AVONDALE, La. – One of Scott Gneiser’s most memorable victories came in this city 15 years ago. About 20 miles away, at English Turn, his boss, David Toms, shot 63-64 on the weekend to win in his home state. As they strolled down the 18th fairway, the crowd roared: “LSU! LSU!”
“It gave me goosebumps,” Gneiser said. “It still does, talking about it today.”
Back then, Toms was inarguably one of the best players on the PGA Tour, a consistent force who had average length, a silky putting stroke and a propensity to go on birdie tears. During his 24-year career, he collected 14 titles (including the 2001 PGA) and banked more than $41 million.
For the most part, Toms has remained that same player, but today’s Tour has evolved in unimaginable ways. At age 49, he could be Smylie Kaufman’s father. At 5-foot-10 and 160 pounds, he is diminutive compared to some of the Tour’s tall trees. And averaging 269 yards off the tee, he might as well be using persimmon. Toms has to hit hybrid so often during a round that Gneiser jokes about re-grooving the clubface after every tournament.
And yet, on a windy day with little roll, Toms shot a 1-under 71 Friday at waterlogged TPC Louisiana – a score, mind you, that was two shots better than last week’s winner, Charley Hoffman, and 10 lower than Kaufman – and isn’t out of this Zurich Classic heading into the weekend. He is just six shots behind.
“He just knows what he’s doing,” Kaufman said afterward. “He’s played the same game for the last 20 years, and he plays that game better than anybody else. It’s very impressive. It’s fun to watch.”
OK, so maybe it’s not all that much fun to watch.
Toms bunts it off the tee. Stays out of trouble. Misses in the proper spot. Never compounds an error. He actually plays a game with which we’re familiar.
“My experience,” Toms said, “is I know what my game allows.”
And give him credit: It’s become clear over the past year that Toms isn’t just playing out the string until he turns 50 and can play against guys his own age, against guys his own size, against guys with his skill set. He still enjoys the heat of competition, even if it doesn’t always feel like a fair fight.
“I enjoy going out there and seeing how I measure up against the young guys,” he said.
Added Gneiser, his trusty caddie for 15 of the past 17 years: “I can still see the fire in his eyes.”
That fire doesn’t always burn out of frustration.
By now, Toms is used to playing 480-yard par 4s, laying up on par 5s when his playing partners are reaching with a mid-iron, relying on precision, strategy and guile to survive the cut.
“Some holes are just not birdie holes for me,” Toms conceded, and so when he made par on some of the brutish par 4s Friday, Gneiser turned to his man and quipped: “Nice birdie.”
When asked how many hybrids he hit in the second round, Toms shrugged.
“A bunch,” he said. “I try not to add it up. It’s embarrassing, to be honest with you.”
Oh, but Gneiser remembered. “Probably six or seven,” he said. “A LOT.”
Toms hits it on par 3s. He hits it on par 4s. He even hits it on par 5s … oftentimes, to lay up.
Through two rounds, he has had 14 approaches of 200-plus yards into par 4s. But he’s missed only eight greens through 36 holes, a remarkable achievement, really, considering he’s averaging a miniscule 262 yards off the tee because of the soft conditions.
“He’s one of the best hybrid players I’ve ever seen,” Gneiser said.
And frankly, Toms needs to be, because the gap between some of his and Kaufman’s drives was so massive, they could fit an Acme Oyster House in between. Like, 50 and 60 yards.
Gneiser was asked whether Toms was frustrated by the demands of today’s Tour.
“Yes and no,” he said. “Just watching these guys hit it so far by us …” Here he paused. “It’s just a different game.”
And so Toms has refined his game, turning his strengths into even more of an advantage. This season, he is ranked first on Tour in both sand saves and scrambling – the byproduct, Gneiser said, of Toms opening his academy in Shreveport and trying to keep up with son Carter, a freshman at LSU.
Maybe Toms isn’t as good of a putter. Maybe he doesn’t go on those four-, five- or six-birdie runs like he used to. Maybe his low rounds aren’t as low.
“But from inside 100 yards,” Gneiser said, “it’s the best I’ve ever seen him.”
Which is why many believe that Toms will mop up on the Champions Tour when he begins a full schedule next January, when he once again will be able to play his own game and have a realistic chance to win.
“I’m hoping it’s a little more low key,” he said. “It’s pretty businesslike out here. You’ve got guys every week that have five or six people with them: trainers, dieticians, shrinks, short-game coaches, long-game coaches, life coaches. I’m out here by myself with my caddie, and that’s how I’ve always liked it.”