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A natural progression

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When Bill Haas was in college, his unofficial nickname on the Wake Forest golf team was, “The Natural.” His teammates were in awe of his ability to hit range balls for 15 minutes and then go watch a football game while the rest of them kept grinding away.

“And then when it mattered he’d outplay all of us,” Chad Wilfong, one of his teammates at Wake, said several years ago when Haas was still trying to make it to the PGA Tour. “Bill almost never hit more than 20 or 25 balls at a time. He’s the most talented player I’ve ever been around. We used to joke that he never met a range that he liked.”

After Sunday, Haas can afford to build himself a range that he likes. Or never hit another range ball again. Whichever he prefers. He earned a total of $11.44 million by winning the Tour Championship, which included a $10 million bonus for also capturing the FedEx Cup.

Haas had some shaky moments, but in the three-hole, sudden-death playoff with Hunter Mahan, his nerves – the one thing that had seemed to keep him at arm’s length from stardom – held up when they most had to.   

As easy as Haas can make it look at times, it hasn’t always been that simple. He flunked Q-School the first time he tried it in 2004 and it took a birdie-birdie finish on the last day in 2005 to get him onto the Tour. If you watched on Sunday and thought his dad looked nervous the last few holes, then you should have seen him coming down the stretch at Orange County National in December ‘05.       

Jay Haas won nine times on the PGA Tour and 15 times on the Champions Tour. He has always said the most nerve-wracking moments he’s ever had on the golf course came watching Bill at Q-School. This past Sunday was all gravy for the father. He was thrilled to see his son win, but proud just to see him contend.

Bill, on the other hand, wanted very much to win. After six years on Tour he knows just how difficult that is to do if your name isn’t Tiger Woods and the year isn’t 2000 or 2001. Going into Atlanta he had been a solid money-winner ever since surviving the six-round torture test six years ago, but had just two victories: the 2010 Bob Hope and Viking Classic.       

Twice in 2011 – at the Hope and at The Greenbrier – he had lost in playoffs. He had talked candidly in the past about needing to control his nerves better when he was in the hunt on Sunday.       

“That’s what the best players do,” he said late last year. “I still get nervous sometimes on the back nine on Sunday. If you’re going to be a consistent winner out here you can’t do that. You aren’t going to win every time you’re in contention but you have to keep yourself in the ballgame when it gets close because most of the time you’re going to have to win. You can’t wait for someone else to lose.”     

There weren’t a lot of birdies flying around on the last few holes at East Lake on Sunday. The golf course was difficult and the money at stake clearly was affecting the contenders. Haas bogeyed two of the last three holes to give up what had been a three-shot lead. But he recovered in the playoff, especially on the second hole when his second shot found the edge of the lake left of the 17th green and he was able to use the sand just beneath the ball in the water to spin his shot to within 3 feet.

“It really played just like a bunker shot,” Haas said. “I was very fortunate.”      

Fortunate perhaps that the water level in the lake was down but extremely skilled to play the shot the way he did. Haas didn’t win the Tour Championship because he got lucky; he won it because he is a lot closer to figuring out how to close now than he has been in the past.

If he was fortunate in any area it was the fact that he walked away with the $10 million bonus. It can’t make PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem happy to know that for the second consecutive year the guy who won golf’s biggest check didn’t know he’d done so when he walked off the 18th green.

As Haas went to claim his Tour Championship trophy, he noticed the FedEx Cup trophy next to it. “Is that mine, too?” he asked his wife. “They’re both yours,” replied Finchem.

To make things easier to comprehend, Finchem would be best served to implement a true playoff, where everyone who qualifies for postseason play begins at zero points and those who play best go to Atlanta and start at zero again. Match play (32 players) would also be far more exciting, but TV isn’t going to go for that, so at least create a scenario whereby the guy who makes the winning putt doesn’t throw his arms in the air, look around and say, “Did I win?”

In the meantime, Haas’ victory, combined with Keegan Bradley’s win at the PGA Championship, helped to salvage the year for American golf which limped away from Royal St. George’s in July without a victory in a major or the Ryder Cup since Phil Mickelson’s win at the 2010 Masters.

Nick Watney is 30. Haas, Mahan and Brandt Snedeker are 29. Dustin Johnson is 27. Bradley is 25. All have won multiple times on Tour and Bradley has a major title on his resume. They’re all quite wealthy and will continue to be big names in golf for a good, long while. There are other young Americans well under 30 – Rickie Fowler, Gary Woodland, Kyle Stanley, Spencer Levin, and a spate of amateurs who played well this past summer – who also have great potential.   

The question is this: Will any of them become true stars – guys who win multiple majors and go well into double-digits in tournament victories? Only time will answer that question. For the moment, though, the two players who made genuine breakthroughs this year were clearly Bradley and Haas.        

Stay tuned.