PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Vaughn Taylor’s comeback story reached a thrilling – if improbable – conclusion Sunday at Pebble Beach. That much, we know. Where it began, however, is a little more difficult to determine.
Its roots extend back 11 years, to when he last won on the PGA Tour en route to becoming the answer to any trivia question seeking the most obscure Ryder Cup participants of all time.
Taylor’s story goes back to the 2010 PGA Championship, the last time he played in a major, or the 2008 Masters, the last time the Augusta, Ga., native played in his hometown event.
It goes back to last August, when he missed conditional Tour status by a fraction of a point, and it goes back to the August before that when he nearly drowned in a boating accident.
Hell, it even goes back a week ago when he was hooked up to an IV in an ambulance while battling a stomach virus at a Web.com Tour event in Colombia – pretty much as far from the winner’s circle as you can get.
The theme this week at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am was one of revitalized field strength, with six of the world’s top nine players teeing it up. It boasted a hall-of-famer as its 54-hole leader, set to win the event for the fifth time.
But as Phil Mickelson can attest, golf is a funny game. And this time, the ball bounced in the direction of Taylor, a soft-spoken, 39-year-old journeyman who was using a kickstand bag and began the week as first alternate simply with hopes of earning a tee time.
“I can’t believe I’m actually sitting here right now,” Taylor said as he admired the winner’s trophy. “Didn’t know if it would ever happen again, to be honest.”
Taylor began the day six shots behind Mickelson, admittedly too far back to even entertain thoughts of acquiring the trophy that he now will take home. Equipped with only past champion status, his goal entering the final round was just to remain inside the top-10 and earn a spot in the Northern Trust Open. If not, he was planning to drive down the coast to tee it up in Monday’s qualifier.
“Just wanted a place to play next week,” he said.
He more than checked that box with a 7-under 65 in the final round, zooming past Mickelson with four straight birdies on Nos. 13-16 and holding on for a one-shot win after Mickelson failed to convert a 5-foot birdie putt on the final green.
Taylor won the Barracuda Championship in both 2004 and 2005, and he was a member of the losing Ryder Cup squad in 2006. But in recent years, he has done little to improve on those credentials, bouncing back and forth between the PGA and Web.com circuits.
Once as high as No. 37 in the world rankings, Taylor confessed that knowing the spoils that await some of the game’s best players only made it more difficult to toil in obscurity.
“I think it’s better to not have a taste of the good life out here,” he said. “It almost makes it harder because you know how good it is out here, and we get treated so well. It’s almost too much sometimes.”
“You need the lows to appreciate the highs, in anything you do,” added Taylor’s wife, Leot. “This is a business, and I don’t know any business that has had 10 amazing years. We’re in a bit of a lull right now.”
Taylor’s playing status took a backseat in August 2014, though, when a fishing trip on the Savannah River nearly ended in disaster. After one of the lines holding his boat snapped, he capsized and spent several minutes fighting a swift current.
Clinging to an inflatable tackle box, he made it to shore with the help of a park ranger but left with a renewed perspective.
“I made a lot of mistakes that day, and it was unfortunate that it happened,” Taylor said. “But looking back on it, it was a life-changer and it really made me appreciate what I have in my family and my wife and son. I realized that life wasn’t really about me, it’s about them.”
“There’s a moment he didn’t think he’d be back,” Leot said. “Be back on shore, and be back in our house. That was scary.”
Taylor returned to competition shortly after the accident, but he remained unable to regain full-time status on the PGA Tour. In August he went to the Wyndham Championship knowing that he needed to crack the top 125 in the season-ending FedEx Cup standings to earn his card, with Nos. 126-150 guaranteed at least conditional status.
He ended up 151st, as his 361 point total left him on the outside looking in by tenths of a point.
“That was a tough year to swallow, last year,” he said. “I played really well and I put myself in position a lot of times to get my card and I didn’t get it done, over and over. And it was driving me crazy.
“I tried not to let it bother me and I tried not to let it affect my family and my life, so I probably hid it pretty well, but it really started to bother me.”
The months and years of frustration, though, were leveled in an instant when the Taylors shared a tearful embrace behind the 18th green once victory was secured. The PGA Tour card that proved elusive for so many years is now guaranteed through 2018.
With one magical round at just the right time, Taylor traded in his Web.com badge and earned a much-deserved return to the good life.
“I just kept working, kept grinding and kept at it,” he said. “I can’t believe it actually happened today.”