Plenty of Drama at the Nelson

By Mercer BaggsApril 30, 2007, 4:00 pm
This years EDS Byron Nelson Championship will test the old adage Its not how you start; its how you finish.
 
To be certain, this event had a wonderful conclusion. It wasnt overly dramatic and its defining moment was an up-and-down from the bunker for par on 17. But it had a most appropriate winner in Scott Verplank.
 
Verplank has been longing for a PGA TOUR win for quite a long time, nearly seven full years to be precise.
 
Scott Verplank
Scott Verplank reacts to his victory at the EDS Byron Nelson Championship. (WireImage)
Hes wanted to win this particular event for more than two decades.
 
By now youre probably familiar with Verplanks history with the late Byron Nelson. If not, heres a bit of background: The two met when Verplank, once a standard bearer for the tournament, was a teen, a golfing prodigy in the Dallas area. He and Mr. Nelson played a few practice rounds together and developed a friendship. Nelson, who just enjoyed watching Verplank hit balls on the range, would often send him notes of encouragement throughout his career.
 
Those notes were something special to Verplank. The sailing hasnt always been so smooth for him and friendly words, from a legend no less, were always embraced.
 
After winning the 1985 Western Open as an amateur at Oklahoma State and the 88 Buick Open as a professional, Verplank didnt taste victory again until 2000.
 
He won again at the 2001 Canadian Open, but had been winless until this past week. On a personal level, he was diagnosed with diabetes at age 9.
 
All that frustration and disappointment, though, was cast aside after a nervous 2-footer for par fell on the 72nd hole Sunday. Verplank, reminding of Ben Crenshaw when he tapped in for victory in the 1995 Masters in the wake of his long-time teacher Harvey Penicks death, crouched down, overcome by emotion, buried his head in his hands and then looked heavenward.
 
I just kept saying, Oh my gosh! I can't believe it! I couldn't believe that it happened. It was a dream,' Verplank said. 'Then I looked up and said, Thank you. Incredible.
 
And that is how Scott Verplank brought down the curtain at the EDS Byron Nelson Championship.
 
There was, however, plenty of drama before the curtain was even raised.
 
Phil Mickelson missed his Wednesday pro-am tee time because inclement weather prevented him from flying Tuesday night out of Little Rock, Ark., where he had flown to do a charity event after checking in at the Byron Nelson.
 
The PGA TOUR has ' what was thought to be ' a fairly strict policy that states if you dont play in the pro-am, you cant play in the tournament. The TOUR reserves the right to make exceptions and they did so with Mickelson, citing extenuating circumstances.
 
Well, this just seemed to aggravate some in the field more so than being stuck in a room full of gnats.
 
I would say 100 percent of the players, except for Phil, think he shouldn't be here, 2003 PGA champion Shaun Micheel was quoted as saying in the PA Sports Ticker.
 
Last year, according to the story, Micheel missed his pro-am in Reno because he was throwing up in the locker room shortly before his tee time. He was allowed to play in the tournament, but was fined $7,600.
 
The story added that Micheel fired off an e-mail to TOUR commissioner Tim Finchem and he expects the issue to be a popular topic when Finchem hosts a players meeting Tuesday in Charlotte, N.C., site of this weeks Wachovia Championship.
 
Micheel was joined in his protest by the likes of TOUR winners Robert Allenby and Rod Pampling. They claimed that Retief Goosen wasnt given any special treatment a couple of years ago, so why should Mickelson be favored?
 
In 2005, Goosen was asked to leave the Nissan Open when he overslept and missed his pro-am tee time by a few minutes.
 
Its easy to see the difference between the two. For one, Mickelson was thwarted by Mother Nature; Goosen had only himself to blame. Two, the Nissan Open field had a host of high profile names, including Tiger Woods. This years Byron Nelson had only two of the top-10 players in the world, and no Tiger Woods.
 
TOUR ' and tournament ' officials obviously didnt want to see one of those two, Vijay Singh being the other, exit town before the start (and take the chance that Mickelson might never return).
 
Does that make it right? Of course not. Mickelson travels on a personal jet. He doesnt have to wait for a scheduled commercial flight. If he wanted to make the pro-am time, he could have made it, even if it was at 7:00 a.m. After all, he was only flying from Arkansas to Texas.
 
Added Micheel: A friend of mine playing the pro-am flew in (from Memphis) at 1:30 in the morning. Memphis and Little Rock are 100 miles apart.
 
While players in the field were griping about Mickelson, the media was griping about the quality of the players in the field.
 
