round. But whether by his own hand or the superior play of others, all nine times Furyk’s third round lead turned into a final round deficit.

The same golf fans who groaned at the struggles of the popular veteran have marveled at the wealth of new talent rising to the Tour’s fore in the past few years. One of the leading stories of the Tour’s 2013 season was that 13 events, nearly one-third of the total, were captured by first-time winners. But that proved to be no fluke. Ten players captured their maiden victory in 2014, and another 6 have won this year in just 23 tournaments. Since the start of the 2013 season a PGA Tour player is scoring his breakthrough victory better than once every four events.

Having learned to withstand the pressure of closing the deal in the final round, many of those golfers have proven to be more than one-hit wonders. Jimmy Walker had never won a tournament until October 2013. He now has five Tour titles to his name. Patrick Reed may be insufferable, with an ego larger than his waistline. But he also has plenty of ability, having added three more wins since his initial victory just 20 months ago. The happy state of affairs for commissioner Tim Finchem is that “these guys are good” is more than a marketing slogan; it’s an accurate description of the depth of talent at any given Tour stop.

Given that reality Furyk’s chances of ending his long winless streak seemed to have gone a-glimmering for yet another week when he posted 18 consecutive pars on Thursday. The opening 71 left him 5 adrift of Graeme McDowell and Matt Every. On Friday Masters champion Jordan Spieth stole the early spotlight with a 62, only to outdone by Troy Merritt’s afternoon 61, which matched the course record and vaulted the 29-year old to a four shot lead. Merritt added a 69 on Saturday to lead by three entering the final round, as he sought to become yet another first-time PGA Tour winner.

But after failing to birdie a single hole in his opening round Furyk came back 11 over his next 36 holes; and with but a single bogey marring his card stood at 10-under par, four behind Merritt as the final round began. One better than Furyk was Kisner, who had posted three consecutive rounds in the 60s while playing in front of many South Carolina friends and family members.

The veteran and the journeyman were the class of the field on Sunday, posting the two best scores of the day and racing past Merritt, whose chances ended with a double bogey on the 12th hole. A group ahead of Kisner, Furyk came to the 18th with a one stroke advantage. When he ran his approach putt four feet past, fans couldn’t help but think of the short putts so painfully missed at critical times over the past 100 Tour stops. But this time the veteran calmly rolled his par putt into the hole.  Furyk said later that he expected Kisner to birdie one of the final two holes, and a few minutes later the pursuer did just that. A perfect 9-iron approach to the last left his ball hole high and nine feet to the right.  Kisner’s putt to tie was never in doubt.

So the two went to golfing overtime, with the only certainty that just one would end the day having put paid to an agonizing streak of futility. That first looked to be Kisner, who rolled in a 20-footer for birdie as they replayed the 18th. Another first-time champion was at hand, at the cost of the veteran again being denied. But that storyline was halted when Furyk topped Kisner’s effort with his own birdie from seven feet, sending the two back to the par-3 17th to settle the matter.

There Kisner again had the first roll, this time missing left from outside 20 feet. Then Furyk sent his ball toward the hole from 12 feet away. As it neared the cup on a true line the 16-time champion let his putter fall to the ground. Even as the ball disappeared for the winning birdie the normally placid now 17-time champion gave a vicious fist pump and let loose a scream, expelling years of frustration in a single mighty roar.

For all the recent first-time success by PGA Tour players, scoring that breakthrough victory remains one of the toughest individual tests in sports, a challenge of equal parts athletic and mental. The fact that so many have done it is a great testament to the strength of the game. But for golfers of a certain age, there awaits another, no less daunting challenge. Former player turned commentator Paul Stankowski, who won his final tournament in a playoff over a 26-year old Furyk in 1997 put it best, saying “you never know when the last one will be.” As he donned the tartan jacket that is awarded to winners of the Heritage, Jim Furyk knew at least that the last one wasn’t all the way back in 2010.

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