LA QUINTA, Calif. – With his ball waist-high, his feet in the bunker and his stance like he was ready to turn on an inside fastball, Bill Haas’ second shot at PGA West’s 18th hole had five possible outcomes:
Snap hook. Shank. Chunk. Whiff.
Oh, and the fifth option, the one that Haas executed: a deft bunt down the fairway, 82 yards, setting up a closing par and a one-shot victory Sunday at the Humana Challenge.
For a player best known for an improvisational par out of the lake at East Lake, this shot hardly rattled him.
“I think of myself as more of a painter and not a mechanic,” he said, smiling. “I don’t have the perfect swing – I wish I could swing like Adam Scott, but I just don’t have that ability. I do think I have the ability to make do with what I have.”
And that was more than enough to secure the most surprising victory on Haas’ increasingly impressive résumé.
Haas fractured a small bone in his left wrist when he fell down stairs last April. Though he had a chance to win in Greensboro, and he didn’t miss a cut all season, he went through 2014 without a win – his first winless year since ’09. He made only two starts after the Tour Championship, and he was so bad in Shanghai, hitting only 11 total greens on the weekend, that he decided to shut it down for six weeks.
Haas has never been a ball-beater, but this offseason was particularly light, playing only a few corporate outings and ditching the range. When Haas and his team (father Jay and longtime coach Billy Harmon) convened in the desert last Wednesday, “you probably wouldn’t have thought that he’d be standing there right now,” Harmon said.
Haas was impatient. Frustrated. More concerned than he’d ever been heading into a tournament.
Two swing thoughts changed his outlook:
1.) Haas’ clubface was swinging open at the top of his swing, so Harmon worked with him to feel like the club was more square going back. Said Harmon: “That’s a tip my dad told me: Imagine the club has an eyeball on it, and it’s always looking at the back of the ball.”
2.) With his putting, Haas tried to imitate Jack Nicklaus’ relaxed right arm at address. In 1995, when Jay Haas made the Ryder Cup team, Harmon had suggested the same tip to his pupil, because he had looked most comfortable that way. Doing so puts the putter grip more in the crease of Haas’ hand, not his fingers, and lowers his right shoulder to the proper angle when setting up to the ball. Haas finished seventh this week in strokes gained-putting.
“Both he and his dad are the total, quintessential, natural feel players,” Harmon said. “Bill couldn’t even spell TrackMan, let alone know what it was saying.”
Besides, this area has become like a second home to Haas, and his peers might be happy this tournament is moving away from PGA West’s Palmer Private. Since 2010, he has two wins, a playoff loss and another top 10 here. On Sunday, he became the eighth player to win this event multiple times, joining the likes of Arnold Palmer, Johnny Miller and Phil Mickelson.
“It’s a great feeling to be that unsure going into a week,” Haas said, “but have it all work out and play like this.”
For much of the final round, it was anyone’s tournament to win. Late on the back nine there were six players tied for the lead, with more than a dozen within two shots. With such a logjam at the top, Haas knew he was one blunder away from slipping out of the lead and into 10th place.
A slippery 20-footer on 16 moved him to 22 under par, and then came the drama on the home hole.
With water looming on the left, Haas took the conservative route and went right with his drive on the par-5 finisher. His ball took an unlucky bounce near the bunker and settled on a mound just outside the sand. He rehearsed the shot left-handed, but that brought both the out-of-bounds stakes and water into play.
“It felt like a train wreck all coming together there, something bad was about to happen,” but instead Haas choked down on an 8-iron and poked it down the fairway.
Much like his splash out of the muck on the 70th hole at the Tour Championship, Haas described his creative play as an “educated guess.”
“You couldn’t teach that,” Harmon said. “That’s talent, figuring that out.”
Haas then used the same club from 169 yards for his third shot, safely finding the middle of the green to set up a two-putt par.
Haas isn’t often discussed as one of the best players in the game, mostly because he doesn’t have a top 10 in a major. But consider this: Since the beginning of the 2010 season, only Rory McIlroy (nine) and Tiger Woods (eight) have more Tour victories than Haas’ six.
Haas’ father wasn’t fully appreciated until recently, either. Jay was a nine-time PGA Tour winner, capturing events over a 15-year span, and he’s still competitive on the Champions Tour into his early 60s.
“Bill is kind of like his dad – they’re not going to be the best players in the world, but they’re built for the long term,” Harmon said. “They’re built to last.”
Haas conceded that he doesn’t think he’s quite as good as the Rorys and Tigers of the PGA Tour, and that’s OK. He knows that he can play with them, that it only takes one week.
“If I can only win one a year for the rest of my career, I would be completely happy,” he said. “Maybe that’s just it; maybe I’m easily satisfied. But if I could play until I’m 50, that’s the ultimate. I hope I am built for the long haul.”