Many writers and media types blasted those who did not participate this year, the first such tournament without its namesake. None received more slings and arrows than did Tiger.
 
Woods abhors playing competitively three weeks in a row. And since he is competing in this weeks Wachovia and the following weeks PLAYERS Championship, he opted to skip out on the Nelson.
 
That didnt sit well with many of the locals, and even some national press. They felt that Woods, in particular, should have paid respect to Nelson by playing his tournament, the same event that gave him a sponsors exemption as an amateur in 1993.
 
I understand that Woods wants to be as fresh as possible for all of the big events, i.e. THE PLAYERS. But hes the fittest golfer on the planet, not to mention the best. How exhausting can it be to play three weeks straight? Hes playing golf, not running successive marathons.
 
Still, I dont think that he deserves to be admonished for not playing this past week. Woods owes nothing to anyone who ever gave him a sponsors exemption as an amateur or when he first turned professional. He wasnt some anonymous player for whom officials did a huge favor. If anything, tournaments benefited by Tigers presence.
 
Woods had played in every Nelson event but one from 1997-2005 (he skipped it last year due to the death of his father), winning in 97. While it might have been a nice tribute if Woods had played this year as well, hes certainly contributed plenty to this one event.
 
The third major complaint this past week involved the conditions of the greens on the host TPC Las Colinas course. The venue is about to undergo a reported $6.8 million renovation and will play host to all four rounds (Cottonwood Valley has hosted one of the first two rounds each of the last 14 years) beginning in 2008.
 
Players, however, wished they would have played all four rounds this year at Cottonwood, where the greens were actually green. Well before Sunday, the putting surfaces at Las Colinas were more fried than Reverend Jim Ignatowski.
 
And so that was how the 2007 EDS Byron Nelson Championship began: a Phil fallout; a target on Tigers back; and a bunch of bumpy baked, brown greens.
 
It ended with a Verplank victory; a drop to the knees; and a gaze above.
 
At least for one man, nothing that preceded the conclusion -- not days before, nor years, nor decades -- mattered, with the exception of one particular relationship with a good friend who has since passed away.
 
'There's no question in my mind that the stars lined up and I got a little help from upstairs. I just haven't been playing that good,' Verplank said. 'I think Byron had a hand in this week.'
 
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    After Further Review: Haas crash strikes a chord

    By Golf Channel DigitalFebruary 19, 2018, 2:39 am

    Each week, GolfChannel.com takes a look back at the week in golf. Here's what's weighing on our writers' minds.


    On the horrifying car crash involving Bill Haas ...

    I spent a lot of time this week thinking about Bill Haas. He was the passenger in a car crash that killed a member of his host family. That man, 71-year-old Mark Gibello, was a successful businessman in Pacific Palisades, Calif., and a new friend.

    Haas escaped without any major injuries, but he withdrew from the Genesis Open to return home to Greenville, S.C. When he’ll return to the Tour is anyone’s guess. It could be a while, as he grapples with the many emotions after surviving that horrifying crash – seriously, check out the photos – while the man next to him did not.

    The entire Haas clan is some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. Wish them the best in their recovery. – Ryan Lavner


    On TIger Woods' missed cut at the Genesis Open ...

    After missing the cut at the Genesis Open by more than a few car lengths, Tiger Woods appeared to take his early exit in stride. Perhaps that in and of itself is a form of progress.

    Years ago, a second-round 76 with a tattered back-nine scorecard would have elicited a wide range of emotions. But none of them would have been particularly tempered, or optimistic, looking ahead to his next start. At age 42, though, Woods has finally ceded that a win-or-bust mentality is no longer helpful or productive.

    The road back from his latest surgery will be a winding one, mixed with both ups and downs. His return at Torrey Pines qualified as the former, while his trunk slam at Riviera certainly served as the latter. There will surely be more of both in the coming weeks and months, and Woods’ ability to stomach the rough patches could prove pivotal for his long-term prognosis. - Will Gray


    On the debate over increased driving distance on the PGA Tour ...

    The drumbeat is only going to get louder as the game’s best get longer. On Sunday, Bubba Watson pounded his way to his 10th PGA Tour title at the Genesis Open and the average driving distance continues to climb.

    Lost in the debate over driving distances and potential fixes, none of which seem to be simple, is a beacon of sanity, Riviera Country Club’s par-4 10th hole. The 10th played just over 300 yards for the week and yet yielded almost as many bogeys (86) as birdies (87) with a 4.053 stroke average.

