[CRASHING THE GATE]
On the 10th hole, at the 11th hour
Towards the end of regulation play on Sunday, I had just about given up.
By then I had spent days trudging the course at Sedgefield Country Club tracking the players at the Wyndham Championship — in the sun and in the rain, with long stretches of inactivity capped by moments of extreme urgency. And over the course of And over the course of four days all I had really managed to discover was evidence of my own inability to read the field this year. Every golfer I had seen take great shots on this course stayed quiet this year; every hunch I acted on did not play out; every lead fizzled. I had at least a marathon’s worth of miles under my heels and nothing to show for it but a bunch of disjointed notes scrawled in pencil on wet notebook pages.
And then Jordan Speith hit one into the trees.
I was aware of Speith — his first-round performance of -5 was enough to put him both on the leaderboard and squarely in the crosshairs of the golf media, who generally spend each day chasing any angle that can be conjured from these fairly rote contests. Speith made for a great story: He’s young, a fresh 20-year-old who just turned pro last year. And he’s amazing — he’s already won a tour event, the John Deere Classic in July with an accumulated score of -19. Most players go their entire careers without winning an event.
But while he was logging his -5, I marched the front 9 looking for a contender. Eventually I threw in with the throng that tailed last year’s winner, Sergio Garcia, who had surged ahead by making birdies on the first two holes. By the time he got to the 6 th , the media scrum that formed around him had doubled. That was my first clue that Garcia would not be a repeat champion. I wrote in my notebook: “It’s foolish to think he can win the weekend after just 5 holes.”
Meanwhile Speith played it slow and steady that first day, finding bird thrice on the front 9 and two more times on the back end.
Speith’s draw into the stand of pines between the 10 th and 18 th holes came during the final playoff round, where he was swinging for his life against Patrick Reed, who made the papers for his own spectacular performance during the week and also because his comely wife Justine served as his caddy. It couldn’t have been scripted better for the TV folks, who justifiably aired plenty of footage of the little, blonde caddy and her firm, toned legs.
Walk the course just one time and you, too, would gain enormous respect for this woman, who stands just a shade over 5 feet and tips the scales at perhaps double the weight of a bag loaded with clubs.
I pounded the course on the second day behind a portly duffer from New York named Andrew Svoboda. I sensed great potential in him: He had won a Web.com Tour event — the PriceCutter Charity Championship — just a couple weeks earlier, and though he stood at No. 209 in FedEx Cup standings, he logged a -5 on the first day even after perpetrating a double bogey on 14. I thought that if he somehow managed to repeat — or even improve upon — that performance, he might hold on to keep a piece of the lead at the end. Plus, the guy went to St. Johns, and he looks like about half the guys I went to high school with.
But dammit if Svoboda couldn’t pull through for me. He began the day on the back 9 with a bogey on the 10 th ; on 13 he missed a birdie putt by a finger; and took another stroke off his score on the par-5 15 th . But he lost it on 18, and not even the two birdies he hit on the front 9 that day could bring him to respectability on the leaderboard. His Day 3 performance of +4 brought his cumulative score to zero, while I followed Hideki Matsuyama, embedded in the Asian pres corps that had bloomed around him after his -5 performance on Day 2, that included an eagle on the par-5 5 th hole. I jinxed Matsuyama, too — he shot three bogeys on his way to a +1 performance in the intermittent rain.
I latched onto Speith on the last day of the tournament — and then only because I had a feeling that Robert Garrigus, who stood at -8 going into the day, might come alive under the pressure, and Garrigus was paired with Speith and a tour veteran named Bob Estes who hacked his way to -9 over the first three days.
Garrigus never really delivered, but Speith came through with a string of birdies on 12, 13, 15 and 17, a spectacular performance that allowed him to catch up to Reed’s pace-setting -14 and force a playoff hole. They’d both replay 18, and in the event of a tie, go across to 10 and start playing the back 9 all over again until someone came out ahead.
But by then I had just about given up, having walked blisters onto my feet and stretched my legs to their capacity. I was sitting on a lawn chair with the Elks on the 10 th hole when the playoff hole was announced, and I remained there when Speith’s shot went into the trees and landed not 30 yards from where I sat, in a bed of pine straw and out of sight of the green.
Speith knocked his ball back into play, landing it near the creek that bisected the fairway, and from there he popped it onto the green, 27 feet from the cup. Reed, meanwhile, launched his second shot to within 10 feet of the hole. But Reed would miss that shot while Speith drained his long putt to force another hole.
The crowds that lined the 18 th ran across to get a view of the 10 th , where Reed pushed his tee shot onto the boundary’s edge and Speith lined one straight up the middle of the fairway. Things looked grim for Reed, but he punched a 7-iron shot from under the sideline tree canopy right onto the green, just 7 feet away from the pin. It was the most amazing golf shot I have ever seen with my eyes, more satisfying, even, than Reed’s tap-in to win the tournament. I had waited four days and walked more than 20 miles in search of a shot like that.
Then irony, of course, is that I didn’t see anything like it until I sat down and let it come to me.
Golf is a hard game, where failure outpaces success even in the best players and a single bad shot can screw up a whole week. Practice and study can improve one’s score incrementally, over time. The game rewards patience. Even for those covering the action.