SAN DIEGO – Seems about right that Ben Crane’s journey back to a PGA Tour winner’s circle began just up the San Diego Freeway in Oceanside.
Five years ago he limped into Greg Rose’s gym at the Titleist Performance Institute, hurting and hopeless, at least on the golf course, and looking for help. Rose gave him answers, mending Crane’s chronically ailing back and so much more.
“I wouldn’t be here talking to you without him,” Crane told a reporter at Torrey Pines. “He’s my best friend.”
Truth is, he’s a friend with benefits – trainer, swing coach, sounding board, mentor.
At Torrey Pines, where words like cheater and slander were being hoisted about like flyers from the rough, the Tour’s preeminent nice guy prevailed over spotty putting and an eclectic field of young and old. In the end, Crane held off 21-year-old Rickie Fowler and 51-year-old Michael Allen and every demographic in between for his first Tour title since 2005.
Wasn’t easy. The South Course made sure of that.
With a three-stroke lead and a cast of crumbling characters ahead of him, Crane three-putted from 13 feet at the 13th to open the door for Michael Sim and Brandt Snedeker. A three-putt from 31 feet four holes later added even more drama, but ultimately Crane’s putter and psyche delivered.
“It was a grind,” said Crane, who holed a 2-footer for par at the last to hold off Snedeker, Sim and Marc Leishman by one stroke.
But then the Farmers Insurance Open was more than a schneid-beater for Crane, whose back troubles have paled to the scrutiny he’s received from Tour officials and some of his Tour brethren over his pace of play.
We don’t want to say Crane is slow, but when he began his final round Sunday at Torrey Pines the grooves in Phil Mickelson’s Ping Eye 2 wedge were not in dispute.
Crane is slow. So slow he’s spent the time since his high-profile run-in with Rory Sabbatini in 2005 at Booz Allen Classic trying to pick up the pace, not because he had to but because he didn’t want to be “that” guy.
“I need to play ready golf,” said Crane, who noted, only half jokingly, that his group spent much of Sunday waiting to tee off. “I’m too slow and in the past it’s bothered me.”
But on a cool SoCal Sunday he was faster than all comers – posting a final-round 70 for a 13-under 275 total. While further down the leaderboard, playing the role of hero and antagonist, was Mickelson, who seemed poised for a fast start to a year that desperately needs him.
Just four down when the final lap began, Lefty faded quickly with a trifecta of bogeys to begin his round. Mickelson met with Butch Harmon at dawn Sunday to fix a slightly misfiring swing, but after a series of missed putts it was clear he needed help from another member of “Team Phil” – Dave Stockton Sr.
The man who has made a career, and sometimes a mess, by playing like Palmer, began the year quoting Nicklaus and practicing like Hogan.
He called his opening 70 on the South Course “cautious,” and echoed the Golden Bear’s ability to lay in wait until the back nine on Sunday. Before his closing round he plowed through more range pellets than Vijay Singh in search of answers.
Fit and having more fun than should be allowed playing Tour golf, Phil 2K10 has the look of a man with a secret. Winged Foot never seemed so far away, at least until he faded on Sunday.
“I got off to a terrible start and then throughout the round didn’t get much out of it,” said Mickelson, who closed with 73 and finished 19th, extending his post-Rees Jones nip/tuck of the South Course to 11 starts without a title.
But then Mickelson’s on-course trauma seemed trite when compared to a series of off-course happenings that quickly slipped from curious to contentious when veteran Scott McCarron compared Mickelson’s use of grandfathered Pine Eye 2 wedges to cheating.
McCarron seemed to miss the mark, if not the point. The veteran clearly out-kicked his coverage on this one. He should have been more concerned with Mickelson’s driver, which left Lefty tied for 75th in driving accuracy (out of 78) for the week, than 1990s-era grooves.
Mickelson punched back at McCarron on Saturday, telling reporters he had been slandered and hinting there would be retribution, either from the Tour or elsewhere.
Others joined the fun. Joe Ogilvie, a member of the Tour’s Player Advisory Council, Tweeted late Saturday: “I had a dream today, Phil won the Farmers (Insurance Open) by getting up and in on 72nd, impossible short sided shot, thank god [sic] for 1980s era PING wedges!”
Commissioner Tim Finchem is scheduled for fire protection duty on Tuesday when he meets with players in Los Angeles, but, as Ernie Els sadly reasoned, that ship has sailed.
“It’s just not good,” said Els, who added a tie for fifth to his 2010 resume at Torrey Pines. “Players have come out blasting each other. We have to find a solution.”
John Daly added to the curious circumstances when he waffled more than a University of Florida coach. He followed rounds of 79-71 with what appeared to be an emotional letter of resignation, then retracted his post-round opinion before finally abusing his Twitter privileges in an attempt at damage control.
Torrey Pines marks the end of a difficult three months for golf during which the Tour has been dragged from the tabloids to the courthouse and back. From Doug Barron to Tiger Woods to GrooveGate, it has been the meanest of quarters.
That was until Sunday at Torrey Pines.
“The nicest guy on Tour by far,” Rose said of Crane. “He always wants to help someone else.”
And it seems he’s just in time.