Bonus Slaying the Tiger Material: Stadler vs. Watson at the 2014 Phoenix Open

Note: This is a chapter from my book Slaying the Tiger that didn’t make the final cut. Order the book here, and thanks for reading!

 

Kevin Stadler and Bubba Watson at the Phoenix Open; The Lunatics on Hole 16; Graham DeLaet, the Hope of Canada

“Well, if you ever heard about Bubba Watson’s career, you know that I’m in trouble a lot.”
—Bubba Watson, Saturday, Phoenix Open

Standing on the first tee on Sunday at the Phoenix Open, under bright desert skies, Bubba Watson led Kevin Stadler by two strokes.

*

The Sonoran desert landscape in Scotsdale, a Phoenix suburb, is a study in progressive shades of brown, from tan to raw umber, with the occasional wildflower or faded cactus providing a glimpse of color. What green exists is muted, faded. It makes for a ecological shock when you first step on the famous Stadium Course at TPC Scottsdale, the home of the Waste Management Phoenix Open, to find yourself in the midst of a verdant green expanse that wouldn’t be out of place in an Irish pasture.

The unavoidable thought is, “wait…where did they get the water?” (It turns out, they use an irrigation system that takes advantage of reclaimed “effluent water,” which is a euphemism for partially purified waste water from sewage works or factories. Every time you flush a toilet in Phoenix, you’re helping the Stadium Course.)

On a course like this, the sand traps and rough are easy enough to manufacture; just let the desert have its way with the land, as it’s done for centuries. Any spot that doesn’t received a steady supply of water becomes “waste area.” Which doesn’t mean it lacks a certain stark beauty. In late winter, the yellow sunflower-like blooms of the brittlebush and the red flowers of the chuparosa set off the thorny plants; the saguaro cacti and the beavertail and the jumping cholla, and all manner of growing things that can draw blood if you venture too close.

But if you’re content to settle for metaphorical blood—the kind drawn from golfers—you won’t need a cactus. All you’ll need is the 16th hole. The short par three is one of the famous holes in American golf, and it has nothing to do with the layout or the difficulty, neither of which is remarkable. What sets this hole apart is the venue—a fully enclosed stadium, which players enter and exit via tunnels that run beneath the stands—and the gallery, which can best be described as a collection of creative drunks who spend hours making life miserable, through various forms of psychological torture, for each golfer passing through.

The effect for players who emerge from the tunnel and onto the tee box is that of a Roman prisoner entering the Coliseum with his hands shackled, waiting to be torn apart by lions as the rabid spectators jeer. They try to re-create this atmosphere elsewhere on the Tour, most notably at the 17th hole of the Byron Nelson in Dallas, but everyone there is a little too polite, and probably rich, to reach anywhere near the same level of lunacy.

These fans, I’d like to emphasize once more, are very drunk, and very numerous. When the seats are full, there are more than 20,000 of them, and they’re the reason the Waste Management Phoenix Open is shortened in slang to “The Wasted Open.”

When I first saw the hole on Thursday, the stands were buzzing with the kind of alcoholic activity that signifies either a very good party, or a place where a fight is about to break out. I was disappointed on the violence front, but the scene teetered very close to chaos. The fans were hungry for drama, and they could smell weakness. And God forbid anyone spotted an attractive woman. Immediately, as though they operated from a hive mind, the men would begin chanting at her to chug her beer. Some of them loved the attention, but others were plainly uncomfortable and tried to ignore it, at which point they were roundly booed while a well-meaning boyfriend tried to console them.

As golfers addressed their ball, the tense marshals waved thin placards with the word “Quiet!” at the crowd. Unfortunately, the crowd had somehow gotten hold of their own placards and waved them right back as they continued shouting. The volunteers pointed and glared at certain individuals, but their efforts were in vain. At any other hole in golf, a poorly timed whisper or the snap of a cell phone camera can get you kicked off the course. At the 16th at TPC Scottsdale, they’re just praying nobody throws something at a golfer, or decides to take off all their clothes and sprint to the green—which happened in 2010, forcing a security guard to give chase. There’s a video of the grinning streakers making their escape, while the security guard slips on a patch of mud and falls face-first into a barrier. The filmographer, delighted, shouts, “he ate shit!” over and over while promising to upload the video to YouTube. (He was as good as his word.)

For the players themselves, it’s a trial by fire. You can hear the 16th hole from everywhere on the course, like a bad dream you know about well before you have to experience it. As you make your way through the round, it changes from a low hum to a growing clamor, rising in pitch until you emerge from the darkness of the tunnel and are confronted by the roar.

Over the first 15 holes of his opening round, 24-year-old Harris English was on fire. He was 8-under par, leading the tournament, and threatening to open up a significant gap on second place. But when he came to 16, he wanted so badly to hit a good shot in the face of the loud, hostile mass of humanity, that he got caught up in his own adrenaline and fired his shot over the back of the green. Like clockwork, the stadium exploded in a shower of boos. English tilted his head down and made the walk of shame to the hole. In the past, the caddies had a tradition of racing to the hole as the fans cheered them on, and maybe this would have had distracted them. But last year, a caddie named Brent Henley had taken a nasty fall as he approached the green, and though he was relatively unhurt, the PGA had banned the races for safety reasons. Which meant a player like English was all alone to take the brunt of the crowd’s abuse. They booed as he walked down the fairway, they booed when he flubbed his chip shot, and they booed when he missed the long par putt. When he finally tapped in for bogey, any evidence of polite applause was buried in the drunken din.

Behind the green, over the stadium seats and miles to the north, the copper-colored McDowell mountains rise in jagged overlapping triangles. They aren’t exactly inviting—more like barren and stony, like the surface of a lifeless planet—but it’s the only sign that the experience of no. 16 is temporary; that there’s a world outside the stadium, full of grass and open space and ropes that keep the gallery at a safe distance. It must be some solace, because inside the arena, it’s hell. And this is the gauntlet through which every player must pass if they hope to win the Phoenix Open.

*

On Saturday, with no pending work obligations and no Super Bowl parties to keep them away, the fans were in top form. The Phoenix Open attracted a record crowd of 179,000 fans that day, and it seemed like half of them were packed into no. 16. (In reality, it was just over 20,000.) The drinking started early, and it didn’t take long before any sense of decorum evaporated into the dry air. Several distinct groups could me made out—the vagabonds in Vikings jerseys, the lunatics with hard hats and reflector vests, and, farther from the tee, a potentially dangerous group wearing all green. The Vikings group had a chant-leader ready to accost each new golfer. When Nick Watney came through the tunnel, they began chanting “Heidi’s hot! Heidi’s hot!” in reference to Watney’s wife cousin. Watney was a decent sport and began to shake his head, but quickly thought better of it; a reaction of any kind would just make things worse. Some players got the silent treatment, when the fans by the tee box pretended to read newspapers as they hit.

A lone Canadian fan sang his country’s anthem for David Hearn, and was quickly shouted down by the Americans. They made mincemeat of Y.E. Yang, who remains the only golfer to overcome a Tiger Woods 54-hole lead at a major, yet withered beneath the cacophony at 16 and made triple bogey. They sang “Happy Birthday” to Chris Stroud, harassed the standard bearers (kids, mostly) into spinning their signs, and even booed Phil Mickelson. The marshals tried to appease them by giving the golfers gifts to hand out after their tee shot, from shirts to footballs to socks to hats, but it was only so effective. Morgan Hoffmann tried to get them on his side by encouraging them to yell and cheer while he took his tee shot, but when he missed the green, the energy quickly turned negative, and the stadium’s boos cascaded down.

When Bubba Watson came through on Saturday, he was on the verge of a near-meltdown. He’d been in trouble on the entire back nine, but aside from a bogey on no. 10, he kept salvaging par against the odds. He did it again in front of the rabid fans at 16, and went on to birdie 17 and escape from the rough on 18 for another par. He had survived his erratic stretch, and stood at -15 for the tournament, two shots better than Kevin Stadler, and three shots better than Ryan Moore, the two golfers he’d be paired with on Sunday.

The difference between a high-profile major winner like Bubba and a lesser known up-and-comer like 23-year-old Patrick Reed isn’t always easy to see on the course, but it crystalizes when the round is over. Reed, who bogeyed the final hole on Saturday to slip to -8 and far out of contention, marched angrily to the scorer’s tent, signed his card, and stormed out. One reporter from Golf Digest attempted to ask him a question, but Reed, brusque and annoyed, simply huffed “no” and proceeded to the clubhouse. Even Kevin Stadler, just two shots off the lead, faced only a handful of questions before he was free to head home.

That option isn’t available to Bubba. As he entered the scoring tent area, swarms of kids and adults lining the ropes screamed his name. His wife Angie met him in the staging area as the media watched, hugged him, and handed Caleb over. He had a minute with his son before he had to hand him back. The boy cried as Angie tried to explain that daddy would be right back, and Bubba proceeded to sign his scorecard. When he emerged from the trailer, he was met by a reporter from Sirius radio, who conducted a one-on-one interview as 10-15 others hovered in the background. Then they took him around back, followed by the same media retinue, to do a filmed segment with the Golf Channel. When that finished, he was hustled back to the media area, placed in front of a white screen, and asked the same questions while seven different microphones from local television stations were thrust in his face and the lesser reporters boxed him in a hierarchy of semicircles (I was near the back). Finally, PGA Tour officials ushered him inside the media center, where he sat on a podium and faced new iterations of those same questions a fourth time.

Staring out from beneath his Ping visor, he held court in each new venue, trying to put words to the anxiety that was already simmering somewhere on the horizon, and would be blazing hot in less than 24 hours. All the while, somewhere with mother, Caleb was crying for his dad.

When you’re Bubba Watson, there’s no hiding. It wasn’t much of a hassle on Saturday, since he was leading and had dodged bullet after bullet down the stretch. The next day was Super Bowl Sunday, and he’d be playing with Stadler—the 33-year-old son of PGA legend Craig “The Walrus” Stadler, with whom he shares a rubenesque physique—who had never won on Tour, and Ryan Moore, a low-profile 31-year-old who had won three times in the past four seasons, but wasn’t considered a big name. He knew he was in a good position to break the curse of the past two years, but first he had to face the gauntlet of questions about his failures.

“I have to bear down and really not worry about what everyone else is doing,” he said. “Not worry about breathing, not worry about listening to the crowds, people shuffling their feet, phones going off, cameraman in the way…I’ve gotta focus on what I’m doing.”

Bubba has a bad case of rabbit ears, and he’s quick to step away from a shot or shoot a glare at the gallery when even mild distractions arise. It’s not the best trait to have for someone who performs in front of thousands of people on a weekly basis, but it’s not easy for anyone to change their essential nature. The questions kept coming, and the word “focus” stood in as a euphemism for words that golfers hate, and nobody would dare say at a press conference. Words like “meltdown” and “choke.” When the media asked him how he would try to keep his focus, it was a polite way of saying, “are you going to collapse again?”

Could he shut out the slow play on Sunday? “If I could, I’d have a lot more wins than I have,” he quipped. He brought up his triple bogey at the Travelers that followed the public argument between he and his caddie. He called himself a “headcase.” He admitted that he concentrated harder when he was in trouble, and tended to waver when things were going too well.

With each answer, you could see his insecurities shine through. And while he made attempts to be diplomatic and measured and to recite bland talking points like every other golfer (“give it 100 percent, and if it turns out, it turns out”), it wasn’t long before his reactive, self-deprecating disposition returned. Finally, after yet another question about his mental game, he gave his bluntest answer of the whole press conference:

“You’re either going to embarrass yourself on national television, or you’re going to have to man up.”

*

On Super Bowl Sunday, Ryan Moore’s young son was dressed all in Seahawks garb. Kevin Stadler, who showed up just an hour before the round began, wore an orange shirt and had a Broncos head cover on his driver. Bubba, the neutral party, was dressed in black from head to toe, topped off by his black Ping visor. Maybe it was a color designed to intimidate, Tiger-style, but mental intimidation isn’t Bubba’s style; he just out-hits everyone off the tee.

Throughout the final round, he was always past his playing partners, sometimes by 40 yards or more. He didn’t need to mess with anyone else’s head—he just needed to control his own. And with a two-stroke lead on Stadler, his hope was that he could put more distance between them over the front nine and then survive any charges from outside the final group.

Instead, Stadler came out and birdied the first three holes. He knew he needed a hot start to light a fire under Bubba—“he’s the one kind of player I wouldn’t want to chase down out there, because with his length, he can rip the place apart”—and the man who had never won a tournament was starting out like the seasoned veteran. Bubba answered with a birdie of his own on the third, but by then his cushion was a memory, and they were tied.

