Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 14, 2020

Go In The Hole! Or Not.

There’s a convenience store in downtown Portsmouth popular with the locals for everything from a quart of milk to a six-pack of beer. A small television set is perched atop the beverage cooler opposite the cash register at Portsmouth Provisions, with the programming varying depending on who’s working a given shift. Early Thursday evening the set was turned to the first round of the Charles Schwab Challenge, the PGA Tour’s return to action. As the owner, who was manning the cash register, explained to a customer, he normally doesn’t follow golf, but at least it was live sports.

That exchange came to mind on Sunday as the final round of the first Tour event in thirteen weeks reached its climax. Given the continuing dearth of games or matches or tournaments for fans to watch, CBS’s golf coverage was probably being seen by many viewers not all that familiar with the sport. For their benefit then, it should be noted that a regulation golf hole has a diameter of 4.25 inches, slightly more than two and one half times the diameter of the ball that golfers, in the most fundamental description of the game, are trying to put into the hole. It is beyond all doubt that the ball really does fit into the hole, with considerable room to spare.

Unfortunately, in our increasingly post factual society it doesn’t take much for seemingly reliable concepts like measurements, or the size of two objects relative to one another, to be cast into doubt. Thus there may well have been some viewers who, by the time Daniel Berger won his third Tour victory with a scrambling par on the first hole of a sudden-death playoff, had concluded that the basic problem with golf isn’t slow play or the cost of a round at Pebble Beach or Ian Poulter’s attire, but that the ball just doesn’t fit in the hole. What else can explain the parade of Tour pros who had a chance to seize control of the tournament only to watch in agony as their golf balls flirted with and at times even peered deep into holes, but one by one refused to drop?

Largely because of the long suspension of play that began after the first round of the Players Championship on March 12, the field that teed off at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth was the strongest this venerable Tour stop has boasted in many years. That led to a 54-hole leader board that had plenty of big names and was also very tightly bunched. Going into Sunday’s final walk around Colonial’s routing, there were fourteen golfers within three shots of the lead. They were chasing Xander Schauffele, who had edged one stroke ahead on the strength of a third round 66. But with a leader board that tight, several players took turns at the top as the round progressed.

Perhaps surprising to casual fans, that number did not include the best-known golfers in contention. World number one Rory McIlroy started three back of Schauffele but bogeyed the first hole and played poorly on the front nine, turning in an unsightly 41. On a day that saw plenty of birdies, Justin Thomas recorded par after par, and watched others in the field pass by. And Jordan Spieth once again frustrated his many fans by intermixing spurts of brilliant play, including three birdies in four holes, with periods of lackluster golf, including three bogeys in four holes.

As the marquee names faded, others moved to the fore, only to find the final act of sinking a crucial putt to be too demanding. First Jason Kokrak came to the 18th needing a birdie to tie for the lead, only to see his effort burn the side of the cup. Then Bryson DeChambeau found himself in similar position. DeChambeau spent the Tour’s interregnum working out three time a day, and had spent the afternoon showing off his bulked-up body by blasting monster drives down Colonial’s fairways. But on both the 17th and 18th greens he too was unable to master far, far shorter efforts. Next it was Justin Rose with a chance to tie at the last. But like the two Americans before him, England’s Rose saw his final putt approach the hole and then turn away.

For a time, it looked like Schauffele had unlocked the secret to holing out on Colonial’s greens. He sank a pair of monster efforts, one on the 15th to salvage a bogey after some sloppy play, and the second for a birdie on the par-3 16th that moved him back into a tie for the lead. But then on the 17th Schauffele faced a three-footer for par and watched in disbelief as the ball caught the side of the cup and spun around the circumference of the hole before popping back out. So he too came to the last needing a birdie to tie, and like all the others his try came ever so close but didn’t go in.

That left Berger, fittingly the only one of the bunch who birdied the last, watching from the clubhouse balcony as 23-year-old Collin Morikawa came to the final green. They were the last two at 15-under par, and Morikawa had a putt of five feet to win after a brilliant approach shot. His effort appeared good all the way until the ball took a sudden left turn in the last few inches before the hole. That sent the pair back to the 17th for the playoff, where Morikawa’s short effort to save par and extend the match looked like a replay of Schauffele’s putt from thirty minutes earlier, dipping into the hole before spinning out, giving Berger the win.

Every weekend golfer knows the truth about this ancient and confounding game. For all the emphasis on booming drives and all the money spent advertising the newest big sticks of the leading manufacturers, including multiple ads for brand new Callaway and TaylorMade drivers during the CBS broadcast, it is in the little shots around the green, the chips and pitches and putts, that so many strokes are gained or lost. The most frustrating feeling in golf comes after standing in the middle of a fairway just a wedge away from a green after a fine tee shot, then walking to the next tee a few minutes later after recording a double bogey. In that lonely moment one is ready to swear that measurements aside, the ball just won’t fit in the hole. It’s a feeling that was shared on Sunday by multiple members of the PGA Tour.


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