    That ranks the 10th as the 94th toughest par 4 on Tour this season, ahead of behemoths like the 480-yard first at Waialae and 549-yard 17th at Kapalua. Maybe the game doesn’t need new rules that limit how far the golf ball goes, maybe it just needs better-designed golf holes. - Rex Hoggard


    On the depth of LPGA talent coming out of South Korea ...

    The South Korean pipeline to the LPGA shows no signs of drying up any time soon. Jin Young Ko, 22, won her LPGA debut as a tour member Sunday at the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open, and Hyejin Choi, 18, nearly won the right to claim LPGA membership there. The former world No. 1 amateur who just turned pro finished second playing on a sponsor exemption. Sung Hyun Park, who shared Rolex Player of the Year honors with So Yeon Ryu last year, is set to make her 2018 debut this week at the Honda LPGA Thailand. And Inbee Park is set to make her return to the LPGA in two weeks at the HSBC Women’s World Championship after missing most of last year due to injury. The LPGA continues to go through South Korea no matter where this tour goes. - Randall Mell

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    Nature calls: Hole-out rescues Bubba's bladder

    By Rex HoggardFebruary 19, 2018, 2:20 am

    LOS ANGELES – Clinging to a one-stroke lead, Bubba Watson had just teed off on the 14th hole at Riviera Country Club and was searching for a bathroom.

    “I asked Cameron [Smith], ‘where's the bathroom?’ He said, ‘On the next tee there's one. Give yourself a couple more shots, then you can go to the bathroom,’” Watson recalled. “I said, ‘So now I'm just going to hole it and go to the bathroom.’”

    By the time Watson got to his shot, which had found the bunker left of the green, his caddie Ted Scott had a similar comment.


    Full-field scores from the Genesis Open

    Genesis Open: Articles, photos and videos


    “When he went down to hit it I said, ‘You know you haven’t holed one in a long time,’” Scott said.

    Watson’s shot landed just short of the hole, bounced once and crashed into the flagstick before dropping into the hole for an unlikely birdie and a two-stroke lead that he would not relinquish on his way to his third victory at the Genesis Open and his 10th PGA Tour title.

    “I looked at Teddy [Scott] and said, ‘You called it.’ Then Cameron [who was paired with Watson] came over and said I called it. I’d forgotten he and I had talked about it,” Watson said.

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    Bubba Golf takes long road back to winner's circle

    By Rex HoggardFebruary 19, 2018, 1:55 am

    LOS ANGELES – Bubba’s back.

    It’s been just two years since he hoisted a trophy on the PGA Tour, but with a mind that moves as fast as Bubba Watson’s, it must have felt like an eternity.

    Since his last victory, which was also a shootout at Riviera Country Club in 2016, Watson was passed over for a captain’s pick at the 2016 Ryder Cup, endured a mystery illness, lost his confidence, his desire and the better part of 40 pounds.

    He admits that along that ride he considered retirement and wondered if his best days were behind him.

    “I was close [to retirement]. My wife was not close,” he conceded. “My wife basically told me to quit whining and play golf. She's a lot tougher than I am.”

    What else could he do? With apologies to his University of Georgia education and a growing portfolio of small businesses, Watson was made to be on the golf course, particularly a golf course like Riviera, which is the canvas that brings out Bubba’s best.

    In a game that can too often become a monotonous parade of fairways and greens, Watson is a freewheeling iconoclast who thrives on adversity. Where others only see straight lines and one-dimensional options, Bubba embraces the unconventional and the untried.

    For a player who sometimes refers to himself in the third person, it was a perfectly Bubba moment midway through his final round on Sunday at the Genesis Open. Having stumbled out of the 54-hole lead with bogeys at Nos. 3 and 6, Watson pulled his 2-iron tee shot wildly right at the seventh because, “[his playing partners] both went left.”

    From an impossible lie in thick rough with his golf ball 2 feet above his feet, Watson’s often-fragile focus zeroed in for one of the week’s most entertaining shots, which landed about 70 feet from the hole and led to a two-putt par.


    Full-field scores from the Genesis Open

    Genesis Open: Articles, photos and videos


    “His feel for that kind of stuff, you can’t go to the range and practice that. You can’t,” said Watson’s caddie Ted Scott. “Put a ball 2 feet above your feet and then have to hold the face open and then to swing that easy. That’s why I have the best seat in the house. That’s the essence of Bubba golf.”

    There were plenty of highlight moments on Sunday for Watson. There were crucial putts at Nos. 11 (birdie), 12 (par) and 13 (par) to break free of what was becoming an increasingly fluid leaderboard, and his chip-in birdie from a greenside bunker at the 14th hole extended his lead to two strokes.