This would be no easy coronation. He retook the lead with birdie on the fourth, but starting on the fifth hole, his putting grew tentative, and ball after ball died short of the hole. On no. 9, after walloping a 328-yard drive down the right side of the fairway, Bubba turned around and watched Stadler his hit approach shot to within four feet. Until the ninth hole, Bubba had hit every fairway off the tee and all eight greens in regulation, but this time his approach shot missed. He failed to go up and down, and when Stadler holed his birdie putt, it was the dreaded two-shot swing. For the first time since Saturday, Bubba found himself trailing.

Meanwhile, the pace of play had slowed to a crawl. In the winter west coast swing, the Tour groups players in threesomes in order to speed the action up and beat the early sunset. The situation was even more urgent in Phoenix, because the last thing anyone wanted was for the tournament’s finish to compete with the biggest televised sporting event in the country—even a Tiger/Mickelson duel stood no chance against the Super Bowl, so the plan was to finish well before kickoff.

Some players deal with this situation better than others, and Bubba Watson is not one of those players. He can’t relax during delays, and has a habit of staring at the players head, almost willing them off the hole, while complaining the entire time. Stadler didn’t love waiting, but as he’d admit later, he knew it bothered Bubba more. Like it or not, it was an advantage.

Heading to the back nine, everybody knew the question that would define the afternoon: Could Bubba control his driver? He started off well, hitting the fairways on 10, 11, and 13, and making par after par. On 11, after missing a birdie putt that he thought was down, Stadler hit his tee shot into practically the same bush he’d found the day before, and was forced to take an unplayable lie and a penalty. He found the green on his next shot, but a three-putt gave him a double bogey.

“For some reason I had no feel for the par putt,” he said later. “I was completely uncomfortable, and it just bubbled up out of nowhere.”

In Ponte Vedra, FL, Craig Stadler had just returned from South America and was watching by himself, downstairs, as his son made a run at his first win. The relationship between the two had become complicated since Craig and Kevin’s mother Sue divorced in 2006, and Kevin has admitted that they aren’t as close as they once were; neither Kevin nor his brother attended the wedding when Craig remarried. Like any son of a famous father, he’s also spent a considerable amount of time trying to forge his own identity—as Sports Illustrated’s Cameron Morfit noted in April, Kevin hates the nickname “Smallrus” he was given as an homage to his old man. Kevin is close with his mother, and had become alienated from his dad for long stretches since the separation.

Still, Craig loved his son, and desperately wanted him to win his first PGA Tour event. When guests began filtering in for a Super Bowl party and got too loud, he escaped upstairs to his bedroom and closed the door. Soon after, Kevin made his double bogey, and the father’s superstitions took over.

“It was kind of like a Bud Lite commercial,” he said. “It’s only weird if it doesn’t work. So he made double and I said, ‘I’m outta here.’”

It was back downstairs for Craig while Kevin moved on to the 12th hole with a whole new perspective on the tournament. He had allowed himself to believe it was a two or three-man show at that point, but the double bogey didn’t just give Bubba his lead back—it brought five or six others into the mix. Oddly enough, the double had a calming effect on Stadler, who was battling nerves from the ninth hole on. It took the thought of winning out of his mind, and forced him to consider the round—lots of golf left, lots of birdie holes to come.

With two par-fives ahead, Bubba seemed to have a significant advantage. But he missed the green with his second shot on the 13th, and hit his drive into the water on the 15th, sacrificing a significant length advantage and making par on both. With a clear edge on 15, Stadler hit a good drive and waited for the group on the tee ahead to clear off. They waited a long time, and the wind, to Stadler’s annoyance, kept flip-flopping. One moment it would be quartering down, in his face, and the next it would quarter up and become a helping wind. He and his caddie finally had to go on the best data they had; the wind would help them, and four-iron was the club. Luck was against him—the wind came back in his face after he hit, and he caught it just a fraction thin. Still, he felt like he’d hit a decent shot, and was flabbergasted when it landed in the water.

In Ponte Vedra, his father excused himself from the gathering, went out on the deck, made sure he was alone, and screamed, “FUCK!” as loud as he could. Then he returned to the living room.

Kevin wasn’t fazed. He had retained his sense of calm after the double bogey, and simply went to the drop area, hit a good wedge to the green, and sunk the seven-foot par putt. Good thing, too, because in the back of his mind he had the feeling that if he bogeyed the hole, he could never win.

Bubba rescued par on 15 as well, and as they finished the hole, the hum from across the footbridge had become a roar. They marched across the creek and through the tunnel, where the ravenous fans in the stadium waited for the last golfers they’d see in 2014. Bubba led by a shot.

*

Around the course, Watson’s stagnant play invited outside challengers. Ryan Moore strung three straight bogeys together on the front nine to take himself out of contention, but Hunter Mahan, who began the day four strokes off the lead at -11, caught fire on the back nine, making birdies on 13, 15, and inside the cauldron on 16. The 17th, a drive-able par-4, would give him the chance to tie for the lead. But with a win in site, Mahan hit his tee shot into a fairway bunker, and ended up taking a bogey five. A par on the last hole left him at -14.

Graham DeLaet, a Canadian who had never won on the PGA Tour but had already registered four top tens in the 2014 season, came into the 14th hole at -5 for the day and -14 for the tournament. He dropped his iron shot less than five feet from the pin, but he missed the birdie putt, and despite the thick beard and sunglasses covering his face, you could sense the rage emanating from his body. When he put his tee shot on 15 into the water and made bogey to drop to -13, it felt like his tournament was over. But a birdie-birdie finish dropped him to -15, and made him the leader in the clubhouse.

When Ontario native Mike Weir won the Masters in 2003, some thought it would spark a golfing boom in Canada. It never fully transpired, and today DeLaet is one of the few Canadians to play on the PGA Tour. But even within that underrepresented set, DeLaet’s story is unique. Most high-level Canadian golfers, like Weir, come from Ontario, with its higher population density and more extensive youth sports system. DeLaet, on the other hand, hails from the sticks—Saskatchewan, to be precise.

As a young child in Moose Jaw—a small city surrounded by farmland about 100 miles north of the Montana boarder—DeLaet would hit balls at the Hillcrest Golf Club as part of a junior golf program. His parents both grew up on farms and were just a generation removed from that life— his father owned a Chevrolet dealership, his mother was a letter carrier for Canada Post—and even though DeLaet was raised in a bigger town, it still retained an agricultural feel. When he was seven, the family moved two hours southeast to Weyburn, a smaller town with just over 10,000 residents. There, he began to play more and more golf with his parents, though he still split his time evenly between golf and hockey. By the time he was 13, his parents would drop him off at the course by 7am, and he’d stay with his friends until it grew dark, usually managing to get 54 holes in before the sun set. He started playing local tournaments at age 14, and though he enjoyed the competition, he wasn’t good enough at that point to even think about a professional career.

“I won some tournaments in Saskatchewan,” he remembered, “but there’s only a million people in that province so there wasn’t a ton of competition compared to growing up in Ontario or British Columbia or even Alberta where there’s a lot more kids. People don’t come from Saskatchewan and make the PGA Tour.”

DeLaet was good enough to head to the states for college, though, and in his first year at Boise State, he discovered, to his surprise, that his game stacked up well. The sport took on a new light for him. He began to compete with, and beat, teammates who were turning professional the next year. Success begat success, and spurred him on to work harder and harder at his game. His coach, Kevin Burton, told him that he had the ability to make the Tour, but emphasized that hard work and sacrifice were almost more important than talent.

DeLaet put in the time, and though his school work suffered, his social life did not. He liked to party, and between that and the hours he put in on the course, there was very little time for school. He did well enough to graduate with a PhysEd degree in 2006, and his first move was to turn pro and make his way to the Canadian Tour (now called PGA Tour Canada). The travel put a strain on his relationship with his girlfriend Ruby, but he knew that was part of the deal too, and he stuck it out. He lived out of the trunk of his car the first year, and towards the end of his second season, he was nearly broke. He had enough money for two more events, and after a three-week break drained even more of his resources, he headed to the Desjardins Montreal Open needing a high finish. Like most aspiring golfers, DeLaet had received financial support from a few sources, including his parents and a friend of Kevin Burton’s named Mark Hedge, who worked in a Las Vegas engineering firm. That stake helped him through a year and change on the Canadian Tour, but now the money was gone. He was in a pinch—he didn’t want to quit, but he didn’t have the means to keep going.

In Montreal, facing a future he would have preferred not to consider, DeLaet got his high finish and then some—he won outright. It changed his career, and he finished the year with a flurry of second place finishes. His financial concerns were in the rearview, at least for the time being.

His high finish on the money list in 2008 earned him full status on the South African Sunshine Tour in 2009, and though the potential rewards of actually using the status were nebulous, he decided to take a risk and travel down on his own to play a series of tournaments. He didn’t know the country, or anybody in it, and he had to wing it, handling all the logistics on his own. His golf, though, didn’t suffer. He earned a second place finish in two February events, and returned in October to win the BMG Championship. In at least one event, he was paired with Charl Schwartzel, who impressed him so much that on his return, he told anyone who would listen to watch out for this young guy from South Africa. Two years later, Schwartzel won the Masters.

Some of the events he played were co-sanctioned with the European Tour, and he met players like Retief Goosen, Angel Cabrera, and Darren Clarke during his trip. The fact that he beat most of them added fuel to his confidence. Back in Canada, he won in Alberta and Manitoba on his way to finishing 2009 as the best golfer in the country and winning the order of merit.

Now 26, he knew enough to avoid a fate he’d seen in others—becoming so comfortable playing a mini tour that it stalled out his career. Even though he’d played only five events, he earned enough money to make the final stage of the European Tour qualifying tournament (“Q-School,” colloquially) and decided that he’d give it a shot. First, though, he’d take his chances at the PGA Tour Q-School in December. As it happened, he made it through every stage and earned his card for 2010, and never made it overseas. To this day, he wonders how his career would be different if he had failed in the U.S. and taken the European route instead.

The biggest obstacle early on was the intimidation he felt at competing against players he’d admired for years.

“You’ve watched these guys win majors and Ryder Cups,” he said, “and all the sudden you’ve got to beat them. And you’ve been playing at the Mini Tour level for the past few years, so it’s really hard to believe in yourself.”

He kept his card by a sliver in 2010, earning $954,011 and finishing 100th on the money list, clear of the cut-off at position 125. After enduring six straight stretching from January to March, he finished 24th at Puerto Rico. The next week, he scored his best finish of the year, a tie for third at the Houston Open. When Zach Johnson introduced himself at Hilton Head a couple weeks later and complimented his play, DeLaet felt like he truly belonged for the first time. It meant so much to him that he now makes a point to pay it forward and compliment rookies who play well, or who just look lonely.

Just when life was beginning to stabilize, though, a back injury derailed his career and threatened to end it entirely. It got so bad toward the end of his season that he lost feeling in his toes and experienced almost constant pain in his back and right leg. On Jan. 3, 2011, he underwent a microdisectomy—the same surgery Tiger Woods would need in 2014.

It was successful, but the path to recovery was so long and difficult that DeLaet began to lose heart. He felt sorry for himself, and would sit around the house sulking. Ruby, now his wife, did her best to motivate him, but it was almost a month before DeLaet broke out of his funk and dedicated himself to making it back. He began by taking short walks around the house, and it was four months before he could even hit a golf ball. It took him a full year to recover, and even now he concedes that he’ll never have full health again. During that year, he often thought of what he’d do without professional golf, and thought maybe he’d train young Canadian golfers and try to increase their presence in the American professional ranks.

By 2012, though, his rehab was complete and he was back on the PGA Tour. He finished with three top tens, missed just six cuts in 23 events, and earned more than $1,000,000 for the first time in his career. The next season was even better, with DeLaet earning $2.8 million and finishing eighth in the FedEx Cup standings. With seven top tens in 2013 alone and a career-best tie for second at the Barclays—a big money FedEx Cup playoff event—he was now indisputably one of the best players on Tour without a win. Which, as Briny Baird can testify, is a bittersweet place to be.

“I’ve been one stroke out of a playoff four times now,” he said, “but I truly believe it’s going to happen. There’s a lot of people, including Tour players, who have come up to me and told me the same thing: ‘It’s only a matter of time, bud. Your time’s coming. Don’t sweat it.’

