“Sixteen . . . I wish I would have talked him into laying up,” sighed Gneiser, a caddie-yard legend and Toms’ bagman for the better part of 12 years and 11 of his dozen Tour victories.
These are the facts: with a one-stroke lead and a swing that hit more fairways than anyone else at The Players Championship, Toms narrowly missed the fairway at the par-5 16th hole on Sunday but arrived at his golf ball with his mind already made up, or so it seemed.
“We got to the ball and he asked, ‘What do you think of 2-iron (hybrid)?’ and I liked it with a one-shot lead. He just hit it against the bottom of the club and it ran into the water,” Gneiser said of Toms’ approach shot from 249 yards.
Toms made bogey, eventual champion K.J. Choi signed for a par, and as Gneiser assessed the outcome it was impossible for his mind to not race back a decade, “We’ve laid up before to win a golf tournament.”
The “golf tournament” Gneiser was referring to was the 2001 PGA Championship which Toms won on the 72nd hole with a driver, two wedge shots and a 12-footer for par – maybe the gutsiest finish to any major championship in recent history (non-2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines division).
At the time Toms had a similar decision, a 5-wood from 220 yards from a hanging lie in the rough to a baked-out green that was never designed for such a shot; or a wedge to a comfortable yardage (88 yards) and a clutch one-putt for victory.
“I might still be playing that hole if I would have gone for the green,” Toms said at the time. “There was nothing good that could happen.”
Therein lies the fine line between a good decision that is hailed as brilliant and a bad choice that is immediately labeled a bone-headed move.
The same guy that bounced his U.S. Open chances off a tree, garbage can and corporate tent at the 2006 U.S. Open made Masters magic with a 6-iron off the pine straw adjacent the 13th fairway last year. Those who wish to distinguish between the Winged Foot version of Phil Mickelson and last year’s Masters edition do so at their own risk. The DNA is the same, only the outcome is different.
In this, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and the difference between a sound and a silly shot is more often than not dictated by the outcome.
In retrospect, it’s not entirely inaccurate to say that Jean Van de Velde was simply unlucky, not sloppy, at the 1999 Open Championship when his shot at the claret jug was washed away by the rising tide in a Carnoustie’s burn.
The bounce, bad or otherwise, is certainly a crucial element at any event, and of everything that transpired on that surreal summer day in ’99 the only thing the Frenchman seems guilty of is hitting driver off Carnoustie’s 18th tee. Yet Sergio Garica tried to play it safe off the same 18th tee in his duel with Padraig Harrington at the ’07 Open Championship and we all know how that turned out.
“I got ahead of myself on 16 in regulation,” said Toms, who three-putted the first playoff hole on Sunday at TPC Sawgrass. “Seeing K.J. had to lay up already I probably should have laid up and hit a wedge up there and made par at the worst, but I felt like I could get it on the green and take maybe a two-shot lead there and put a lot of pressure on him. So that was the mindset, and I just hit a bad shot.”
Hindsight can be a dangerous judge and jury. A week earlier Lucas Glover spoke about the dangers of trying to protect a lead on a PGA Tour Sunday. In short, neither Glover nor his “beard” thought it was a good idea to play prevent defense coming down the stretch and Toms’ idea that a two-shot lead with the Staduim’s demanding 17th and 18th holes looming certainly passes the sniff test.
Maybe the only thing Toms was ultimately guilty of is forgetting who he was – a fairways-and-greens guy who wears down his opponents – not a bomb-and-gorge sort who overpowers the field.
As a subject to dissection and second-guess, however, Toms’ bold decision at the 16th hole is simply a non-story, with all respect to Gneiser. Ultimately, Toms’ choice was above reproach, just not his execution.
Follow Rex Hoggard on Twitter @RexHoggard