PALM HARBOR, Fla. – In this era of titanium-denting bombers and bold, brash youngsters, 42-year-old John Senden has come to realize this:
“You really have to do everything great to win.”
Funny thing, then, because in the final round of the Valspar Championship, one of the game’s pre-eminent ball-strikers needed to rely on a sublime short game to notch his first PGA Tour title in nearly eight years.
“When a good ball-striker starts putting good,” said his caddie of 12 years, Josh Cassell, “it’s a pretty nice combo.”
Struggling with his long game on Innisbrook’s claustrophobic Copperhead Course – he hit just five fairways and 10 greens in the final round – Senden was able to summon the short-game magic that for some many years has been missing.
Coming down the stretch, he rammed home a 15-foot birdie putt on 14, chipped in on 16 and then sank a 21-footer on 17. He played the downwind 18th conservatively, taking iron off the tee and finding the middle of the green with his approach. From 37 feet he nestled his birdie putt within a few inches, leading to a stress-free, tap-in par for his first (and only other) Tour victory since the 2006 John Deere Classic.
At 42, Senden is the oldest winner on Tour this season by five years. He also punched his ticket to the Masters for the third consecutive year.
“I’ve been doing a lot of things great,” said Senden, who is expected to move to about No. 60 in the world rankings, “it’s just about continuing to believe that I can actually do it.”
Senden has always known how to dissect a golf course – he was ranked inside the top 12 in ball-striking for a decade (2002-2012). But what has held him back has been his work around the greens. Since the Tour began keeping the strokes gained-putting statistic in 2004, he has finished outside the top 100 seven times. He’s never been better than 64th.
Recently, though, he enlisted the help of seemingly every putting guru with an opinion – Ian Triggs, Pat O’Brien, even Ian Baker-Finch has offered a few tips. His posture improved. He lightened his grip pressure. But most important was a mental adjustment.
“I had to believe that I’m hitting good putts all the time, rather than just some of the time,” said Senden, who entered this week No. 11 in putting.
Sure, it helps too that he is healthy after dealing with an assortment of injuries in the past 16 months.
He suffered a rib injury in either late 2012 or early 2013, making it difficult for him to fire through the ball. As a result he overcompensated with his hands, and soon he developed wrist soreness. He wound up 120th in 2013 earnings.
“It was hard work last year,” he admitted.
The last seven-plus years haven’t been easy either, as Senden fought to rediscover that championship form.
So, he was asked: Is the thrill of victory any different now than it was back in 2006?
“It is something that makes you believe that you can get it done more than just once,” he said. “Thinking back in 2006, was it something of a flash in the pan? I don’t believe so. It feels good to do it again after seven years. Lots of good things to come.”