Coming into 2014, with his game as sharp as it had ever been, DeLaet decided to keep the Christmas beard he grew every year. It quickly became a trademark, and when a friend told him that now he could never shave, DeLaet began to dread the 110 degree days that would face him in the summer. He also dreaded being recognized in public, an increasing problem, especially in Canada, as his career took off (he now lives in Idaho). DeLaet loves his country, though, and gets a kick out of carrying the flag.

The week before Phoenix, DeLaet finished tied for second at the Farmers Insurance Open, missing out on a win by a single stroke. Now, in Phoenix, here he was again, closing with five birdies on the back nine to finish at -15. The only blemish was a bogey on 15 after he drove the ball in the water. He knew he was in contention, and he greeted the mistake, as he often did, with rage. Later in the year, at the WGC-Bridgestone, when poor putting had soured DeLaet’s season, I’d come face to face with this anger. After a bad second round, he came off the course slamming his clubs and kicking his bag, a hurricane of fury. I made the choice not to talk to him, but TV wanted him, and he composed himself enough to give a series of calm answers. The performance was so convincing that when the camera left, I thought it might be okay to ask him a question about the psychological aspects of missing several drives in a row.

I was wrong. He stared at me when I finished, and his eyes were hard and cold. It felt very much like he was about to yell at me. Instead, in a strained whisper, he said, “I don’t know,” and turned way.

*

Only one man on the course was in front of DeLaet, and that man was being harassed by the frenzied alcoholics on 16. Bubba’s rabbit ears were perked, but silence was a pipe dream here, and he had to press on. Distracted, nervous, or just unlucky, Bubba put his iron shot into the front left bunker. Boos rained down, and though his shot from the sand rolled to a stop six feet from the pin, the boos came again when his par putt slid by the left side. Stadler, who hated the 16th for the first half decade of his career, had lately come to terms with what he called the “mob mentality.” It faded to white noise for him, he made par, and now he and Watson were tied with each other and DeLaet.

Bubba needed a big recovery on the 17th, a short par-4. He and Stadler both drove the green, and faced 90-foot eagle putts. Bubba’s effort was poor, stopping 18 feet from the pin, but Stadler lagged it to five feet. Facing the loss of his lead, Bubba stared down his long birdie putt and dropped it in the center of the pin. He pumped his fist and shouted, with triumph and relief, and turned to his opponent. Stadler hunched over his putt, trying not to shake, and rolled it into the center of the hole. There was no fist pump from him, just a façade of calm hiding the return of his nerves. In the clubhouse, with two players now ahead of him and standing on the 18th tee, DeLaet was forced to reckon with the reality of another narrow miss.

As they walked to 18, David Feherty met them behind a grandstand, and the players laughed with him, trying to shake off the pressure. Their drives on 18 would be everything, but they were forced to wait at the tee again, liked they’d been waiting all day. And while Stadler had looked relaxed, popping a ball up to himself with his club, Bubba stared down the fairway, waiting for the chance to hit. You could see the delays slowly drive him crazy.

A blue heron flew across the water on the left side of the fairway, and Stadler stepped up first. His drive was a parabolic beauty, soaring across the hazard and coming to rest in the middle of the fairway, 314 yards from the tee. Under the circumstances, it wasn’t an exaggeration to call it the shot of the tournament. Stadler considered it the best drive he’s ever hit, and the adrenaline juiced his swing to the point that the ball sailed well past where he’d ever hit it on that hole before.

Bubba was next, facing his old familiar demon—the drive under pressure. He steadied himself, drew the club back, and swing with his usual violence. And immediately, from his body language, you could see resignation. He’d pushed it again. The ball ended up traveling 335 yards, but it came to rest in the right rough at a difficult approach angle.

Bubba being Bubba, he eyed the pin—it was Bubba Golf or nothing. He knew Stadler would probably put his approach close, so he took direct aim…and sailed it over the green. From the fairway, Stadler hit his approach to within ten feet, drawing roars from the gallery, still densely packed and thousands strong even with the Super Bowl kickoff an hour way. The pressure was squarely on Bubba.

Again, he moved the gallery out of the way, and that’s when something caught his attention on the fairway—a group of men wearing velvet half-robes. These were the Thunderbirds, a community group consisting mostly of old men who ran the event. They had walked up the 18th fairway, hundreds of yards away, but apparently they were in his line of sight. The marshals ushered them away as the crowd grumbled and booed at Watson’s delay. Bubba didn’t care. He stepped back from his ball, and approached again. He chipped up the hill, and the shot was good; five feet left.

It left Stadler a 12-foot birdie putt to win his first ever PGA Tour tournament. He read the putt as a right-to-left breaker, but it was wrong all the way. The ball went dead straight, and amid the groans of the crowd, he tapped in for par.

Bubba still had a chance to make his five-foot putt and force a playoff. He discussed the shot with his caddie, studied the green, and stood over the ball. Again, he backed away to compose himself. A complete hush fell over the Phoenix crowd, which had barely been silent all week. After all his mistakes, after every missed opportunity, Bubba could still salvage a win.

He drew his putter back, struck the ball, and watched it begin the short journey to the hole. He had read it to break slightly right, and as it trickled on, he prayed for it to make the turn.

It stayed left. Bubba stood up ramrod straight, angry, and gestured at Ted Scott. The display wasn’t as dramatic as the summer before at the Travelers, but again, it looked like there was an element of blame. As he controlled himself and went to make his tap-in, a television cameraman swooped into his line of view on the fringe. Bubba stopped, glared, and looked like he might yell. It was quintessential Bubba—defensive as hell, desperately needing some cosmic injustice to explain the error.

*

Bubba tapped in for his bogey, and the scene from the day before played out. He headed for the scoring trailer, took Caleb in his arms, and watched him cry when he handed him back to his mother. He tried to suppress the emotions of losing. He spoke about what the money meant for his family, and uttered platitudes about how lucky he was to play golf for a living. He congratulated Stadler. He let some bitterness creep into his voice when he talked about how he needed to adjust to waiting around between holes—another subtle dig at the PGA Tour, the subtext of which was standard for Bubba: It wasn’t his fault. He was a victim.

In Ponte Vedra, Craig Stadler let his pride spill over. He spoke with Kevin, who told him he regretted missing the putt. Craig talked him off that line—you started the week out with the goal of being better than every other golfer, and you did it. Period.

For Kevin, the changes were subtle. The win felt like a validation of his career, and it made him quietly more comfortable on the course. Mistakes were never as critical again that year, because whatever else happened, he was a winner. For about a week, he was on cloud nine, replaying the back nine his head and feeling the slightest twinge of regret that he didn’t hit the winning birdie putt. Deep down, though, he knew who he was, and who he had always been, and the simple fact of winning didn’t change very much at all.

After he finished his media obligations, he returned to his home just a few blocks from the course. He hung out with a few friends, thought about the day, and watched his Broncos get slaughtered by the Seahawks.

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PGA Fantasy Rules

Hey—a few people have asked how we run the world’s most complicated fantasy league. Be careful what you wish for…these are the league’s official rules for the 2016 season. It might be easier just to read Moby Dick.

NOTE: Gotta mention this up top. A member of our league, affectionately known as Cellraiser, has created a brilliant spreadsheet that actually links up to an online scoreboard and updates scores, points, and standings automatically. I have no idea how it works, but I do know that without it, running this league would be impossible (or at least wayyyy more time-consuming). I don’t want to sound discouraging, but the spreadsheet allows us to track how we’re doing minute by minute, and saves so much leg work, that it’s hard to imagine how any of this would work or be any fun without it.

THE RULES: 2016 EDITION

Scoring: Each week, by Wednesday at midnight, every team will set its roster on the official spreadsheet. This is a simple process: Activate seven players from a roster of ten that will be eligible to score that week (there are active, inactive, and bench spots on the pool spreadsheet that are easy to operate). Of a team’s seven active golfers, the four best scores will count each week. The combined score of the four players when the tournament is over is that team’s score for that week. So if your final four is Spieth (-2), Rory (-5), Fowler (-7), and Day (-10), your score for the week is -24. Great work! And great job with the draft.

At the end of each week’s tournament, we’ll have a final leaderboard. Your points for that week will be assigned based on your finish. For a normal PGA Tour event, the points will go from 12 (first place) to 1 (last place). For the Players Championship, it will go from 24 points (first place) to 2 points (last place). For the majors, it will go from 36 points (first place) to 3 points (last place). Each week, there will also be a bonus for a team win, either 2 points (regular event), 4 points (Players), or 6 points (major). In weeks with a WGC event, the scoreboard will be divided, and the WGC event will go from 18 points down to 1.5, while the concurrent Off-WGC PGA Tour event will go from 6 down to 0.5. Team winner bonuses will be 3 points for a WGC, and 1 point for the Off-WGC event.

Points accumulate throughout the season, and the three teams with the most points make the podium, while the winner earns the title of regular season champion and takes home the St. Andrews Quaich—the most coveted prize in the league.

Cut Penalty: If you don’t have at least four players make the cut on a given weekend, your score for those empty spots will be the worst final score in the field among players who did make the cut, plus a five-stroke penalty. If you don’t have seven players eligible for a tournament, that’s fine, you’ll just have to start your best six (or five, or four) and ride with them. If you don’t have four players starting a tournament, your fourth (nonexistent) player gets that same penalty. To add and/or bench players on a week-to-week basis, see the “Waiver Wire” and “Bench” sections.

MDF Penalty: If one or more of your top four players falls prey to the secondary cut (MDF = made cut, did not finish), the penalty is the highest final score among any player who made the cut, plus two penalty strokes.

Withdrawals: If a player withdraws at any point before his second round begins (note that this includes Friday morning, unlike last year), you have a one-time free pass to substitute a new player from the inactive spots on your roster (players on the bench are not eligible). If the player withdraws after he has started his second round, it’s like getting cut, no substitutes allowed.

Ties: In the case of a tie in the standings, points will be split between the teams tied, the same way prize money would be split in a normal event.

Player Win Bonus: Along with the bonus for earning a team win (+2, +4, or +6, depending on the tournament), there will be an individual champion bonus. If a player on your active roster wins a tournament, you get a bonus—+2 in a normal event, +4 at the Players Championship, or +6 at a major—along with 3 points at a WGC event, and 1 point at the Off-WGC PGA Tour events.

Player Top Three Bonus: We’ll be rewarding teams with player who finish in the top three. One point in a normal event, two at the Players, three at a major—along with 1.5 at a WGC, and 0.5 at a PGA Tour events opposite a WGC. Ties included.

Points diagram:

Team no. 1 Points Team no. 12 Points Team Winner Bonus Player Winner Bonus Player Top-3Bonus
Major 36 3 6 6 3
Players 24 2 4 4 2
WGC 18 1.5 3 3 1.5
Regular 12 1 2 2 1
Off-WGC 6 0.5 1 1 0.5

Combination Weeks: When WGC events occur simultaneously with off-WGC PGA Tour events, each team’s roster will be 12-strong, as the two bench spots will be opened up and made active for the week. It is up to each team how they want to load the roster, but in the WGC events, there are no cuts, so as long as a team starts four players, they won’t suffer a penalty. In the Off-WGC event, only the top three players will count toward the team’s score, rather than the top four. A cut penalty will apply. Because the benches are open for these events, two-week waiting periods are waived, and teams will reset their benches after the event, at which point the two-week waiting period begins anew (see bench rules below).

Special Events: Occasionally, throughout the year, there are non-standard events. The rules for those events will be clarified here.

The WGC Match Play Championship:

1. Every golfer, regardless of how far they advance, gets 1 point for each round robin victory.
2. Golfers who make the Sweet 16 and are eliminated get 2 points.
3. Golfers who make the Elite 8 and are eliminated get 4 points.
4. The golfer who finishes fourth gets 8 points
5. The golfer who finishes third (there’s a consolation match) gets 10 points.
7. The golfer who finishes second gets 13 points.
8. The champion gets 16 points.
9. Note that a golfer doesn’t accumulate points as he advances. So the champion will get 16 points ONLY, not 2+4+8+16. This is for balance.
10. As usual, you can have up to seven golfers in the field, but only your top 4 count.
11. Each team’s points will be tallied, and then we’ll assign scoreboard points in order from 18 down to 1.5, like a normal WGC.
12. The usual team and player bonuses apply.
13. A player who loses all 3 group stage matches gets a -1 penalty. Same goes for any team with fewer than four players…-1 for each open spot. This is a substitute for the cut penalty.