    “It was just a bunker shot, no big deal,” smiled Watson, who closed with a 69 for a two-stroke victory over Kevin Na and Tony Finau.

    A player that can often appear handcuffed by the most straightforward of shots was at his best at Riviera, withstanding numerous challenges to win the Genesis Open for his 10th PGA Tour title.

    That he did so on a frenzied afternoon that featured four different players moving into, however briefly, at last a share of the lead, Watson never appeared rattled. But, of course, we all know that wasn’t the case.

    Watson can become famously uncomfortable on the course and isn’t exactly known for his ability to ignore distractions. But Riviera, where he’s now won three times, is akin to competitive Ritalin for Watson.

    “[Watson] feels very comfortable moving the ball, turning it a lot. That allows him to get to a lot of the tucked pins,” said Phil Mickelson, who finished tied for sixth after moving to within one stroke of the lead early in round. “A lot of guys don't feel comfortable doing that and they end up accepting a 15 to 30 footer in the center of the green. He ends up making a lot more birdies than a lot of guys.”

    It’s the soul of what Scott calls Bubba Golf, which is in simplest terms the most creative form of the game.

    Watson can’t explain exactly what Bubba Golf is, but there was a telling moment earlier this week when Aaron Baddeley offered Watson an impromptu putting lesson, which Bubba said was the worst putting lesson he’d ever gotten.

    “He goes, ‘how do you hit a fade?’ I said, ‘I aim it right and think fade.’ How do you hit a draw? I aim it left and think draw,” Watson said. “He said, ‘how do you putt?’ I said, ‘I don't know.’ He said, ‘well, aim it to the right when it breaks to the left, aim it to the left when it breaks to the right,’ exactly how you imagine your golf ball in the fairway or off the tee, however you imagine it, imagine it that way.”

    It’s certain that there’s more going on internally, but when he’s playing his best the sum total of Watson’s game can be simply explained – see ball, hit ball. Anything more complicated than that and he runs the risk of losing what makes him so unique and – when the stars align and a course like Riviera or Augusta National, where he’s won twice, asks the right questions – virtually unbeatable.

    That’s a long way from the depths of 2017, when he failed to advance past the second playoff event and dropped outside the top 100 in the Official World Golf Ranking. But then, Watson has covered a lot of ground in his career on his way to 10 Tour victories.

    “I never thought I could get there,” he said. “Nobody thought that Bubba Watson from Bagdad, Fla., would ever get to 10 wins, let's be honest. Without lessons, head case, hooking the ball, slicing the ball, can't putt, you know? Somehow we're here making fun of it.”

    Somehow, through all the adversity and distractions, he found a way to be Bubba again.

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    Spieth: 'I feel great about the state of my game'

    By Will GrayFebruary 19, 2018, 1:43 am

    LOS ANGELES – Jordan Spieth is starting to feel confident again with the putter, which is probably a bad sign for the rest of the PGA Tour.

    Spieth struggled on the greens two weeks ago at TPC Scottsdale, but he began to right the ship at Pebble Beach and cracked the top 10 this week at the Genesis Open. Perhaps more important than his final spot on the leaderboard was his standing in the strokes gained putting category – 12th among the field at Riviera Country Club, including a 24-putt performance in the third round.

    Spieth closed out the week with a 4-under 67 to finish in a tie for ninth, five shots behind Bubba Watson. But after the round he spoke like a man whose preparation for the season’s first major is once again right on track.


    Full-field scores from the Genesis Open

    Genesis Open: Articles, photos and videos


    “I was kind of, you know, skiing uphill with my putting after Phoenix and the beginning of Pebble week, and really just for a little while now through the new year,” Spieth said. “I just made some tremendous progress. I putted extremely well this week, which is awesome. I feel great about the state of my game going forward, feel like I’m in a great place at this time of the year as we’re starting to head into major season.”

    Spieth will take a break next week, and where he next tees it up remains uncertain. He still has not announced a decision about playing or skipping the WGC-Mexico Championship, and he will have until 5 p.m. ET Friday to make a final decision on the no-cut event.

    Whether or not he flies down to Mexico City, Spieth’s optimism has officially returned after a brief hiccup on the West Coast swing.

    “For where I was starting out Phoenix to where I am and how I feel about my game going forward the rest of the year, there was a lot of progress made,” he said. “Now I’ve just got to figure out what the best schedule is for myself as we head into the Masters.”