Brendon Todd, with no PGA Tour victories to his name and butterflies in his stomach, arrived at the par-13 13th hole with a two-shot final round lead over Mike Weir, who had minutes ago drained a birdie putt on the same green to reach -12. It was the score Weir would take into the clubhouse five holes later, and the task facing Todd—reminiscent of Martin Kaymer a week earlier—was to avoid the kind of disastrous mistake that would erase his two-shot cushion and force him into a playoff. Or a loss.
Todd, who’s 28, has been up and down between the PGA Tour and the Web.com/Nationwide Torus since graduating from Georgia, and in that time he’s watched former teammates, like Harris English, Russell Henley, and Chris Kirk, forge successful careers that included Tour wins. Todd himself came close to breaking through earlier this season at the Humana Challenge, where he earned a spot in Sunday’s final group, but a final round 69 was never going to be enough to catch Patrick Reed, who began the day with a seven-shot lead. But with three top tens and only three missed cuts all season, Todd went on to put together his best PGA Tour season, and had earned nearly a million dollars coming into the Byron Nelson. Still, winning a tournament would give him a coveted two-year exemption, and the credibility that goes along with it. All he had to do was fight his own nerves.
Every shot would be a battle until he finished, and the first battle, on the 13th tee, was a decisive loss as the ball flew left of the green and came to rest inches from the trunk of a Hackberry tree. Todd is listed as at 6’3″, 180 pounds, and he cuts a gangly figure walking to the green. If you saw him out of context, without his lime green shirt, khakis, and TaylorMade hat, you might think he was a computer programmer rather than a golfer. He tucks his chin deep into his neck, and, like Keegan Bradley, his shoulders seem perpetually tensed, like he’s bracing to be hit in the back of the head by a flying object. He’s earnest and open with the media, but always looks slightly uncomfortable on camera, with his long arms hanging stiffly by his side. Once in a while, a thumb will twitch, and that’s as close as he comes to making any kind of gesture. He walks in long, loping strides, torso pushing forward, and when he reached his ball, the news was bad: Not only was it snug against the tree, but it was snug on the wrong side, with the immovable trunk standing exactly where the right-handed Todd would have liked to take his stance.
Sometimes in these situations, you’ll see a player invert the blade and hit left-handed. Faced with the prospect of a dwindling lead and deferring his dream of a PGA Tour win, Todd, amazingly, went to a greater extreme: He turned the entire club around and prepared to hit the ball with the back of his four-iron. Not only that—he had to make the ball come out right, so he “hooded” the club to hit with a draw. His lone experience with this kind of shot, he explained later, was putting left-handed with his brother-in-law’s putter, and he attempted to duplicate that stroke. It was the most unique shot he’d ever attempted in a competitive round, and if it worried him that the moment he chose to break it out was the important day of his professional career, he didn’t show it; the ball rolled out onto the green, caught the upslope on the back, and filtered down to the flag.
When he holed the seven-foot par putt moments later, he allowed himself a slight, but emphatic, fist pump.
The approach to the green on the par-4 14th makes for an idyllic golfing tableau, as long as you keep your eyes from drifting to the city beyond. A pond on the left narrows into a creek running below a stone footbridge, with young holly trees and live oaks in the foreground, and bald cypresses lining the pond’s far bank. Look up, though, and the scene becomes less picturesque—a hum of cars emanating from highway 114, the ugly glass office buildings of the Las Colinas business district, and the worst eyesore of all, the Irving Convention Center, glowering like some rust-colored postmodern nightmare. It’s the old problem—there’s no good way to integrate a golf course and a city, the way you can with a baseball stadium. Golf belongs to nature, and the city overwhelms nature. It’s the same at the Trump National in Doral—you leave feeling like you’ve just spent a week at a golf-themed shopping mall.
It’s safe to assume that these problems weren’t on Todd’s mind as he flirted with the water on his approach, landing his shot in a very tight space between the flag and the embankment. Another par, another disaster averted. On the 15th tee, Todd’s playing partner, Louis Oosthuizen, collapsed onto a chair while they waited for James Hahn and Gary Woodland to clear the fairway ahead.
Earlier in the week, Last week at the Players Championship, Oosthuizen had tweeted out a picture of his parking spot at the club, which had been reserved under the name “Larry Oosthuizen.” Maybe the effort at correctly spelling the South African’s last name had made it impossible to focus on getting the easy part right. In any case, Louis had come into the round tied for the lead and armed with scruffy growth on his face, but three bogeys in a span of four holes had effectively ended his hopes of winning. He finally let the fatigue show—this was the hottest day of the tournament, even if it still wasn’t very hot by Dallas standards, and it was also the most windy. It had taken its toll on Mike Weir, too, who couldn’t sustain the momentum of four birdies in his first five holes.