The Olympics

 This is an Olympic year, and the Rio tournament runs simultaneously with the John Deere Classic, which is a normal PGA Tour event. The scoring for the Olympic games will go as follows:

Gold Medal: Team with the gold medalist is awarded 15 points
Silver Medal: Team with the silver medalist is awarded 10 points
Bronze Medal: Team with the bronze medalist is awarded 5 points

The catch here is that the player must be on your roster in one of the seven active spots, which of course takes one player away from the John Deere lineup. Not coincidentally, the John Deere also hosts the semifinals of the PGA Cup in 2016.

Draft: A live draft, held in an online chat room, will determine the initial rosters of all 12 teams. The draft order will be randomized (this is set to change in 2017, when a yet-to-be-determined weighted system will be employed). Any team that can’t send at least one representative to the draft may submit a preference list. A team that has no representative and no preference list will automatically draft the highest available player from the 2014-15 PGA Tour money list. Each team will draft ten players, leaving two bench spots open. At the draft, each team will have one minute to make a selection, at which point, if no selection is made, the team will again receive the highest available player from the 2014-15 PGA Tour money list.

Playoffs: The “regular season” will end after the Wyndham Championship in Greensboro in late August. That gives us about 30+ events in 29 weeks, three WGC events, and all four majors. The playoffs will be the same as the playoffs on the PGA Tour- the FedEx Cup. The eight top players in the standings will advance to the quarterfinals (the Barclays), the top four that week will move on to the semifinals (Deutsche Bank), and the two best will square off in the BMW Championship for the title. In the playoffs, there will be no team or player win bonuses—only the head-to-head score counts. For the Barclays and Deustche bank, the best four players will count as usual, but in the BMW Championship, due to the smaller field, each team will start a maximum of six players, and only the top three will count.

Playoff Ties: The highest individual player determines the winner. If this is also a tie, the second-highest player prevails, and then the third. In the unlikely case that the top three are all tied, the higher regular season seed advances.

The Waiver Wire: You may find that you need an extra player for a certain tournament, or just that there’s a hot player that’s not on a roster, and you’d like him to be on your roster. You have all day Monday to email me (or the acting commish, whoever it may be) the player you want to pick up. The waiver order for week one will be the reverse order of the draft. When you make a waiver acquisition on Monday, you go to the bottom of the list. The waiver order will apply only to Monday transactions. Once Tuesday rolls around, transactions work on a first come, first served basis, until the waiver wire closes Wednesday at midnight. Transactions on Tuesday or Wednesday don’t affect your standing on the following week’s waiver wire. If you add someone from the waiver wire, this obviously means you have to drop someone from your roster, who then becomes free game for others. You must note the player you’ll be dropping or benching in your request email to the commissioner.

Example Request:

1. Add Michael Putnam, drop Rory McIlroy
2. Add David Lingmerth, bench Jordan Spieth

The Bench: You have two bench spots. This is your 11th and 12th roster spot, and you can move a player there at any point. This is one way to clear a roster spot for someone you pick up off waivers. However, there is a bench penalty—once you bench a player, he is sidelined for two weeks. That’s two tournaments before you can move him back to your regular roster. You can still drop the bench player at any point into the waiver pool, but you can’t put him back on your own roster until the bench period is over. As with all other transactions, you can only bench a player officially Monday through Wednesday. (See the bench exception above in the “Combination Weeks” section.)

Clarification on the Bench Rule: Additionally, you can’t acquire a player from the free agent/waiver field without an open, non-bench roster spot. In other words, if you want to pick up Anthony Kim, but your roster is full of 10 golfers, you can’t simply take Kim and stick him on the bench. You can move someone from your roster to the bench and then add Kim, but the bench doesn’t count as an “open” roster spot for free agents.

The Keeper Bench Spot: If you want to keep a player who has spent at least eight weeks on your roster, you may use a one-time only keeper bench spot to free up roster space without releasing the player. Effectively, this is your 13th bench spot. This sidelines the player permanently, with no exceptions, for the rest of the season. It also locks him in as a keeper for the following season, which comes with obvious risks in terms of offseason injuries or other acts of fate.

The Keeper Rule (New for 2016): You may keep up to two players each year, under the following circumstances:

1. The player was not drafted in the first three rounds.

AND

2. EITHER
The player was drafted by your team, and finished the year on your roster (it doesn’t matter if the player was off the team at any point).OR

The player finished the year on your team, and you had him on your roster for at least eight weeks of the regular season, even though you didn’t draft him.

In order to keep a player, you will sacrifice the same pick in your draft from the round in which the player was originally selected. If a player was a fifth-round pick, for example, he will count as your fifth-round pick the following year, when you keep him. If you decide to keep a player that wasn’t drafted the previous year, that will count as your tenth-round pick.

If you want to keep two players who were drafted in the same round, you will sacrifice your pick for that round and the round above. Example: Both of your keepers were drafted in the fourth round in 2016. They will count as your picks for the third and fourth rounds in 2017. If you want to keep a player for a second consecutive year, the round of the pick that you sacrifice will go up by one. It will continue going up by one round each year, until the sacrificed pick reaches the second round, at which point the player goes back to the general pool. You can never sacrifice a second-round pick for a keeper. (Note: If a team keeps two fourth-round picks one year, sacrificing the third and fourth pick, they cannot keep both picks the following year, since it would require giving up a second-round pick.)

Keepers must be locked in a week before the draft with the league commissioner. These keepers will be announced to the league immediately, and during the ensuing week, both picks and keepers can be traded between teams.

Trades: Trades are permitted. They can be 1-for-1 or multi-player deals. The trades can be imbalanced numbers-wise, with 3-for-1-type deals. Be aware, though, that if you’re the team receiving more players, you may also have to drop or bench players to make room on your roster. Like the waiver wire, trades must take place Monday-Wednesday. Obviously you’re free to discuss them at any point, but they can only be executed on non-golf days. To ensure people trade in good faith, we have a 7/12 approval system. If six teams feel the trade is imbalanced or shady, it gets rejected. The length of the review period is not defined, and in extreme cases—for example, a Wednesday 11 p.m. transaction—a trade can be frozen in order to hold a vote. In cases like these, if a trade is approved, the teams can retroactively start the players for that week’s tournament, even if the tournament is already underway. Note that this has never happened in league history.

Trade Deadline: The Wednesday of the PGA Championship week is the final day before the midnight trade deadline. Afterward, you may still acquire and drop players, but any players dropped from any roster will not be eligible to be acquired by another team for the rest of the season. In other words, the acquisition pool is reduced to players that were not on any roster after that Wednesday.

Initial Waiver: After we draft, there will be no waiver activity before the first event. We’ll start up the first waiver wire, based on reverse draft order, on the Monday following the first tournament.

Roster Note: If you fail to set your roster before the players tee off on Thursday, it works just like any computerized fantasy league—you play with the roster from your previous week.

Money Payout: We have $1,800 total, so here’s how it’ll look:

$450 – Regular Season champion
$300 – Regular season second place
$150 – Regular season third place

$300 – Playoff champion
$150 – Playoff second place

$300 – PGA Cup winner
$150 – PGA Cup finalist

Democratic Socialist Tax, aka The Bernie Sanders Fine: If either the regular season champ, the regular season runner-up, the playoff champ, or the PGA Cup winner also wins another $300 prize, we’re taxing them at a rate of 50% for all money earned over $300 (or over $450 for the regular season champion). The taxed money will go in $75 increments, as available, to a team that has not won any other money, using this priority order: Regular season fourth place, playoffs third place, PGA Cup third place, regular season fifth place, playoffs fourth place, PGA Cup fourth place.

Cheaters: Anyone caught cheating forfeits their entry fee and will be booted from the pool.

THE PGA CUP: Back for a second year by popular demand, we will be holding a year-long Cup competition that runs during the season, to add some head-to-head spice while we’re competing in the the normal rotisserie style race for the league title and the elimination playoffs. The PGA Cup will be contested during normal golf weeks, where normal points are earned. It just happens that in a given week, you’ll also be matched up against another team in a year-long Cup competition. The format:

1. All 12 teams get placed into 3 random groups of teams. The first 3 weeks of the PGA Cup will feature round robin matches within the group, with all teams within the group squaring off once.

2. Based on the way the groups finish, every team is then re-sorted into three new groups.

Group A: Three first place-finishers in the groups, plus the best runner-up.
Group B: Two other runners-up plus the two best third-place finishers.
Group C: Last third place, all fourth-placers.

Again, there will be three weeks of round robin matches within the groups to sort out positions.

3. The bracket. The format for the Cup bracket can be viewed below. The basic gist is that ten teams make the bracket, but there are huge advantages for the best finishers in the best groups. The notation is easy: A1 = first place finisher in group A from the second round, C2 = second place in group C, etc.

There will be 11 weeks of Cup matches. The featured tournaments will be (playoffs in italics):

Northern Trust Open, Valspar Championship, Houston Open, RBC Heritage, Zurich Classic, Byron Nelson, Memorial, Quicken Loans National, Canadian Open, John Deere Classic, Barclays.

Here’s the bracket:

The Hunt for the Quaich begins at the Phoenix Open. Good luck,

—Shane

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Test

Live Blog PGA Fantasy Draft
 

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Friends of Tiger, SEASON TWO! Episode 2.01 — Luke Kerr-Dineen of USA Today

2016 IS HERE! After the longest hiatus in podcast history, Friends of Tiger is back! And who else would kick off our second season but the man with the most appearances in podcast history, For The Win’s Luke Kerr-Dineen! Luke and I are on the eve of our fantasy golf draft, and we’re struggling over the hard questions: Rory or Jordan with the first pick? Is Day a legit third pick, or is he going to fade? Who are the sleepers that might slip to the later rounds? We scope out the world of professional golf, from the high-flyers to the grinders to the question marks, and preview the year to come. It’s always SUCH A PLEASURE to jam with Luke, and he even earned an official Friends of Tiger nickname. But how are you ever going to know what it is unless you listen?!?!! DO IT!!!

For more stories from the PGA Tour, order my book, Slaying the Tiger, here.

 We’re on iTunes now, mister. Subscribe to ‘Friends of Tiger’ here.

Download the mp3 of this episode here.

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Golf will be ruined if players are allowed to wear shorts

It was a busy weekend for golf, with Rickie Fowler winning at Abu Dhabi and Jason Dufner coming through at La Quinta. But I don’t want to talk about those men, or their silly little victories. Instead, I want to address the absolute unforgivable outrage that transpired before tournament play even began. Maybe you’ve heard the shocking news already—at the Abu Dhabi pro-am on Wednesday, golfers were allowed to wear shorts.

Yes, you read that right. No, this isn’t the latest script for “Space Wars,” or whatever trashy blockbuster film is playing at your local nickelodeon. This is real life, and Shorts-Gate is the latest bright idea from that oh-so-special class of self-adoring wunderkinds that call themselves “millennials.” It’s true: Professional golfers, who are supposed to be role models for the rich children of America, were flouncing around in the United Arab Emirates wearing short pants.

Now, I don’t consider myself a “sensitive” soul. I don’t have a closet full of participation trophies, and I don’t go around spouting PC terms like “privilege” and “micro-aggressions” and “free elections.” Most people who know me will tell you that I’m a hard-boiled man’s man in the tradition of John Wayne and Dennis Kucinich. But I’m not ashamed to admit that the minute I heard this news, I fell to the floor in tears, started moaning, blacked out, and woke up seven hours later in a Costco parking lot surrounded by empty gasoline cans and a loyal sidekick who referred to me as “Professor Fuego.”

Truth is, I haven’t seen anything this offensive since Elvis Presley was swirling his hips for packs of screaming girls. At least the TV execs in those days had the good sense to film him from the waist up and spare the nation a disgusting carnal exhibition. But then, those execs belonged to the greatest generation. No such restraint was shown in Abu Dhabi, where the ghoulish white gams of cultural terrorists like Ian Poulter were on naked display.Literally. Tradition was snubbed, and our great golf heroes—men like Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, and Gary Player—must have been rolling in their graves.

Call me old-fashioned, but this is just plain immoral. GOLF IS MEANT TO BE PLAYED IN PANTS. It’s always been played that way, going back to the day it was first invented by a group of stockbrokers in Augusta, GA. And I’ll tell you something else: Just like flavored soda water, shorts are a gateway drug. They will lead to swift ruin for our beloved sport, in a nightmarish chain-reaction that we’re powerless to stop. Here are 30 dark visions that will come true within the next decade unless we nip this dangerous shorts craze in its lewd, wanton, libidinous bud.

1. Golfers begin to wear pajamas. And stocking caps. And those little candle-holder things.

2. Golfers move on to capri pants. (I have it on good authority that Puma has 1,000 orange pairs ready for Fowler to wear, along with tie-dye tank tops and propellor beanie hats, the minute they think they can sneak it past the censors.)

