Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 14, 2016

The PGA Tour’s Youth Movement Takes A Week Off

While golf is truly a game for life, for the last few years the storyline of the PGA Tour has been the dominance of youth. The top four golfers in the Official World Golf Rankings average less than 26 years old. That group is led by 22-year old Jordan Spieth who turned in a year for the ages in 2015, winning five times including both the Masters and the U.S. Open, while also contending in the other two majors. Then there is four-time major champion Rory McIlroy, and Australian Jason Day, who won his breakthrough major at the PGA Championship last August. Close behind is Rickie Fowler, who won the Players Championship last May by playing the final six holes in six under par to force a playoff. Fowler had added three more wins on the PGA and European tours since last September.

There’s every reason to think that these young men will continue to grab the lion’s share of the headlines, not only this season but in all likelihood for years to come. Their talent is extraordinary and their drive and determination is fierce. But this weekend golf fans were reminded that the PGA Tour is made up of more than just a handful of instantly recognizable young stars. The tour is also populated by aging veterans who may be on the back nine of their careers but who strive mightily to recapture the magic that propelled them to greatness; and also by more than a few journeymen players who grind away, hoping often against all logic for their moment of glory.

The first three rounds of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am are played over three different courses on the picturesque Monterey Peninsula. For hard-core fans it can be a tough tournament to watch, as the television coverage favors long lingering shots of Pacific Ocean waves crashing on the rocks, or surfers braving the waves and whales surfacing nearby. Then when a golf shot manages to make it on the air it is often by a celebrity participating in the Pro-Am portion of the event.

At most weekly tour stops well-heeled amateurs get to play 18 with the pros on Wednesday, before the tournament officially starts. But since the late Bing Crosby hosted his first Clambake, as it was popularly known, nearly eight decades ago, the amateur component of this tournament has been sacrosanct. While that makes the event unique, it doesn’t mean that a movie star or captain of industry with a 15-handicap flailing away makes for good sports television. But on Sunday, when all of the action is at the world-famous Pebble Beach Golf Links, attention turns to the pros and their chase for a title and the winner’s share of the tournament’s $7 million purse. Even the amateurs who make the cut for the final round of the pro-am know enough to play quickly and stay out of the way of their professional partners.

Two of golf’s big four were in the field at Pebble, but neither was a factor. Day had an uneventful Sunday, making two bogeys and just a single birdie while finishing out of the top ten. Spieth posted a fine 66 on Sunday, but he began the day just 1-under par for the tournament and finished in a tie for twenty-first place. While the young guns were quiet the battle at the top of the leader board was between a familiar but faded star now closer to fifty than forty, and a player just weeks shy of turning forty who no longer had exempt status even on the developmental Web.com Tour.

As the final round got underway the name on the top of the leader board was that of Phil Mickelson. Lefty has won 42 times on the PGA Tour, including five majors. But he has not walked off the final green a winner since his stirring charge on the back nine at Muirfield in July 2013 earned him the Claret Jug as winner of the Open Championship. As weeks turned to months and months gave way to years, even as Mickelson moved into his middle forties, it became impossible to avoid wondering if perhaps one of the most popular players on the Tour had thrilled fans for the final time.

Yet there he was at the start of the round two strokes clear, at a tournament that he was won on four previous occasions. In the third round Mickelson managed to hit only nine of the eighteen greens in regulation, but he was a perfect nine for nine in saves from off the green. On Sunday his erratic tee to green play continued, but this time his chipping and putting were not as crisp. A pair of front nine bogeys wiped out his lead, and as he made his way over Pebble’s final holes Lefty found himself behind.

Trailing by two shots as he played the par-4 16th hole, it looked like Mickelson’s chances were gone when his approach shot landed in the rough short of the green. He nearly holed an aggressive chip, but the ball rolled down the sloping green some eleven feet from the cup. Faced with a putt that was even harder than his chip, Mickelson banged it into the back of the hole to save par. Then on the par-3 17th he rammed home a twelve footer for birdie to move to within a shot of the lead as fans in the gallery roared their approval.

At the familiar home hole, the par-5 bending along the Pacific coast, Mickelson’s second shot with a hybrid came up some twenty yards short of the green. Needing to get up and down for birdie to force a playoff, he lofted a pitch shot onto the putting surface that checked up five feet short of the hole. That was when the old magic failed him, as his putt to tie caught the left edge and lipped out; leaving Mickelson bent over in disbelief.

Which is not to say there was not ample magic in the air at Pebble Beach on Sunday. The greater portion of it just belonged to an unlikely golfer. Vaughn Tayler twice won the Reno-Tahoe Open, scoring back-to-back victories in 2004 and 2005. But a career that looked promising when he was in his late twenties instead never took off. The closest Taylor had come to winning in the past decade were a pair of playoff losses in 2009 and 2010. Last year he failed to secure his Tour card, and didn’t even finish in the top fifty on the Web.com Tour to ensure exempt status there.

Left to beg sponsors for spots in tournaments, Taylor came to Pebble 183rd in the FedEx Cup standings. He had played two events each on the PGA and Web.com tours in the season that started last October, missing two cuts and withdrawing once. He began Sunday six shots behind Mickelson. Against all reasonable expectation, he birdied the first two holes of his round; and he was still two under for the day when he made the turn. He added another birdie on the 10th hole, and then caught fire in the middle of the back nine, one of Pebble Beach’s hardest stretches of holes. Four consecutive birdies starting at the 13th were capped by a cross-country thirty foot putt at the 16th that moved Taylor into the lead.

After safely parring the 17th and 18th Taylor could only wait and see what Mickelson and others near the top of the leader board could do as they each came home. One by one they fell away, with Lefty the last to come up short. Now Taylor, ranked 447th in the world at the start of the week, has exempt status on the Tour and an invitation to the Masters.

For most casual fans the golf season doesn’t really start until the players make their way up Magnolia Lane to the stately old clubhouse at Augusta National in early April. Perhaps when they do the familiar storyline will be in place, and the loudest roars will be for Jordan and Rory, or Jason and Rickie. But for one week at least the PGA Tour told a different tale. Phil Mickelson reminded fans that he can still thrill, and that perhaps he’s not done yet. And Vaughn Taylor proved the value of tenacity, and that the Tour’s slogan “these guys are good” doesn’t just apply to those at the top.

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