Let’s start with Brian Harman, who began his final round at the Colonial one shot off the lead at -6. He was one of ten players teeing off at -7 or -6, and because there’s a new rule on the PGA Tour this year that you can’t win a tournament unless you graduated from the University of Georgia or were born in Australia, I thought the pairing of Harman (UGA, ’09) and Marc Leishman (Australia, ’83) was bound to produce the champion.
To survive this course, though, you have to survive the trees. And the trees are everywhere, lining the narrow fairways, drooping branches reaching down after (very slightly) wayward drives to obstruct the approach to greens that are practically surrounded by a moat of white sand. Burr oaks and red river oaks and cedar elms and cottonwoods and warty hackberries are the culprits, but no tree is as ubiquitous as the pecan, which doubles as the Texas state tree. These beasts are old—so old that Dan Jenkins called them old 49 years ago, and today they’re even older, and even bigger.
Harman forgot this lesson on the first, and after a drive that drifted into the right rough, his second on the par-five clipped some branches, disappeared, and emerged again to strike a trunk farther down the fairway. Oddly, nobody in the gallery knew exactly where it had gone after striking the second tree, and the volunteer manning the area was also at a loss. Soon an entire squadron of purple-shirted volunteers was deployed to sweep the thick bermuda grass, but even though it wasn’t a thickly wooded section, the ball was nowhere to be found. Harman was forced to return to the rough, hit a second shot that did the same exact thing (branches, disappeared, tree trunk), salvage a decent approach from the rough, and two-putt for double-bogey.
“Nothing like taking yourself out of contention on the first hole,” a spectator whispered to his friend, and even though reactionary statements tend to be misguided in golf, there was hard truth to what he said. When only one or two players are above you on the leaderboard, you’re just one or two disasters away from where you want to be, and we all know that disasters happen fast on the PGA Tour. But with ten or more players clustered at the top? You can’t afford a double-bogey, because even fickle golf won’t accommodate you with ten disasters.
He fought hard to reverse the momentum, chewing on a tee between holes, keeping a level head, and eventually getting the two strokes back by the seventh hole. Still, the situation when he reached the fourth green said it all—two players stood at -8, 10 were bunched at -7, and more lurked at -6. When Harman tried to be a bit too perfect with his approach at nine and threw his club angrily at the sand before the ball had even landed in the water, his victory chances were effectively over.
But something odd was happening around the course, and not just to Harman. For one thing, the score -9 was like poison. Kevin Chappell reached it by making birdie on the first three holes, and then proceeded to double-bogey the difficult fifth on his way to playing the rest of the day 3-over. Chad Campbell got there, too, and then played the rest of the front nine five-over before finishing with a 74. Dufner reached -9, while Harman waited on the 8th tee, but by the time they crossed paths a hole later, where the 9th and 12th tees sit adjacent, he was back to -8.
David Toms would later hit the magic number, only to bogey three of the next six holes. Adam Scott, who suddenly looked very threatening at -8, couldn’t even get to nine before the curse struck with a double-bogey at the ninth. Somebody from the very large pack had to run away, but nobody was stepping forward.
In fact, no player ever reached -10, and this was just the most visible symptom of an incredible failure on the part of the leaders. Of the ten players who started the day at -7 or -6, none of them—not one—finished with a round under par.
Remember when I said that golf could never produce sequential ten disasters on the same day? This was as close as it comes.
I stayed with Harman until the 11th fairway, when I heard a roar over my left shoulder and hurried up a small overlooking the 12th green. The noise had been for John Senden, who had just sunk a 37-foot birdie putt, but by the time I reached the crest, Adam Scott was standing over a birdie putt of his own, this one considerably shorter at four feet. It fell, and the standard bearer I finally tracked down on the next tee confirmed that he had recovered both strokes from his double bogey at nine, and stood at -8 once more, just one behind David Toms.
He took dead aim on the par-3 13th, hitting his iron over the Trinity River—a body of water that left 5,000 Dallas residents homeless when it flooded in 1908, but which is now, a century later, slow and serene, thanks to a system of levees and pump stations—and twirling the club after impact. It was as good as he thought, stopping on a small shelf of green 11 feet from the pin. Framed by the trees growing from the far riverbanks, he placed the end of the long putter in his sternum, gripped it with his left, and held the middle of the shaft lightly between thumb and forefinger as he drew back and sent the ball toward the hole. He missed—barely—but walking to the 14th green, he was one of the few players on the course moving with any swagger.
“Adam, my wife loves you!” a man shouted as he moved past. He could have been speaking for many. Scott is almost absurdly good-looking, and it would be offensive if he wasn’t also so gracious. The term “class act” is thrown out liberally to golfers who manage not to embarrass themselves publicly very often, but Scott is the real deal: soft-spoken, kind, and able to keep golf in context while still rising to an impressive level in the heat of competition.
After a solid drive on 14, he chewed on a bit of food and ignored the cries of “Aussie!” and “G’day, mate!” from the gallery. (The worst thing I heard all day came when a fan shouted “top of the hour to you!”, and I say worst because a) he got the expression wrong and b) even if he got it right, it’s an Irish expression, not Australian.) Wearing his Titleist hat, white shirt with Uniqlo and Mercedes logos, and gray pants, Scott walked with the erect posture mothers dream of when they harass their children. If anything, his torso is slightly forward, like he’s about to do his best dinosaur impression. His legs do all the work; his upper body remains still, as though he’s a living experiment in motion efficiency.