3. Golfers use self-ambulatory robotic legs to save themselves the effort of walking.

4. Golfers have their entire lower bodies surgically altered into golf carts, so that they’re technically “walking” even as they roll down the fairway.

5. Post-surgery golfers legally change their names to golf cart-themed puns, like Kartin’ Kaymer or Patrick Speed or Seung-Yul-Go.

6. Golfers wear bibs. Not caddie bibs, but tiny baby bibs, with embroidered messages like, “I <3 mommy.”

7. Golfers becoming very sloppy eaters, because hey, what the hell, I got this sweet bib, duuuuude.

8. Golfers experiment with foreign clothing items like togas, kaftans, and Canadian denim.

9. Golfers wear those “I’m with stupid!” t-shirts, and run around for hours at a time trying to set up the perfect prank photo. Entire tournaments are canceled when they forget to tee off.

10. Golfers bring back the edgy slogan-based t-shirts of the ’90s that nearly ruined this country, including “And 1″ and “No Fear” and “Big Dogs” and even “Big Johnson.”

11. A pestilence visits the earth. Golfers wear head-to-toe aluminum foil to reflect the sun.

12. The angry sun god retaliates by frying out America’s golf courses, which will necessitate millions of gallons of additional water, which will drain the oceans, which will anger the sea god, who will flood the courses until they’re green again, which will anger the grass god, who will make the greens spotty and bumpy and totally unplayable, which will anger the Chambers Bay groundskeepers, who will be like, “hey, grass god, that was kind of our thing.”

13. Golfers use giant golf balls that can’t even fit in the hole in order to overcome the shoddy greens.

14. The PGA Tour adapts to the giant balls by making giant holes, which quickly fill up with alligators that develop a taste for volunteer marshals who wander from their stations, so that when a ball goes in the hole, you can hear the sickening crunch of bones from their skeletons.

15. With death surrounding them, golfers give in to nonconformist urges and surf in the water hazards. (“Hang ten” used to be a bad thing in golf, AM I RIGHT FOLKS?) Also, they sunbathe in the sand traps. Why not, they’ve already got the shorts!

16. Morals decay further. Golfers drink flavored soda water in front of impressionable kids.

17. The kids become so corrupt that Augusta National chairman Billy Payne is forced to learn to skateboard in order to keep up with trends. One day, out of control, he crashes into the lever that opens the subterranean cage where the captive birds and squirrels are held. Hungry and maddened, they storm the course and attack the first golfer they find, which turns out to be Kartin’ Kaymer, who can’t escape because his surgically altered golf cart body stalls out on a big hill.

18. Kartin’ Kaymer survives, but becomes so disfigured that he has to wear a Phantom of the Opera mask, and transforms into a supervillain named “Spartan Crimer.”

19. In the meantime, metal clubs become legal. (Note: My editor tells me this has already happened, which is just more proof that I’m on the right track.)

20. Indoor golf explodes outside of South Korea.

21. Golfers begin disappearing, one by one, and nobody knows why. First Spieth, then Fowler, then McIlroy.

22. “This is a great shame,” says Spartan Crimer, with a thin smile. “Who would commit such an act?”

23. While governing bodies are distracted by the disappearances, the peasant laborers—I mean caddies—are allowed the basic legal right to choose which companies and products they’d like to endorse.

24. Billy Payne, still trying to skateboard, crashes into another lever. In another subterranean prison, a door opens, and Spieth, Fowler, and McIlroy rush to freedom.

25. But their time underground has changed them. In the glaring light of the “real world,” they understand what Martin Crimer was trying to teach them about the beauty of the darkness. They decide to become supervillains, and rename themselves Sword-in-Sheath, Trickie Howler, and Gory Jackal-Boy.

26. The four supervillains invent a new putting technique that allows golfers to avoid the pitfalls of a free swing by lodging the club against a separate body part for stability. They name it “ballasting.”

27. “Ballasting” ruins golf.

28. People marry box turtles.

29. Zach Johnson says a bad word.

30. Team USA wins the Ryder Cup.

I’m sorry if any of this disturbed you, but we need to act quickly. Stop the shorts. Stop them now.

I am America.

I am Professor Fuego.

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New York Again

Despite the fact that I lived here for almost five years and have visited numerous times since, this city always manages to surprise me every time I return to the old sod.

I spent all of yesterday and this morning thinking about terrorism—and last night, too, judging by my dreams. Was it the best idea to visit New York just now? I gave serious thought to phoning my boss and telling him I didn’t feel good about coming, or that my anxiety was out of control, but the truth was that it was just a vague worry that mostly felt foolish in the face of probabilities. Plus, cliche as it may be, that’s how terrorism achieves its victories, and staying behind was just a little cowardly for my tastes. So I won my own little victory by stepping on the plane, relevant only to myself but relevant anyway.

The minute I navigated my out of JFK and into far Brooklyn, I stopped thinking of New York as a target and saw it again for what it was—something spectacular and thriving. These were uncharted waters for me—I had never flown out of JFK before, and hadn’t seen these areas of Brooklyn. At Howard Beach I left the air train and descended into the city proper, in the form of the A-train subway platform. A sunny day, unseasonably warm, and it wasn’t long before the gray subway car, a beat-up jalopy as reliable as it was degraded, its blue-and-white “A” faded and chipped, came down the tracks. What is the sound it made? Grinding, plus whining, plus rattling, plus pneumatic? It was one of the really old cars, with the orange and yellow seats facing in every direction. Beyond the platform were trees I couldn’t identify—birch?—bare branches and some straggler red leaves, reaching over the dividing wall. Outside, on the elevated track, I looked out at the crowded streets and the billboards and the houses/pizza parlors/streets. Somewhere around 80th Street, we went underground, and at Broadway Junction I switched to the L.

Riding the L-train was a daily activity for me seven years ago, and the familiar signifiers did their best to jolt my memory—the dark rusted brown of the tunnels, the mosaic station signs against the white tiles of the wall, the faces on the platform becoming lighter with every stop as we approached Manhattan. I felt partly invigorated by it all, the man next to me with liquor on his breath, the automated voice announcing each stop, the impatient bodies waiting to enter. And across from me and next to me, all the faces…I can’t avoid them, I’m a starer, where most people in New York have learned not to make eye contact. They’re unsettled when they catch me looking at them directly, and they meet my gaze for a second before looking down, embarrassed.

Then out on Bedford Avenue, the last stop before the river—between the tracks, the ancient discs of gum stomped flat and blackened with the years, and a smell that is part subway exhaust, but part unique to that particular station, made of ingredients I couldn’t begin to separate and identify.

I thought for a moment that Ana Maria Pizza was gone. I didn’t see it on the corner of Bedford and North 7th, and when I walked to North 6th, near my old apartment, I was dismayed to see that it wasn’t there, either. But I walked back north to my hotel to find that it was a couple doors down on Bedford, not right at the corner. I bought two slices for old time’s sake and walked on North 8th to the BQE. Had I walked this exact stretch before? Of course—in all those years, I must have taken this route at least once. The legumes of the honeylocust—New York’s most common street tree—hung from the branches as I passed new construction, and bars, and boutiques.

Bedford Avenue, too, looked different from when I lived here. It doesn’t seem nearly as imposing, but that might have more to do with me than Brooklyn. I wish I was always as fearless as I am now. I wish I was always as reckless as I was then.

More…

So I left the computer and challenged myself to make the trip from the BQE to the Sunshine on Houston, via the L-train and lots of walking, in 25 minutes flat. I just about did it, and with previews, I didn’t miss any of the movie. I saw Entertainment, in which the director tried to overwhelm me with depression, and I found it totally useless except as an aesthetic exercise. But why is it that aesthetic exercises today strike me as poorly timed, somehow? It’s like our world isn’t conducive to them anymore; they feel like a waste of time, or like the voice of someone who is missing a broader point. This film tried to say something about the futility of modern life, but it seemed to be saying it about a previous modern life, maybe in the late ’90s. Now we deal with death and violence and all kinds of extremes, but not ennui. If any of the college PC jargon has infiltrated my brain, it might be here, because this man’s disaffection despite some privilege is totally uninteresting to me.

Anyway. After I left the theater, I got the full flavor of whatever it is that makes New York New York, and I got it almost immediately. First, I walked by a bar with a trivia night, open to the street, and the host was introducing a category where the answers were all songs with the word “look” in the title. Then a girl was taking a photo of a marquee with her phone, sure to be artsy and filtered. And finally, before I even reached the corner, I heard a man’s deep voice laughing, and when I turned my head, I saw him thrust into a pay phone booth, pissing.

It’s funny how it takes something like that to make you remember that there actually are pay phones in New York City. They aren’t real “booths,” with closing doors, but they exist anyway, three-sided metal standing cubicles that serve mostly as urinals. It also took me stepping on a series of metal sidewalk cellar doors along First Avenue, and hearing the accompanying bang as they reverberated, to remember their existence. I’m not even sure if I recognized their existence during my first New York tour. I fear that whole time was wasted on me, and now it would be hard to ever go back.

Watching the people passing me by, I understood another difference between myself today and myself at 24. Then, I assumed that everyone I saw was a genius, and it made me insecure. Today, it’s not that I don’t think there are geniuses in the crowd, only that it doesn’t bother me. Have I achieved total self-acceptance? No. But plenty more than I had when I walked these streets almost a decade ago, wondering what it was they had that I did not.

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Purposelessness

All day meaning to go to the cafe, but only doing it at 4pm. I get there, and I’ve forgotten the power cord to my computer and have only 60 percent power. But it doesn’t matter, because I’ve got nothing to do—just touch up a few sketches, which takes maybe ten minutes, and then it’s back to the Internet, which I’ve come to hate with a passion. It had nothing for me, as usual, so I shut the computer, put my mug in the dish bin, and left. I went to the bookstore, feeling like talking to no one, and was stopped immediately by the cashier who gestured to my backpack. It annoyed me more than it should have. I gave her the bag and considered leaving right away, but stayed half because I wanted to and half because I didn’t want to give the impression that I had only come to stash books in my backpack and run off. But I definitely wasn’t going to buy a book, I told myself, making negative judgments in my head about their selection and the fact that they couldn’t book Patti Smith.

I can’t be in a bookstore without buying a book, though, and downstairs I picked up a six-dollar collection of great American speeches featuring JFK and Lincoln and MLK and etc. I imagine I’ll never read every single one of them.

Next it was to the grocery store. In Brooklyn, at C-Town, the deli worked fast, like everything in New York works fast, but it’s always agonizingly slow here. It took 20 minutes to get a pound of sliced chicken and a pound of cheddar cheese, and there wasn’t even a line. A redhead next to me saw my bag of bananas and told me to make banana ice cream by cutting it into coins, freezing them overnight, and putting them in the food processor. It sounded like a good idea, and the coins are in my freezer right now. I pocketed two Harry the Dragon cookies, meant for children 12 and under, and walked home in the light rain.

On the way I passed someone I knew from school. She was walking the opposite way with a friend, but she didn’t look up and I was glad. There are times when talking just feels painful. I don’t know if I’m a full-time introvert—people who know me would probably laugh—but I do fluctuate wildly between the extremes.  “I’m sorry to be rude, but I have to run home,” I would have said almost immediately. “But it’s great seeing you!” And I would have felt tired just from expending that tiny amount of energy.

I walked by Vin Rouge and was seriously tempted to sit down and drink wine. If I could have done it alone, with a book, I might have.

Everything I’m feeling now is predictable. Mild irritation from a lack of direction, a lack of purpose, a lack of plans. There are only spots in the cycle, it seems, where everything clicks, and then you’re bound to hit the highs and lows where it all feels off-kilter. The old cliches come flying back in my face, and I realize that valuing the journey in abstract is not the same as having a journey, and doesn’t provide an antidote to a life lived with multiple journeys. I want to be on the verge of the next big thing, but the fact that I don’t pursue one thing for a long time leads to these in-between phases, where inevitably I spend some days in the swamps.

And now I’m chastising myself. There’s football on. I can learn “Heroin” on guitar. I have that banana ice cream. I can Google Bernie Sanders. I can dream of how I’ll feel tomorrow when I’m off the stationary bike. Of not dying on stage tomorrow. Of the next big thing that will come around, somehow.

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A Walk

It’s perfect weather, cool and overcast, as I set out. It’s the kind of weather that reminds me of Ireland, the time when my mindset most closely mirrored the atmosphere. There’s a chill that calls for a light coat, and I know I won’t take it off halfway through the walk because we’re losing the sun, we’re into the magic hour, and it will only get colder.

