Ah, December. That time every year when we in the golf media hand out awards like jolly old St. Nick giving presents on Christmas Eve, our gift to you coming in the form of things like best story and biggest newsmaker and most lasting image from the previous 12 months.
OK, so it’s part-gift and part-something to keep us from getting ourselves on the naughty list in the offseason. (Although truth be told, the 2013 golf season officially kicked off with the European Tour’s Nelson Mandela Championship, which took place before the final PGA Tour-sanctioned event of 2012, the PNC Father/Son Challenge, meaning the offseason actually accounted for negative days, leaving us in some warped model of a faulty space-time continuum.)
There may not have been a singular event for which this year is always remembered – think 1986 and an image of Jack Nicklaus winning The Masters at age 46 is instantly conjured; 2000 is recalled for Tiger Woods taking three of four majors, including a 15-stroke U.S. Open triumph; even 2009 brings back memories of what could have been for Tom Watson at the Open Championship – but it was hardly devoid of drama.
Back in olden times, we’d have to conduct some Internet poll in order to find the most lasting moment of the year, but this being 2012, I simply posed the question on Twitter and received automatic feedback. Europe’s comeback in the Ryder Cup and Bubba Watson’s mind-bending, ball-bending approach in the Masters playoff finished neck and neck atop the list, furlongs ahead of everything else in what was deemed a two-horse race.
But the great thing about sports is that every result means something a little different to everyone. Take the Ryder Cup, for example. Half of the respondents will remember it for the sheer thrill of victory; the other half will remember it for the agony of defeat.
By the same token, one moment – a specific performance, a single shot, an individual image – can mean nothing at all to one person and everything to the next. You know – one man’s trash, another man’s treasure.
As such, I could write in this space about being inside the ropes when Tiger Woods chipped in on his way to winning The Memorial Tournament or standing just yards away from Ernie Els on the Royal Lytham practice green when he heard Adam Scott miss his par attempt and realized he’d won the claret jug, because each lives in the category of goosebump-inducer.
Instead, I’ll pick a moment that I won’t forget for a long time – and one that was likely never even noticed by most observers that day.
Five years ago, when he was leading the money list on what was then the Nationwide Tour, Roland Thatcher asked me to caddie for him at the Chattanooga Classic. We didn’t know each other, but he wanted to create some good pub for the developmental circuit and invited me to write a series of columns on the experiment. Long story short, we were on the leaderboard at one point Friday, then in the blink of an eye put up a few big numbers and missed the cut. End result: We spent the weekend watching a lot of football, eating a lot of pizza and drinking a lot of beer.
Since then, we’ve remained in pretty close contact, catching up for more moderate amounts of football, pizza and beer whenever we’re at the same event. That’s what we were doing on Saturday night of the Travelers Championship when Thatcher appeared as if he could be on the verge of his first career PGA Tour win. Staring at us inquisitively, our waiter first asked if we had attended the tournament that day, then asked if we were playing (I appreciated him including me in that query), then asked how Roland was faring. When he revealed he was tied for the lead, he was instantly offered a celebratory meal at the establishment in 24 hours time.
That looked like a bad omen early on in the final round. He bogeyed the first … and the fourth … and the sixth. At one point, he wasn’t even in the top 15. But he bounced back with an eagle and three birdies and reached the final hole needing a birdie to force a playoff with Marc Leishman. His drive safely in the fairway, Thatcher selected a wedge for his second shot to a front-right hole location, nestled just over the greenside bunker.
I positioned myself inside the ropes about halfway between him and the ball, some 60-70 yards from each. When he swung, the shot looked perfect, until – like one of those slow-motion dramatizations in the movies – the briefest gust of wind blew in his direction. Instead of finding the front part of that green, the ball landed just under the lip of the bunker. And then, trying to pull off the miracle hole-out, he instead flew one past the hole and two-putted for bogey to finish in a share of fourth place.
Not so bad, you say? Well, no. But consider this: It was his only top-10 finish in a season that found him 159th on the final money list. He went back to Q-School, but didn’t advance past second stage. And now, well, he’ll be fighting to make it back, all because of a poorly timed gust of wind.
I’ll remember that moment not just because of what it meant for Thatcher and how his career hung in the balance, but because of how common that scenario really is. Every golf fan in the world remembers Scott losing at Lytham, but few recall – or ever knew – about the dozens of other times that a gust of wind or a bad lie or a slim tree branch served as the difference between the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.
Every sport has been referred to as “a game of inches” at some point, but rarely in any professional pursuit do those inches represent such a dichotomy of success and failure. Golf’s thin line was very much on display once again in 2012, from the most memorable moments to those which many observers never even realized.