When Todd bombed his drive 301 yards and hit his approach to 45 feet on the long par four, the scoreboard by the green told us that Weir was still at -12 after finishing the par-5 16th, and with Charles Howell and Marc Leishman both at -10 and nearly in the clubhouse, there was no other threat to Todd.
A perfect lag led to another easy par on one of the course’s hardest holes, but Todd’s next hiccup came on the 16th, an uphill par-five where his tee shot found a fairway bunker. He laid up to the right side, but his approach landed right of the green. Walking past a wrought iron fence separating the course from the beautiful, massive homes, all stone and adobe and stucco roofs, it felt very much like Todd was facing his final obstacle; par here, and he could probably afford a bogey in the last two holes. Fail to go up and down, though, and the lead would be reduced to one with Weir still on the course and water hazards looming on 17 and 18.
What changes in someone’s mind the first time they win after a long struggle? What lets them hit the critical putt, or make the important pitch, or avoid the slices and hooks that ruin a golfer’s day? Why could Adam Scott play with such nerve at the Masters when he had collapsed at the British Open a year earlier? What happened to Phil Mickelson’s erratic Sunday nature when he finally broke through at Augusta? It’s almost impossible to get a good answer to these questions, and it may be because the golfers themselves aren’t sure. “I focused on my breathing,” he might say, or “I took it one shot at a time.” Yes, but how?
All we can really know is that execution in the pivotal moment becomes easier, somehow. In his third round press conference, Todd repeated the word “anxiety” over and over, recognizing its presence, understanding that it would be his enemy. He slept poorly Saturday night. There was no sense of calm washing over him on the back nine; in fact, his nerves were worse than ever. But power doesn’t come from annihilating the pressure. Power comes from understanding that the pressure doesn’t matter.
Whatever he was feeling, Todd looked calm as he stood over his ball. He hit a perfect pitch that rolled to a foot. Sitting behind the green, you could hear David Feherty speaking into his microphone—”he made that look easy…it wasn’t.” No roars had come from 17. Todd made par, and Weird hadn’t birdied.
Todd claims he didn’t look at a leaderboard all day, but admitted that he finally asked his caddie where he stood on the 17th tee. The story was the same as it had been for more than hour—two shots ahead.
The 17th hole at TPC Las Colinas is trying very hard to be the 16th hole at Phoenix, with its pseudo-stadium setting and lots of beer, but the spirit isn’t the same. For one thing, there’s a built-in caste system. At the top, in the “Chairman’s Guest” seating area, are the people who pay $4,000 for a week of free drinks and gourmet food. Then there’s the “Signature Suites,” which a marshal described to me as “more low end, but still nice.” Then the bleachers behind the green, for the “younger crowd,” and the grassy hills for the kids.
The beauty of the 16th at Scottsdale is the sheer, drunken democracy of it all—they’ll freely boo anyone and everyone, up to and including Tiger Woods, and they don’t care who’s sitting in what section. There’s something very open and western about the scene, while the 17th at the Byron Nelson is obsessed with status in a way that also probably reflects its city. You only have to look at the organizations responsible for running the tournament to understand the vibe—the Byron Nelson is efficiently managed by the “Dallas Salesmanship Club,” a group of well-coifed men wearing red pants and women with impressive hair. The Phoenix Open? That’s run by a group calling themselves “The Thunderbirds,” who wear velvet tunics and sliver pendants.
Into this stratified mass of humanity, Brendon Todd launched his tee shot far to the left, away from the danger of the water, where the ball landed in the intermediate rough 20 yards from the hole. He chipped to 13 feet, and as he stood over his putt, the scoreboard told us all that Mike Weir had finished without a birdie and was in the clubhouse at -12. Todd stood over the putt that could secure his first win as a pro, and when it went in, he allowed himself one more fist pump. This time, with emphasis.
On the 18th green, CBS put a camera mere inches in front of his pregnant wife (it’s going to be a boy), who stood green side crying beneath her sunglasses as Todd lagged his birdie putt to the hole. She’s been traveling with him for years, every stop, and the cameraman followed her all the way down until she met her husband, the man with the red-hot short game who just won $1.242 million. Later, after the press conference, the two of them stood in the media dining room eating pizza, chatting with reporters and volunteers and everyone else who wanted to say hello, and congratulations, and let me shake your hand. Most golfers spend their time after rounds trying to escape the cameras, and the writers, and the obligations, and it was heartening to see someone hang around and savor the moment. You only get your first win once, and it seemed like he never wanted to leave.
–Shane Ryan (@ShaneRyanHere)
(Photo: Getty Images)