I have my water bottle, and I decide it should weight down my left pocket tonight. If I hadn’t filled it up and brought it along, I know I’d spend the entire walk dreaming of a cool drink. And now that I have it with me, I know I won’t touch it once. I pass the sycamore tree on my street, rising behind one of the houses. It’s paler than usual for its species, and even at my advanced age it seems to possess a supernatural aura. It reminds me of the Weirwood, right down to the scattering of red and orange leaves hanging off otherwise bare branches, and I wonder if George RR Martin had a sycamore in mind when he wrote.

I’ve brought music, and I want something autumnal and sparse to match the day. I’ve been meaning to listen to Courtney Barrett’s new album, and I think maybe it will fit the bill. But only moments after pushing play, I know it’s all wrong—too defiant, too fast. For some reason I don’t shut it off immediately, though, and after a few steps I hear these lyrics:

Don’t jump little boy, don’t jump off that roof
You’ve got your whole life ahead of you, you’re still in your youth
I’d give anything to have skin like you

He said “I think you’re projecting the way that you’re feeling
I’m not suicidal, just idling insignificantly
I come up here for perception and clarity
I like to imagine I’m playing SimCity

And that gets me, and I think maybe it’ll be perfect. The best kind of art is the kind that takes you by surprise, that underwhelms you at first and hooks you against your will. The music stays, and I’m heading up Broad Street, where the man at Bull City Music is fiddling on his porch again. I think he gives himself excuses to work outside on nice days, because he’s here every time I walk by. I don’t blame him.

A car pulls out of a driveway just as I’m walking past, and it makes an awkward little moment. He’s thinking, why does there have to be a pedestrian at the exact moment when I’m pulling out, and I’m thinking, what does a car have to break my stride and my thoughts, what are the odds? We’re both so unlucky. I pause, he pauses, and I give a little wave and jog out of his way. It occurs to me after that when I make this motion, I’m seeing something in my head, or someone, that isn’t me. I’m seeing someone who looks casual and thoughtful, with just enough concern for the driver to acknowledge him, to hustle a little, to get out of the way, to show an understanding of the unenviable situation. But in reality the person I picture is not myself, it’s not how I must look or how I move. He’s more graceful and composed, he communicates his intentions exactly, he handles the situation with perfect poise, and me? I’m a mass of moving parts, of inexact signals, and who knows what the man thinks…this all passes in an instant, but it’s odd to me, thinking about it now, that I see myself from outside the body, and more, that I see myself inaccurately.

I hop over the little stone wall on East Campus. I’m going to do the loop, and it doesn’t matter which way I go, it all ends in the same place. I had a conversation with a friend some months ago, and he tried to convince me that because of how we’re composed, the molecules and chemicals and synapses in our brains, in conjunction with our environment and the structure of our bodies, each situation has only one possible action, one possible decision, that we can execute. In other words, there is no free will. My triumphs and failures were all pre-written, and though I don’t know how the story unfolds, there are not multiple options. Not for me, not for any living thing, not for the world or the universe. I found this idea disturbing because it can really rob you of pride, so at times like these, staring down two paths, I try to prove my friend wrong by choosing the opposite of what my brain wants. I stand there for a moment, analyzing my instincts, and then I head south because everything is telling me to go east. And the minute I take my first step south, I immediately feel like I’ve inadvertently succumbed to destiny again.

On the loop, I see the massive live oaks and magnolias, the stone and brick buildings, the joggers, the rusted Norfolk Southern cargo train across Main Street (like a child, I can watch a train for hours, and I’m glad the sound carriers over my music, because it’s the best sound in the world), the stone wall, the houses. What I don’t see, and what I don’t feel, are the classrooms where I studied 14 years ago, and the tennis courts and athletic fields where I played intramurals, the dining hall where I ate every day, and theater building where I rehearsed, and the little white dorm where I slept and worked and had sex and had my heart broken and broke other hearts and spent long hours playing cards and sneaking beer. These are all there—they’re the same places. But I feel like a different person in a different place, a stranger on this path, and it’s not just that the memory is foggy or buried, but that it’s almost not there at all. I have to force myself to conjure something, or else these are buildings I’ve never stepped foot in in my life. I don’t remember how it feels unless I close my eyes and pursue it. I’m like my mom and dad—we’re not nostalgic, things slip away and the past disappears, and we can’t look back. So I spend a moment remembering the hallways, and I can almost smell the one infamous room we didn’t like to visit, or the intense little moments in the stair wells, but nothing about this exercise affects me—I can’t summon a vibe.

I don’t relate to the students I see jogging past me, either, but maybe I never did. Although now I find that many of my friends are ages 20-26, so maybe I’m longing for those days secretly. I don’t feel older than they are, but there are differences. The other day I was having a conversation with a friend about some rednecks who staged a counter-protest near a confederate statue on a different campus, responding to some kids who wanted it pulled down. She described them for me, big and tattooed and bearded and waving rebel flags.

“But they had counselors there,” she said, “in case anyone felt distressed.”

My instinct was to scoff at this—counselors because you saw a few racists with flags and some backward views? On a safe college campus, with cops looking on? As a student, we would have felt insulted at the implication that we were so frail. And I don’t stop to consider that she might not be on the same page—this is not a delicate, hyper-sensitive person—so I assume we’ll be scoffing together, and I’m about ready to laugh when she says, “so that was good.”

Right. This makes sense to her, the counselors, and I’m showing my age. Like an old man who still says ‘negroes,’ I’m out of touch. I’m insensitive. That’s the new climate, the one that I missed when I graduated 10 years ago. I can’t get into this conversation, because I wouldn’t even know how to speak the language. I just nod along and change the subject. Later, a truck drives by with a rebel flag flying from the back, and I say, “there are your friends,” and she looks disturbed.

That number should astound me—a decade!—but it only makes me laugh. It doesn’t mean anything, except that I’m going to die, and I’ve known that for a while.

There’s a huge magnolia tree by my old dorm with leaves that come all the way to the trunk making a big wide canopy, and I get the sense there could be a small city inside the leaves. It reminds me of an old movie I once saw about kids climbing in trees. I think Elijah Wood was in it, and I think at one point he climbed a tower. But it was so long ago, the specifics have faded. (I just looked now, it was called The War, and it came out when I was 11 years old.)

In the moments between songs, I can hear the pounding footfall of the joggers as they roar past. There’s graffiti on the overpass on Campus Drive, organized dorm graffiti, but the graffiti on the box cars of the passing train is all anarchy, made by a different kind of person. On the north side of campus, as I’m looping back, the album starts to repeat, and I turn it off and listen to the wind and the passing cars.

Now, for a while, the thoughts come unbidden. Children are more acutely aware that life is temporary, which is why they’re such creatures of habit and get upset if a favorite blanket goes missing, or a beard gets shaved. They’re newer to this world, and they understand better than we do how raw and tenuous our lives are. They feel it can be ripped from them at any point and so they obsessively seek routine, and when that routine is broken it brings the panic rushing back. Then I imagine I’m interviewing Father John Misty, and it gets contentious, and we yell at each other for making assumptions about how the other is thinking. I imagine asking him if he was ever jealous of Robin Pecknold, and that most people want to hide jealousy, and he says that I’ve created a false binary where he can only be jealous or pretending not to be jealous, but not not jealous, and I correct him and say I’m only viewing life through how I believe I would experience it, and am open to any answer, and that that he is reacting against my assumptions by making assumptions of his own. I stop chasing this line of thought.

There’s a pleasant ache in my feet. The walk is four miles long, and now I’m sweating a little, and the sweat feels cold against my forehead. My heart feels good. All my hypochondria feelings go away, and I’m in a rhythm, a force of nature, moving inexorably ahead, active and live.

At the corner of Broad and Markham, there’s a Dollar Store, one of the few blights on the socioeconomic landscape, a reminder that all is not well even in our quaint bubble. The people here stagger. Back down Broad, and for the first time I’m taking inventory of all the medical practices here, the off-brand private practices that include chiropractors and masseuses and acupuncture and even a florist for your mental health and a funeral parlor for when you want to be displayed and buried. I want to call it “Snake Oil Row,” but maybe these places help a lot of people, and maybe that’s my problem, I’m too glib, too cynical, I should be more sincere. Maybe I should get into politics and try to do some good. These are lazy days for me, with the freedom of no looming project, and the anxiety of being unmoored.

It’s dark when I turn on Club and cut through the parking lot of the fancy Math & Science high school. There’s a bush across from the door with a white flower that smells better than any flower I’ve smelled before. I always stop to sniff it once on my way home. The other day there were kids sitting on some nearby picnic tables, so it was a bit embarrassing. But it was instructive to know that I didn’t care, which is one privilege of growing old. This there’s nobody, just a few silhouettes in the windows of the school, so I clear my nostrils in grotesque ways and lean in. There are only two flowers left, and they’re both nearly withered, but it still gives off the same perfume, a peach aroma. Maybe this will be the last time before winter. I don’t know the name of this bush, and I make a mental note to find out. I might have to call up someone at the school and say, who does your landscaping?

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Hunter Mahan Breaks the Spell in New Jersey

Hey everyone, this is bonus material from my original manuscript of the book Slaying the Tiger. This text didn’t find its way into the book, but I’m making it available to you, my loyal readers. TBR is the only place you’ll find this material.  If you like this, you’ll find plenty more to like in the book, available at this link. This installment was written after Hunter Mahan’s performance at the Barclays in last year’s FedExCup playoffs. It includes quite a bit of background on Mahan, including his complicated relationship with his father, that was cut from the book.

The FedExCup Playoffs, Part Two: Hunter Breaks the Spell in New Jersey 

In 2014 the FedExCup began just outside Jersey City, at Ridgewood Country Club in Paramus, a woodland course dominated by massive oaks and beeches with trunks so gray that they almost look plastic. The famous architect A.W. Tillinghast designed the 27-hole course in 1929, and all 27 holes remain. When the Tour comes into town, though, they pick out the 18 toughest holes and create a synthetic course, leaving behind anything bland or easy. It’s also very, very long, with three par-5s topping out at over 580 yards, including the 626-yard 13th, which forces even the likes of Rory McIlroy and Bubba Watson to lay up.

Early in the week, on the putting green outside the incredible Tudor-style clubhouse, with its brick chimneys and dormer windows and massive conical roof, I witnessed an interesting spectacle. Ian Poulter was walking by on his way to practice, and when the fans screamed for him, he slowed down to sign a few autographs. Poulter didn’t sign in the normal way, though—with his earphones in, music blasting, he simply grabbed a placard or hat or whatever was handed to him, continued walking down the row as he scrawled his name, then reached out to hand the object back to whoever felt like taking it from him—ideally, it would be the same person who gave it to him in the fist place, but Poulter didn’t seem to care. He’d simply grab the next item, keep walking, and hand it over, and so on. In this way, he satisfied roughly one of out of every ten fans, and never even looked at them once—a true prima donna performance.

New Jersey, not to be outdone, struck back with its own unique flavor later in the week. As players signed autographs and held interviews just off the clubhouse porch, a man with long hair, a Rutgers jersey, and a bucket hat decided he was going to harass Justin Rose.

“What do you got there, a 30?” he shouted. Rose looked back, puzzled.

“Your waist size!” the man continued. Rose just smiled uncomfortably, unsure where this conversation was going. The man waved a hand at him dismissively, then turned his attention to Rose’s clubs

“Taylor Made?!” he yelled, now being egged on by the gallery. “Those pants are tailor-made! In London!”

Rose thought maybe he could cure the man of his pants obsession by signing an autograph, so he made his way over, still smiling. The man handed him the bucket hat, watched him sign, then stared in mock disbelief at the signature.

“Hey!” he exclaimed in shock, now playing to the crowd. “He signed my hat ‘Pete Rose!’”

As the laughter rose, Rose’s nervous grin grew wider, and he anxiously began plotting his escape as his agent hovered nearby, clearing a path.

“Is that a 34 inseam?” the man went on, now back on the pants. “What are you rocking there?”

With one last grin, Rose was away, probably determined never to return to New Jersey as long as he lived.

*

Rory McIlroy shot an opening round 74, which was no surprise considering the energy he had spent winning two majors and a WGC event over the past month. Immediately following his victory at Valhalla, he flew to New York City, where he and a posse that included his manager, chef, and some childhood friends immediately went out to a Chelsea night club. The party continued throughout Monday, according the New York Post, and ended 24 hours later, around 2:30 a.m., at another Chelsea club called “Avenue.” He then flew back to England, where that Saturday he paraded the Claret Jug around Old Trafford, the famous stadium home of Manchester United.

