DORAL, Fla. – With two key par putts and a birdie on the 18th hole at Doral that is sure to become a defining moment for Nick Watney, he won a World Golf Championship and pushed his way into the conversation of top American golfers.
It sure didn’t look as if Watney was headed there six months ago.
Golf had been a struggle since his 81 in the final round of the PGA Championship. He was playing for the sixth time in seven weeks, all while planning to get married.
So when he finished the second round of the Tour Championship toward the bottom of the pack, his caddie told him he was toast and called him “Melba.”
Watney was nodding his head when he stopped.
Melba toast, caddie Chad Reynolds explained, although it became clear Watney had never heard of it.
The joke lasted until Watney closed with 63-67 – someone even left a box of Melba toast in his locker on the weekend – and nearly captured the FedEx Cup. He hasn’t finished out of the top 10 in official PGA Tour events since then.
Sunday at the Cadillac Championship was the sweetest of all for so many reasons.
“Top 10 finishes are nice,” Watney said. “But winning is what counts out here and that’s how you’re measured. To win this tournament against this field, it’s a huge honor. I’m very excited. I’m very proud.”
It was the third career win for the 29-year-old Watney, and it’s not hard to figure out he called the “biggest day of my golfing career.” Against a world-class field, he delivered shots for the occasion.
Watney closed with a 5-under 67 for a two-shot victory over Dustin Johnson, which was impressive in its own right. But he had to conquer a few demons along the way on the Blue Monster, and Watney never flinched.
Two years ago, Watney matched Phil Mickelson shot-for-shot in a Sunday duel until Watney’s hopes ended when his 30-foot birdie putt on the last hole stopped one turn from going in.
On Saturday, he lost focus on his tee shot at the 18th hole and pulled it into the water, taking a double bogey to fall out of the lead.
Both times, he pulled his cap over his head. He looked a bit like Melba.
On Sunday, though, he came out swinging.
Watney made a pair of birdies at the start and end of the front nine to catch up to Johnson, then took a one-shot lead twice with birdies on the par-5 10th and 12th holes.
From the right bunker on the par-3 13th, he blasted out weakly and was headed for a bogey until making an 18-foot par. Behind him, Johnson ended his streak of 12 straight pars with a shot from a fairway bunker that struck the pin and settled 2 feet away for birdie to tie for the lead.
Watney was in trouble again. He went long on the par-3 15th and his delicate shot from the sand to a green running away from him barely reached the fringe. From 30 feet away, he made another big par putt.
“I feel like that’s what happens when you win a golf tournament. You make some putts that you really need to,” Watney said.
Johnson blinked first, going bunker-to-bunker on the 16th for bogey to fall one shot behind.
That’s when Watney arrived on the 18th tee, the most daunting shot on the Blue Monster, and by far the toughest hole. There had been only two birdies all day. There is water left, and bailing out to the right amid palm trees often keeps players from getting to the green.
Watney took a deep breath and drilled it.
“I wasn’t nervous,” Watney said. “I really wanted to take care of business and to grasp this opportunity. I actually love that feeling; you don’t get it too often. But I really love to be … yeah, I guess I was a little nervous.
“But it’s fun,” he said when the laughter subsided. “That’s why you play. I’m thinking, ‘I have to be in this moment – right now – because this is all that counts.”’
He made it count, all right. His 8-iron settled 12 feet behind the flag, and with Johnson watching from the 18th fairway, Watney made the birdie putt and pumped his fist. That put him at 16-under 272, meaning Johnson had to hole out to force a playoff.
Johnson’s 9-iron covered the flag, but landed softly about 8 feet away. Typical of his day, he missed the putt and shot 71.
“I did everything I wanted to do, and just couldn’t get it in the hole,” Johnson said.
Franceso Molinari (69) and Anders Hansen (67) tied for third, and it was a big day for Hansen, who moves into the top 50 in the world and now needs to stay there the next two weeks to get into the Masters.
It was a big day for Tiger Woods, relatively speaking.
Woods matched his best score of the year with a 6-under 66, and when Rory McIlroy dunked his tee shot into the water on the 18th hole and made bogey, that enabled Woods to tie for 10th.
It was his first top 10 in an official PGA Tour event in nine months, dating to the U.S. Open.
“I want to win golf tournaments … and I didn’t do that this week,” Woods said. “But I showed positive signs for the next time I play, which is a good thing.”
Now there’s another running joke with Watney and his caddie.
They made a bet on Sunday at Torrey Pines, their first tournament of the year, when Reynolds mentioned he needed a hair cut. Watney suggested no hair cut until they finished out of the top 10, which was a safe bet since he was 11 shots out of the lead. Watney shot 63 in the final round to crack the top 10, pulled off another great Sunday at Pebble Beach to do the same, then beat world No. 1 Lee Westwood in the Match Play Championship to secure a top 10.
And now a win.
“It’s been five tournaments now, over a couple of months,” Watney said. “I’m not sure how it’s getting so much attention. But his hair is looking a little bit nasty.”