It is a testament to the timelessness of the event, if not the total recall talents of the two men who lived through the episode, that David Toms and Scott Gneiser can so effortlessly race back a decade to a humid Sunday afternoon at Atlanta Athletic Club.
Revisionists will chronicle Toms’ 72nd-hole heroics at the 2001 PGA Championship with a fixation on his misplayed tee shot on the 490-yard closer. The truth, however, is that Toms’ drive wasn’t that bad.
“We hit a pretty decent drive,” recalls Gneiser, Toms’ longtime caddie. “It just kind of rolled through the fairway and I’m like, ‘Oh gosh.’”
From a hanging lie in the first cut of rough and with 209 yards standing between himself and his first major championship Toms and Gneiser talked for . . . well, that’s about the only thing the two have trouble remembering.
“You don’t know if it was five minutes or 10 minutes we were standing there,” Gneiser remembers. “A 3-iron ain’t getting there and our 5-wood would go too far.”
Finally, Gneiser addressed the elephant that had suddenly filled the 18th fairway, “You want to lay up?” he asks.
It was a moment that forced bomb-and-gouge types to look away. If you “didn’t come this far to lay up” stop reading now because Toms’ handling of the final 209 yards of the ’01 PGA was less machismo than it was mathematician.
“We’re like, what’s the best way to make 4, because that’s what I had to do,” Toms says.
These are the facts, Toms’ second shot was a wedge 120 yards down the fairway, leaving him 84 yards to a middle-left pin, a perfect 60-degree wedge shot, which, Toms now admits, was anything but perfect.
“It was a brand new (60 degree) wedge I had put in that week and I’d hit it on the range but not in competition,” he says. “That’s probably why I didn’t hit a great shot, because I had in the back of my mind, ‘I’m hoping this is going to be pin high.’”
In order, Phil Mickelson’s birdie attempt from 25 feet stopped two rolls short of the hole while Toms’ downhill par putt from 12 feet dropped into the cup for his first, and only, Grand Slam victory.
In the moments after his triumph Toms delivered one of the most honest lines in major championship history: “I might still be playing that hole if I would have gone for the green.”
It was the day brains beat brawn, if not bold. That Toms clipped Mickelson, the poster-child for a swashbuckling style of play that was quickly enveloping the game, only underscored how meaningful the victory was.
In retrospect the decision to lay up seems obvious, but consider that the 5-wood, the one the duo deemed “too much,” had delivered the week’s most dramatic moment on Saturday when Toms aced the par-3 15th hole with it, and the aforementioned 3-iron had set up a birdie at the last in Round 3 that staked Toms to a two-stroke overnight lead.
There was also the added pressure of a fairly new player/caddie dynamic. Although Toms and Gneiser have become a staple on Tour, at the ’01 PGA they had been working together for only two years.
“The wheels were turning the whole time,” Gneiser says. “I’m thinking, please be 85 yards (after Toms hit his now-historic lay-up shot), and it was a brand new wedge. We both had it in our minds, you might not win the tournament but you’re not going to lose it.”
But few if any could second-guess Toms’ decision, not even Mickelson, who has pieced together a Hall of Fame career seemingly playing against the percentages a large portion of the time.
“He made a great play. That was a very intelligent play,” Mickelson said in 2001. “(He) played right to his strength. He's a very good sand-wedge player. . . . That was really his best opportunity to make par. I felt like it was a very intelligent play on his part.”
For Gneiser it was a game-time decision that was made in the moment, not the fruits of some grand plan. As an example, he points to the final round at this year’s Players Championship. Leading with three holes to play from a similar lie in the right rough at the par-5 16th hole the duo decided to go for the green with their second shot. Toms pushed the shot into a water hazard right of the green, made bogey and lost a playoff to K.J. Choi.
“It was the exact same scenario,” Gneiser says. “We were playing so good and confident, if I talked him out of it I felt like it would break up the flow.”
For the unassuming tandem it’s the only way to explain a singularly unique major moment. A moment that, for better or worse, has defined a career that has eschewed the prototype of the modern professional.
The “throwback” will tell you he doesn’t have the game to compete many weeks on Tour, on courses like the redesigned Highlands layout at AAC which has been stretched to more than 7,500 yards. Yet he bounced back from his Players heartbreak with an emotional victory the next week at Colonial. Tour tilt No. 13 and counting for the father of two.
Toms understands better than most what his ’01 breakthrough meant, particularly in the Tiger Woods era, regardless of the means that led to the victorious ends.
“In the time of Tiger winning every third one (major), it’s been a tough thing to do,” Toms now says of his lone major.
The golf world will celebrate the return of an unassuming champion this week, the man who made magic with a wedge and a putter, not a driver, a decade ago. Yet for Toms, whose career has been as timeless as that moment adjacent the 18th fairway at AAC, it’s just another week in the heart of Dixie.
“I like going there (Atlanta) more for the Southeastern Conference championship game than the Tour Championship, that’s kind of crazy,” the LSU product proudly admits.
Crazy indeed. Kind of like laying up to win major.