Then it was back to New York, where he appeared with Tiger Woods on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and stirred up the slightest bit of controversy with a quote that seemed innocuous on the surface—“makes me appreciate how hard he worked, and how dominant a figure he was in our game”—but that raised eyebrows for its use of the past tense. Nor did Tiger let Rory’s recent accomplishments go unchecked—in their private moments, he told him that he wasn’t done yet, and he was going to make it hard for him to win the career slam at Augusta in the spring.

After that whirlwind tour, he was due for a letdown at the Barclays, and it came with Thursday’s 74. He struck back with a 65 on Friday, but a 70 on Saturday placed him five shots below the leaders, with plenty stacked between them.

On Sunday, the co-leaders at 9-under were a pair of men who could desperately use a win—Jason Day, coming off his cursed season, and Jim Furyk, who had threatened again and again but routinely faltered at the critical moment. Furyk hadn’t won an event since 2010, despite playing excellent golf that had kept him near the top of the sport well into his 40s. His most recent chance, at the Canadian Open in July, was probably the most difficult—he looked like a sure winner until Tim Clark chased him down with a 30 on the back nine, pipping him at the line by a stroke.

Day didn’t inspire a ton of confidence either. Despite having his best chance to win since the Accenture Match Play in February, didn’t sound like a 54-hole co-leader on Saturday. He felt that his game was still just slightly off during the third round—especially with the driver—and you could sense his anxiety heading into Sunday.

“So I’m going to do some practice, try and sort something out there,” he told us, after he finished. “Try to straighten it out a little bit. I know I’m a good ball‑striker and I hit it very good. I just have to believe in myself. I think that’s the biggest thing is to go out there and really have the belief in myself that I can compete and play against the best players in the world and win, is what I need to try and get through my mind and that’s the last thing.”

Furyk gave his usual entertaining press conference on Saturday, and spoke eloquently about getting old in a young man’s game.

“When I look at the guys out here that honestly, I’m old enough to be their father,” he said, “and a lot of times I’m sitting in the family room and we’re talking about, you know, there’s been subjects…I look back and go, wow, that was a long time ago that things like that crossed my mind.”

On Sunday, both players made two early birdies before bogeying the fourth, and at the turn, Day led the tournament at -11, one ahead of Furyk. It lasted just two more holes, at which point a bogey put him a shot behind Hunter Mahan, who had made birdie on 11 to edge into the lead.

*

Monte Mahan, a surfer kid and former LAPD undercover cop turned high school golf coach and teaching pro, started his son Hunter playing at age nine, when the family still lived in southern California. It was the beginning of a tricky relationship between father, son, and sport. In fact, Mahan was one of the few golfers I spoke to all year who admitted that he was often annoyed with his father, a helicopter parent who was so invested in his son’s success that he sometimes overstepped his bounds, placing undue pressure on the boy and even breaching golf etiquette in public.

“He was frustrating at times,” Mahan said. “My dad was very involved. He wanted the best for me, and at times it was too much for him. He just tried too hard.”

For the elder Mahan, long-term thinking was difficult; he worried that if his son faltered at a young age, he’d continue to fall behind his peers, fail to get a college scholarship, and sabotage his professional dreams—dreams which were equally Monte’s. He gave all of his time to his son, and drove him hard on the golf course, but that passion came with its blind spots. It wasn’t in Monte’s toolbox to let Hunter fail and pick himself up, or accept the usual wavering focus and temporary skill setbacks that all kids experience. It didn’t help that he had a room-filling personality that contrasted with his son’s natural reserve.

Monte hovered, micromanaging his son’s career and refusing to retreat an inch. In a story written by Golf Digest’s Jaime Diaz, he admitted he was too hard on his son, even if his intentions were good, and Hunter recalled how his dad would “throw his arms up and stomp around” when he hit a bad shot. He bonded on the road with Sean O’Hair, another player with an overbearing father.

This, unfortunately, is a textbook story in the golf world, and it almost always ends in player burnout. It’s a testament to how much Hunter shared the same goals, if not the same approach, that he did not.

He first beat his dad at age 12, and a year later the family moved to the Dallas area. There, Hunter’s junior career took off. In 1999, he won a Texas 5A state championship, earned AJGA Player of the Year status, won the prestigious U.S. Junior Amateur against future pro Camillo Villegas, and became the no. 1 junior player in the world. A recruiting battle ensued, and Mahan eventually chose USC—a shock to Oklahoma State, considered the frontrunners—where he was named Pac-10 freshman of the year.

Still, he wasn’t happy. His game was solid, but he was angry and overly self-critical on the course. Nor was the pressure from his father ebbing. The spring of his freshman year, playing at a tournament called The Maxwell in Oklahoma run by the AJGA, Monte approached him after his tee shot on the tenth and kept repeating, “Son, you just got to set it and go. Set it and go.”

Any kind of coaching during a round is a violation, and the tournament director, a rookie, called Stephen Hamblin and told him what had happened. Hamblin came out to the course, found Monte, and told him he’d be docking Hunter two strokes for receiving advice. He took the penalty in stride, but the telling detail here is that after the round, Hamblin was approached USC coach Kurt Schuette, who thanked him for issuing the penalty; he hoped it might help him deal with Monte in the future. Schuette wasn’t alone; Kevin Stadler, Mahan’s teammate, also found Hamblin after the round.

“Thank God someone finally did it,” he said.

At the end of that year, Mahan transferred from USC to Oklahoma State in order to play under legendary coach Mike Holder. Mike McGraw, an assistant who would later take over the program and coach Rickie Fowler, saw where Mahan’s desire threatened to overwhelm him. The emotion ate him up, and hurt his game. What McGraw saw was an immensely talented 19-year-old who was tired of himself and tired of the game. Early on, Holder, an imposing man in both personality and size, took Hunter aside and explained an important point: Fewer people care about your golf than you think. You care. Your parents care. I care a little, but I’ll survive without you. Your teammates care, but deep down they all want to beat you. That’s it. So stop playing like everybody cares, and just go out and play golf.

Holder didn’t suffer fools, and he was able to bring both Monte and Hunter in line. His personal gravitas allowed him to take the authoritative approach, and his record didn’t hurt either—he would retire in 2005 with eight national titles, 12 players of the year, 112 All-Americans. It worked­—Mahan’s on-course antics, including the destructive anger, was tamped down, and he held his player accountable for his actions. There was nothing indirect about Holder’s approach; he wouldn’t need an AJGA official to do his dirty work for him.

Holder told Mahan that he had to give the illusion of being in control, and that even if he felt himself in turmoil, he had to fake it on the outside. He explained in blunt terms that if Mahan failed to solve his problem, he’d never have the career he wanted in golf.

Holder’s leadership had the intended effect—Mahan gave Oklahoma State two great years, finishing as a first team All-American and Big 12 player of the year in 2002 and 2003, and even became a leader himself, albeit the quiet, follow-my-example kind. He turned pro in ’03, and after making four cuts in eight events after the U.S. Open, he finished 16th at Q-School in December to earn his PGA Tour card.

He finished second at the Reno-Tahoe Open in 2004 and managed to keep his card by finishing 100th on the money list, but 2005’s 131st place finish dropped him below the threshold, and he was forced to survive Q-School again in order to get back on the Tour in 2006. He passed, and his position improved in 2006 due to a t-2 at the Buick Open, but he was floundering in his game and losing the perspective he had gained at Oklahoma State.

“I put so much into it every day,” he told me of those three years. “I put way too much pressure on myself and I tried way too hard. But I didn’t feel like I was building myself to be great…I was just trying to patch things together and get the quick fix. When I got on Tour I thought it was going to be easier, and I felt like I was going to play better. It was too big for me.”

He had worked himself so hard that friendships and romantic relationships had been sacrificed, and he wasn’t seeing the dividends. His fellow pros would routinely tell him how good he was, and how a breakthrough would happen for him soon, but he couldn’t see it and he didn’t believe it. The way he described his emotions at that time sounds a lot like depression—even the good shots didn’t give him pleasure, and the bad shots just reinforced his belief that he wasn’t good enough. Finally, in a 2007 U.S. Open sectional qualifier, a sports psychologist named Neale Smith who was caddying for him got so fed up with his negative energy that he forced Mahan to fist pump after every shot. It felt stupid to him, but he obliged, almost desperate to find something that would jolt him out of his funk. After opening with a 73, he followed with a 63, breaking the course record and earning his way into the major.

He finished tied for 13th at the U.S. Open, and a week later, at the Travelers Championship, he opened with a 62 and closed with a 65 to earn his way into a playoff with Jim Williamson. He birdied the first extra hole, and almost without warning his long drought was over—he’d won a PGA Tour event. Three top tens followed, including a t-6 at the British Open, and at the end of the year Jack Nicklaus made him a captain’s pick at the President’s Cup, which the United States won.

It’s hard to fathom how a few shows of fake enthusiasm could completely turn his season—and career—around, but the revelation went deeper. For the first time, he truly began to appreciate the idea that he didn’t have to be perfect to succeed, and that when the golfers he admired won tournaments, they weren’t perfect either. Speaking with young players throughout the year, I came across this idea again and again, beginning with Chris Kirk in November—perfection isn’t possible, or necessary, and anyone who pursues perfection is going to burn himself out. All of Mahan’s hours on the range, he realized, had been counterproductive; he was overworked to the point that he had stopped trusting himself and his instincts. It’s hard lesson to learn, because most golfers are workaholics, and at the first sign of struggle every fiber of their being screams, “Work harder!” Some never learn, and they play themselves right into obscurity. For those who finally have their epiphany, though, the turnaround can be drastic.

It’s also hard to ignore something else that happened in 2007–finally, 25 years after his son’s birth, Monte Mahan backed off. It’s not clear whether it was his choice, or whether Hunter, in conjunction with his team, told him the time had come. In either case, Hunter found a new freedom, and a year later, Monte moved back to southern California.

He didn’t win again in 2008, but he did earn $2.2 million with a consistent season, which was good enough for a captain’s spot on the Ryder Cup team at Valhalla. As he had done at the U.S. Junior Amateur and the U.S. Amateur, Mahan proved his excellence at match play golf. Teaming with Justin Leonard and Phil Mickelson, he won two matches on Friday, earned two halves on Saturday, and halved Paul Casey in Sunday singles to earn 3.5 points in one of the rare American Ryder Cup wins of the past two decades.

He made almost $3 million in 2009, won another President’s Cup, and followed it up in 2010 by returning to the winner’s circle at the Phoenix Open and then again at the Bridgestone Invitational, a World Golf Championship event featuring 75 of the best players in the world. His 10th place finish on the money list was a career best, and heading into the 2010 Ryder Cup, his career had reached a high point.

At Celtic Manor in Wales, though, the Europeans had recovered from the Valhalla disaster and the lackluster leadership of their 2008 captain, Nick Faldo. Rain hampered the schedule in Wales, and when Sunday came to an end, the U.S. trailed 9.5—6.5 after a disastrous third session. For the first time in Ryder Cup history, the singles matches would be held on a Monday. A spirited comeback by the Americans, which included victories by Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, and Dustin Johnson, evened the score at 13.5 points with just one match on the course: Hunter Mahan vs. Graeme McDowell.

With a half point, the Americans would tie and retain the cup. Coming into the 16th hole, McDowell was 1-up as he stared down his approach shot from the fairway. With a 6-iron, he landed the ball on the left side of the green and watched it trickle toward the flag. The fans erupted as it got closer, but he’d left himself about 15 feet for his birdie. After an excellent chip from off the green, Mahan gave himself a good look at par. He waited, watching McDowell, who took his time reading the putt. When he finally struck the ball, it trickled downhill, broke to the right, and caught the edge of the hole. The crowd erupted, McDowell screamed back at them, and Mahan needed to win the final two holes for the U.S. to retain the cup.

On 17, needing a win, he found himself off the green with an easy chip to the hole. The tension was excruciating, and players from both teams looked on in front of the massive Welsh crowd. The chip needed to be perfect. Unthinkably, Mahan flubbed it. The ball barely trickled onto the green, leaving him with a long putt just to make par. McDowell ran his own birdie putt up to five feet, and when Mahan missed the twisting par putt, he took off his hat and offered his hand to McDowell. The Europeans had won back the Cup.

For Mahan, it became a defining moment, and the one by which most casual golf fans identified him. It didn’t matter that he’d been incredibly successful in match play, or that he’d go on to win one title and 11 straight matches at the Accenture Match Play championship—the missed chip was the choke that lost the Americans the Cup.

