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Timing, guts make Beljan's win memorable

Charlie Beljan
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The longer I play this stupid game, the more inclined I am to believe the U.S. Golf Association handicap system could stand a fresh coat of paint, if not an extreme makeover. Sandbaggers and vanity caps will continue to exist regardless of the mathematical formula. My gripe is based primarily on the fact that we use stroke-play scores to balance the competitive scale when a vast majority of recreational golf is played in a best-ball format.

We all know guys who never miss a 5-footer when it matters and never make one when it doesn’t. They throw four birdies at you and shoot 82 with a grin, as opposed to the dude who calls himself a 7 but rakes everything inside 6 feet and hasn’t really broken 80 since July 2008.

I understand the reasoning behind equitable stroke control. I acknowledge the widespread obsession with pace of play and insist on giving you a putt of any length if it’s for triple bogey, but these are things that have a substantial impact on how many cookies you get at the start of the day. So let’s get real. Very few amateur golfers count every single shot. We play a two-man team game based on data compiled on individual performance, and in this context, it makes no sense.

How do you fix it? People smarter than me can handle that, but you start by factoring in a best score/worst score differential on the 20 posted rounds. You play matches with everyone getting 65 to 80 percent of their handicap in the current system, which would help counter the effect of meaningless strokes.

It really is a low-net world, and maybe that’s a good thing, but that doesn’t mean the process as we know it is working. It wouldn’t take a lot to revise the calculation structure. Just a couple of single-digit numerical engineers and a firm grasp of how the game is played at the grass-roots level.

ALTHOUGH I BASICALLY get paid to watch golf tournaments, I would have watched the final 36 holes of the CMN Hospitals Classic simply out of respect for the second-round leader who was taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital (and held overnight for observation) right after signing his scorecard.

It sounds like something out of a Dan Jenkins novel. I’ll admit that I didn’t expect Charlie Beljan to hold on to his lead the rest of the way, much less win the tournament rather comfortably, which makes it a great story in any number of ways. It is unfathomably unique – always excellent copy. It comes with a happy ending – never a bad thing.

We’re talking about a guy who struggled mightily in his rookie season on the PGA Tour, which only adds additional frosting to the feel-good cake. A tie for third at The Greenbrier in July accounted for about 83 percent of Beljan’s regular-season earnings. He made $103,250 in a couple of Fall Series events before this past weekend, which is little more than lunch money in this day and age.

Beljan needed an industrial-strength miracle to retain his Tour card. If you had the big fella in the Fantasy Challenge, we’d like you to head straight over to the company’s drug-testing unit.

What struck me in the final hour Sunday was that Beljan moved and behaved very much like a guy who was super-nervous – a panic attack was the apparent reason for Friday’s medical emergency. I can’t recall any player leading a tournament and appearing so visibly consumed by it, but this was perhaps the weakest field all year, and nobody could chase down Beljan.

Does it rank among the 10 best stories of the year? Probably not, but Beljan’s victory underscores what should be the essence of the Fall Series: a chance to salvage something, a four-tournament window of hope. From there, the truth and fiction can become inseparable.

THE FIRST PGA TOUR event I covered for Golf World was the 1995 Walt Disney World Classic – long before the FedEx Cup and subsequent schedule changes relegated the event to Fall Series status. Seventeen years ago, Disney fields were considerably stronger than this latest gathering.

Tiger Woods picked up his second Tour victory in ’96, beating Payne Stewart in a head-to-head showdown, but that day became memorable for a bizarre incident that led to the disqualification of Taylor Smith, who would have faced Woods in a playoff. The Jean Van de Velde fiasco (1999 British Open) remains the nuttiest thing I’ve ever covered as a golf writer, but the Smith DQ ranks a strong second.

Van de Velde’s demise was self-inflicted. And though Smith couldn’t blame anyone but himself for continuing to use a long putter with an illegal grip – he’d been told it was non-conforming at a Tour event a couple of months earlier – he was turned in by veteran pro Lennie Clements, who was paired with Smith in the final round.

Clements didn’t report Smith to tournament officials until deep into the front nine. It led to a number of questions that were never really answered. How did Clements know of such a rule? Why did he wait until the two men had played seven or eight holes? Smith was told he likely would be DQ’d on the ninth hole but kept playing under the premise that he was appealing the ruling.

He shot 67 and caught Woods at 21 under, setting up the ultimate David-vs.-Goliath playoff that never happened. There wasn’t a dime of prize money that afternoon for a guy who would finish 102nd on the ’96 money list, then vanish from the Tour a year later. When Smith agreed to my request for an interview in 1999, he was struggling on and off the course.

He would run into problems with the law on charges of illegally forging prescriptions – his explanations on the matter didn’t check out when I began verifying facts for the article. A sad story would only get sadder. In 2007, Smith died at age 40 of undisclosed causes. By all accounts, he was a good man who struggled with certain elements of reality, a talented guy who never recovered from what happened at the 1996 Disney Classic.

ANTHONY KIM. CAMILO VILLEGAS. Golf’s two biggest young stars in 2008 have been missing from the competitive landscape for an extended period, and in 2012, things only got worse. Kim was playing horribly while battling assorted injuries in the spring, then ruptured his Achilles and hasn’t played since late March.

Villegas, as Rich Lerner pointed out on the Sunday telecast, is headed back to Q-School after managing just four top-25s in 25 starts. A T-18 in New Orleans was Villegas’ best finish all season. As his career took full flight in 2008, some Tour pros still thought Villegas was grossly overachieving, especially after he won back-to-back FedEx Cup playoff events and missed just three cuts in 22 tournaments.

They saw a hard worker whose swing had too many mechanical flaws – a guy whose putting wasn’t consistent enough to compensate for any ball-striking woes. Turns out the doubters were right. Amazingly, Villegas ranked fourth on the Tour in greens in regulation in 2012 but still finished well outside the top 125, largely because his putting stats were horrible across the board.

You can generate a ton of commercial income simply striking a low-to-the-ground yoga pose while you read greens. Eventually, however, those putts have to go in. Spiderman hasn’t come close to making his share over the last four years.

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