On the green, 39 feet from the hole, he didn’t realize David Toms had dropped to -8, and he was tied for the lead. Nor did he realize, as the long putt tracked toward the hole a moment later and fell, that he had sole command of the lead. As the air became thicker and heavier on what was already a humid day, and the dark clouds gathered, sending a few speculative raindrops to earth, he protected the lead with par on the 15th and 16th. Nicholas Thompson and Freddie Jacobson finished at -8, ending their threat, and Dufner, also at -8, had just a hole left before he was done, and Toms held the same score several holes behind.
As Scott approached the 17th tee, a loud roar echoed from the 18th, just 100 yards away. Bleachers impeded the view, but when he reached the green, a digital scoreboard broke the news—the roar was for Dufner, who birdied the last hole to reach that cursed number, -9, for the second time. “That would be a fucking awesome playoff,” a volunteer said, and I couldn’t disagree.
Scott had his chances to reach -10—20 feet on the 15th, 32 feet on the 16th, 36 feet on the 17th, 30 feet on the 18th—but none of the attempts were great, and he took his pars and moved on. As he made his way to the final green, a clanking sound came from the manual scoreboard by the water, where a metal tile was replaced with another, showing that Toms had bogeyed 13 and dropped to -7. Amazingly, none of the groups between he and Scott posed a threat; the total collapse of the leaders was nearly complete.
After making his par, with the skies darkening, Scott gave his tired standard bearer an autographed ball, made his requisite media stops, walked past the statue of Ben Hogan, patron saint of Colonial, told Peter Kostis that he could use “a couple of bottles of wine to go,” and drove with Steve Williams to a low brick building with a sign on the front that read “caddie registration.” They sat for a bit on a couch, feet on the green felt carpet, watching a television feed of the tournament. A television crew lurked in the doorway. Toms missed a chip on 16, and Jim Nantz noted that Scott wasn’t yet on the range. Suddenly, he and Williams appeared on the screen, creating a strange scenario where they were watching themselves, except on a seven-second delay. That spurred Scott to action, and he and his caddie headed for the range.
Dufner was already there, and the two didn’t exchange so much as a hello while they hit on opposite sides, moving from short irons to long irons to driver. When Toms finished without equaling them, it was time to jump back on the carts and head to 18, where Dufner, looking miserable as always, reached into a hat and drew out a marker with the number one. The two major winners shook hands, and both ripped their drives into the center of the fairway. Dufner’s eyes drifted to the clouds, more menacing by the second, and both hit wedges to safe spots on the green. When they reached the green, the first chants of “U-S-A” descended from the galleries, who were now exuberant about the extra golf, and well-oiled from a day of drinking in the sun.
Both made par, and then it was on to 17, where the impending afternoon storm brought an early darkness. After safe shots into the fairway, Scott’s approach went straight at the flag, stopping in the fringe 14 feet past the hole. As Dufner stood over his ball, his caddie threw four fingers down into the ground at a CBS spotter, who made the same gesture to David Feherty across the fairway: 9-iron. It was his best shot of the day, passing over a greenside bunker and stopping four feet from the hole. It’s rare to see a golf gallery go into hysterics, but that’s what happened after Dufner’s shot. In the stands behind the green, everyone jumped off their feet, let their arms go akimbo, and shouted chaotically before organizing themselves into another U-S-A chant.
With a short, uphill putt awaiting Dufner, Scott knew his putt had to go down. As he stood over his ball, a train whistle blew, so he backed off and began the routine again. He straddled his ball, legs wide like Colossus, and held his fingers in a V as he practiced a technique called “Express Reading.” When he was ready, he made his putt and watched it move down the hill, curling left, nearing the hole, and finally catching the right edge and dropping. There was defiance in his fist pump, and the clenched muscles of his face—a reaction to the chants, maybe, though he politely waved to the crowd. When Dufner tapped his putt and exhaled with relief as it fell, it was off to 18 again.
Scott’s 3-wood was so identical to the one he’d struck moments earlier that the ball came to rest two feet from his previous divot. This time he outdrove Dufner, and last year’s PGA Champion had his first hiccup of the playoffs as he flirted with the bunkers on his approach and left the ball almost 40 feet from the hole. Not so for Scott—he later said that his previous pitching wedge had been tight, and cautious, and now he knew he needed soft hands to send it at the pin. He told us that even after coming through in a Masters playoff, there’s still something to learn when the pressure comes, and though his instinct is to hit a full, hard shot, now he knows how to stomach the tension and hit it soft.
His last wedge landed 21 feet from the hole. This one left him with just seven. When Dufner missed his putt from distance, Scott focused through the hum of conversation, the shushing, and the unfriendly skies. Coming into the day, he needed to finish 13th or better to retain his world no. 1 ranking. Mission accomplished, but then again, why not win? Something about the place reminded him of Australia, right down to the dirt. It’s why he’d won the three other Texas events, and why the so-called Texas Slam was within his reach. So why not hold the massive trophy amid the club members in their red tartan jackets? Why not see your name in calligraphy on a giant check? Why not have it all?
–Shane Ryan (@ShaneRyanHere)
(Photo: Fort-Worth Star-Telgram/Ron Jenkins)