Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 28, 2020

Faces In The Crowd, But Maybe Not For Long

The list includes Tiger and Phil of course, but also Rory, Rickie, and Sergio. They are the established fan favorites of the PGA Tour, golfers who might as well discard their last names, for everyone who follows the Tour knows exactly who they are at the mention of their first. Sometimes even that much is unnecessary, and the calls from those behind the ropes – at least back in the old days when tournaments were played in front of galleries – are for “DJ” or “JT,” as if the sight of Dustin Johnson or Justin Thomas walking down a fairway was akin to spying some old buddy strolling along the street. The practice is not new. For well over half a century fans have understood which golfer was being discussed when the subject was Arnie or Jack. Nor is it unique to golf. No matter the sport, fans freely claim a familiarity with their heroes that is of course illusory.

So someone checking the PGA Tour’s website Sunday evening didn’t really need to see the picture that accompanied the headline “DJ Wins Travelers Championship” to know that Johnson had captured his twenty-first Tour title at this weekend’s tournament in Cromwell Connecticut. The win keeps alive Johnson’s streak of recording at least one victory a year since joining the Tour in 2008. It also moves him into a tie for thirtieth place on the Tour’s list of career victories. One of the longest hitters on Tour and possessed of a preternaturally calm demeanor, Johnson, who just turned thirty-six at the beginning of the week, should continue moving up that list for years to come. After all, Phil Mickelson, playing in his first tournament since celebrating his fiftieth birthday earlier in the month, opened the Travelers with rounds of 64 and 63 to lead the tournament at its halfway point, before sliding down the leader board with a pair of 71s on the weekend.

But for all the attention paid to a relatively short list of immediately recognizable players, the most remarkable quality of the PGA Tour is its depth. A full-field event like the Travelers has one hundred fifty-six tee times for the opening round, and every week a surprisingly large number of the golfers who fill Thursday’s tee sheet have a legitimate shot at hoisting the trophy come Sunday evening. Among those many lesser known names there are always compelling stories. Two that stood out at the Travelers were the journeys of Brendon Todd and Will Gordon.

Todd had plenty of face time on the CBS broadcast of the tournament, thanks to play that progressed from solid to spectacular through the first three rounds. He opened with 4-under par 66, improved that score by one shot on Friday, and then lit up a rain-softened TPC River Highlands with a 9-under par 61 on Saturday. Todd made the most of the Tour’s so-called moving day, vaulting up the leader board into a two-shot lead heading into the final 18 holes.

In the end he wasn’t able to sustain his lofty position, undone in a matter of five minutes on the par-4 12th hole, when after his approach shot leaked every so slightly right into a difficult lie in the greenside rough, Todd needed four more shots just to get his ball on the green, and one putt from there to finally end the carnage of a triple-bogey. But while that disaster was the major blemish in a final round 75 that dropped him into a tie for eleventh place, six shots behind Johnson, Todd may still be the best golfer that no one knows. Had he gone on to win in Cromwell, the victory would have been his third of the current PGA Tour season, following a pair of wins last November. More remarkable still is that this outstanding season is coming five years after Todd notched his first win on Tour, at the 2014 Byron Nelson Championship, and that victory in turn came five years after he first earned his PGA Tour card.

In between those highlights Todd has twice plunged into golf’s depths. He lost his card after his first season on Tour, when he made just five cuts in twenty-one events. It took him five years to regain full-time playing privileges. Then he wandered back into golf’s wilderness just two years later, fighting what he has described as the “ball-striking yips,” at one point missing thirty-seven cuts in forty starts in golf’s minor leagues. Many golfers would have given up the game by that point, and Todd seriously considered doing so. But a last gasp effort with a new coach finally began to produce some positive results, and now his multiple wins make him part of the discussion for Player of the Year honors.

Will Gordon has already won that award, albeit at a slightly different level of golf, the Southeastern Conference. Just twenty-three and little more than a year removed from Vanderbilt University, Gordon’s professional road has been far shorter than Todd’s, but not free of potholes. This time last year the Tour’s publicity machine as well as sponsors and fans were celebrating the arrival of Matthew Wolff and Viktor Hovland, the newest young amateurs to move into the professional ranks. With ready smiles and swings unencumbered by the second guessing that comes with experience, Wolff and Hovland have been touted as the future of the game, and each has begun to justify the hype by already recording his first Tour win.

But press releases and sponsors checks can only go to so many players, and by all accounts Gordon was next in line in terms of ability, right behind the two who became the center of attention. Without such support, he was left to venture north to the Mackenzie Tour in Canada, and to beg for sponsors exemptions to the occasional big-league event. He’s played very well north of the border, quickly earning exempt status on the developmental circuit that is run by the PGA Tour. But when the pandemic struck the entire Mackenzie schedule was wiped out, leaving Gordon home in North Carolina, looking for somewhere to ply his trade.

Along came the Travelers, which under tournament director Nathan Grube has a history of extending invitations to promising young players. Over the years the tournament has made room for the likes of Justin Thomas long before he was just JT, as well as eventual stars Patrick Cantlay, Jon Rahm, and Webb Simpson. This year an exemption went to Gordon, who turned the promise of one tournament into a ticket to many. After a first-round 66, he went out in the morning wave on Friday and returned an 8-under par 62, good for the early clubhouse lead. While he had to good sense to remind reporters that many golfers had yet to complete their second rounds, the score vaulted Gordon up the leader board. He slumped to a 1-over 71 on Saturday, but then found his game again on Sunday, closing with a 64 that included a birdie at the last. That final circle on his scorecard proved especially significant, as Gordon’s 17-under par total left him in a two-way tie for third place, which gave him just a big enough paycheck to earn playing status on the PGA Tour for the remainder of the year.

So, congratulations to DJ on a well-earned victory, and hat’s off to Phil, who showed that even at fifty he still has a few thrills left in him. But let’s also applaud Brendon Todd and Will Gordon because one never knows. Maybe in a year or two they’ll be BT and Will.

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