“You can call it embarrassing if you want,” Mahan told me (for the record, I hadn’t), “because it felt like that. But it’s hard to say that’s a bad moment because I was playing in the Ryder Cup in the last group and had a chance to win, and to be in those moments is pretty fun.”

It sounds like good perspective, but the truth of the matter was made clear in the post-match press conference, when Mahan sat with his teammates and tried to face the media. He’s not a particularly emotional person when it comes to the press, nor a tremendously friendly one—everything takes on the same flat affect, delivered with narrow eyes and a thin smirk. Which made it so surprising when he could only get through half of his answer.

“I’m proud to be part of this team,” he began. “It’s a close team. And, uh…”

He stared at the microphone, unable to continue. When the tears began to fall, he rubbed at his eye with a thumb while Phil Mickelson took the microphone and saved him. Later, he tried again, talking about his birdie on 15 to narrow the deficit, but again words failed him, and a slight whimper came out instead. Zach Johnson patted him on the back, Mahan took a sip of water, and started to sob.

He remained in the top 15 of the money list over the next two seasons, winning the Shell Houston Open and the Accenture Match Play Championship in ’12. He defeated Martin Kaymer, Lee Westwood and Rory McIlroy at the Accenture, and came back the next year to take down Kaymer and Ian Poulter on the way to making the finals, where he finally lost to Matt Kuchar. It was almost like he was conducting a one-man Ryder Cup revenge tour, but he knew as well as anyone that the stakes weren’t the same.

In 2011, he married Kandi, a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader. Two years later, he started the RBC Canadian Open with a 67-64, taking a lead after two rounds. That’s when the word came from Texas: His wife was going into labor. He withdrew on Saturday, flew home, and was there on Sunday morning to see the birth of Zoe, his daughter.

He earned more than $3 million again that season, but coming into 2014, it had been almost two years since his last win. When we spoke, he identified that as his main goal. And what else? He loves cars, and watching sports, and being away from golf when he needs to clear his brain. Something I asked him reminded of a question he’d heard the other day, the old one about which people, alive or dead, would make up your ideal foursome. He chose Jay-Z, Tom Brady, and Duane Johnson (aka “The Rock”)—three men who, in his mind, came from nothing to be wildly successful. Something about people who overcome serious obstacles, the kind he never faced, strikes him as powerful.

*

Like Day and Furyk, Mahan hadn’t had the best luck on Sunday, and his own winning drought extended back to April 2012, with endless close calls that came up short. If that dry stretch bothered him in New Jersey, though, he didn’t show it—instead, he began to light up the scoreboard. While Furyk slowed to an agonizing pace, as he always did under pressure, backing off putts and reading greens obsessively, Mahan moved full speed head, knocking in a 27-foot at the lengthy 13th moved him to 12-under. At the par-3 15th, he hit his approach to 11 feet and converted another birdie, and followed that up with a monster 336-yard drive on 16, which left him a short wedge into the pin. That shot stopped three feet away, and he was now at -14, well ahead of the field.

Behind him, as Furyk and Day waited to tee off on 15, a pair of drunks in a golf cart managed to hit a spectator, who went down with an ugly crunching sound and began screaming. The lush in the passenger seat fell off and was quickly tackled by a cop, who handcuffed him on the crowd. The driver took off up a hill, and though another cop chased him on foot, the incline saved the getaway attempt, and he was able to make a temporary escape as the cop lost his breath and had to slow down. It was only a momentary reprieve, though, as two marshals in a cart of their own took off in hot pursuit. His captured friend made some moaning complaint on the ground, and the detective gave a caustic Jersey laugh. “You’re embarrassed now?” he asked.

The delay couldn’t have helped Day or Furyk, but it scarcely mattered. On 17, still red-hot and in the shadow of the sky-high tulip trees on the right side of the fairway, Mahan laid up on the long par-5 and put his third shot 22 feet from the hole. Looking fierce in his sunglasses and flat-billed cap, he marched up to the green and drained the putt to give himself a three-shot lead on the field. Nothing could stop him now—not even the very strange fan on 18 who held a stuffed Geico lizard and wouldn’t stop yelling, “it’s the Geico Gecco for Morgan Hoffmann!” as he thrust the animal at Mahan’s young playing partner, a New Jersey native. He had to pitch out from the rough, but a bogey was good enough to win going away—his five birdies in a seven-hole stretch had crushed the field.

Mahan’s interviews went about as expected—with his slight nasal twang, you got the sense that he might have been a bit nerdy as a kid, despite the manly stoicism he evinced on the course. He seemed to vaguely resent the media, and gave answers that were calculated and boring, with the word “obviously” making an appearance in just about every sentence, and very rarely in the right context. Nevertheless, it was a big moment—he shot up to the top of the FedEx Cup standings, and gave Tom Watson a good reason to make him a Ryder Cup captain’s pick a week down the line.

Outside, as the crowds began to filter out, New Jersey got in one last parting shot before the Tour left for another year. A fan spotted Mahan holding his young daughter, and made what has to be the most bizarre request I’d heard all year:

“Can I sign your baby?”

(Excerpted from the original manuscript of Slaying the Tiger.)

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Slaying the Tiger Bonus Material: Rory vs. Kirk at the Deutsche Bank

Hey pals, this is bonus material from my original manuscript of the book Slaying the Tiger. This text didn’t find its way into the book, but I’m making it available to you, my loyal readers. TBR is the only place you’ll find this material.  If you like this, you’ll find plenty more to like in the book, available at this link. 

September

The FedEx Cup Playoffs, Part Three: Rory vs. Kirk

Then it was off to Norton, MA, and TPC Boston for the Deutsche Bank Championship. The course has a very secluded, pastoral feel, with quaint ponds and stone walls running throughout the course, and a collection of “chocolate drop mounds”—an odd duck among architectural features, and one that has fallen far out of fashion in modern course design. The earth-covered hillocks hearken back to a time when debris was cleared off early golf courses and shoveled into a pile, then covered with grass as an alternative to actually clearing it away. Later architects created artificial mounds to mimic this look, but it never became very popular, and it’s rare to find these man-made “chocolate drops” today.

With Ryder Cup captain’s picks set to be announced on Tuesday—the Deutsche Bank runs from Friday to Monday, ending on Labor Day—the Ryder Cup dominated the early week chatter. I saw Brendon Todd early that week at the Deutsche Bank, and I told him that I was in the process of writing an article about how he should be a captain’s pick because of his skill around the green. He thanked me, and I decided to take a risk.

“I think it’s going to have a huge influence on Tom Watson,” I said.

Most golfers would have already tuned me out, and the ones that didn’t would have heard that sentence and stared at me like I had three heads; self-deprecation isn’t a part of their world. Todd got the joke immediately, though—another reason to like him.

Most of the Ryder Cup drama centered on the Americans. Ryan Palmer shot an opening round 63 to shoot to the top of the leaderboard and throw his hat more fully into the ring. Keegan Bradley put up a 65, which looked it would solidify his spot, and Webb Simpson made a strong case with a 66.

Come Saturday, though, all three faded down the leaderboard, and were replaced by three other golfers who posted 66—Russell Henley, Billy Horschel, and Chris Kirk. This shift came as a big surprise for both Henley and Kirk—Henley could only shake his head and say, “it seems like the harder I try, the harder it is,” while Kirk had been so frustrated after his first round 73 that he told his caddie he wasn’t having any fun, and left the course without bothering to hit the range. Instead, he went to play putt-putt with his kids.

I followed Kirk and McIlroy on Sunday, and watched as the American made an important chip-in on the 17th hole to stem some of Rory’s typical late momentum, and nearly hole an eagle putt on the par-5 18th to end the day. He and Rory each finished with blistering 64s, and would be paired together again in the second-to-last group for Monday’s final round, two shots off the lead. Behind them, Russell Henley led the field at -12, and would play with Billy Horschel (-11), a hyperactive young Florida alum whose only career win came at the 2013 Zurich Classic, where he shot a final round 64 to win by a stroke.

For all three, a win would give them a great opportunity to snag one of Watson’s captain’s picks. Horschel made his case on Saturday night, saying that he could bring emotion and energy to a team that might be different than what they had among the nine automatic picks. He said he’d be “ecstatic” if Watson picked him. Henley was more measured, having come off a frustrating summer that let him feeling like he didn’t deserve a chance, but he allowed that it would be a “great thing” if he could win on Sunday and get a captain’s pick.

Chris Kirk, though, was in full stubborn mode, refusing to admit that it mattered to him at all.

“I would say I would love to make it, and love to have a good round here,” he said, “but no, if I deserved to make the team, then I’d already be on the team…I’m just really hoping that I’ll make the team on points next time…I just think that we’re not really as worried about it as you all wish we were. I’m not, anyway.”

It was hard to tell if he was being honest—and was therefore the only American golfer who wasn’t dying to play in the Ryder Cup—or if this was some variation on the stubbornness theme that Georgia coach Chris Haack had clued me into when we spoke. The only real insight I got from Kirk came at the tail end of our conversation, when I asked if it was annoying to be constantly asked about the Ryder Cup.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe it’d be a better story if I was like Keegan, and was freaking out about it and really, really excited and going nuts, but I’m just not.”

He gave me a little grin at that point, and finally, I thought, I understood—he wasn’t comfortable with the idea of having to campaign for himself. It fit right in with his personality—his stoic demeanor wouldn’t allow for false shows of enthusiasm. He barely even fist-pumped in competitive rounds, and he would never adopt the over-the-top showmanship of Keegan Bradley. Chris Haack endorsed this view when I spoke to him, saying that Kirk most likely found the idea of self-promotion unseemly, and made a choice to take the exact opposite approach—play golf, and trust that the results would speak for themselves. If Watson wanted to pick him, then great, but he wasn’t going to do backflips for him, since it wouldn’t matter anyway.

The unfortunate problem: Watson was looking for backflips. He wanted golfers who felt passionate about the Ryder Cup, and Kirk’s aloof posture couldn’t have gone over well with him. The two had played together in a practice round at the British Open, and when Kirk struggled on the front nine—he still had jet lag from his flight—Watson got on his back a little, and they won their match at the end. Whether Kirk appreciated the pep talk is more doubtful—he’s a self-motivator, and not the kind of person who searches for mentors. Even agreeing to play with Watson as a sort of audition probably rubbed him the wrong way, and the two hadn’t spoken since.

Making matters worse, Watson had an ego, and very much wanted players who would be excited to play for him. He saw himself as a general—tough but inspiring, harsh but well-loved—and to say he wanted a cult of worship would be too strong, but he did appreciate players like Bradley who would say the right things, and flatter his John Wayne-esque self-image. He wanted eager, loyal soldiers, and Kirk was a natural-born mercenary who adamantly refused to move even an inch toward Watson, much less to suck up or beg. The ring was extended, but Kirk wouldn’t kiss it.

That night, the personality clash could not have been more evident. Still, even though Kirk could be cold and stand-offish and probably didn’t think much of the media, I liked him, and I knew that he’d be excellent at the Ryder Cup—nor did I believe, for a second, that he was really so ambivalent about the event as he let on. I hoped that if he won on Monday, he’d overcome his stubborn streak and tell Watson what he wanted to hear. Wouldn’t it be worth it, for one day, in order to make the team?

*

On paper, playing with McIlroy for a second straight day seemed like a tall order for Kirk. His year had gone well enough after his win at the McGladrey, but his only other top tens came at the Sony Open and the Memorial, and now he was up against the no. 1 player in the world and the winner of the last two major championships. Unlike everyone else McIlroy had faced on Sundays that year, though, Kirk had the kind of personality that wouldn’t wither in the face of Rory’s ferocity and talent. In fact, it was the kind of challenge that was perfectly suited to Kirk’s rigid self-belief. He may not be able to promote himself in front of the cameras, but he wouldn’t crack just because the man across the tee box happened to be the best golfer on the planet. You could even see his refusal to budge in the way he answered questions about Rory on Saturday night:

Q. When you’re playing with Rory, you have to be on top of your game?

CHRIS KIRK: I try to play well every day. But I definitely enjoy playing with him. He’s a guy I’ve known for quite a while and been good friends with and he’s a very enjoyable guy to play with.

It was a brilliant approach, I thought. Rory didn’t impress him enough to change his game in any way, and not only was he not intimidated, but he was so up for it that he was going to have fun. Thinking back to Rory’s previous opponents, like Sergio and Rickie, it was clear to see that he’d face a different kind of challenge at the Deutsche Bank. He’d have to win by talent alone—Kirk wouldn’t fold. That still gave Rory the advantage, since he’s the most talented golfer in the world, but if he started slow, like at Valhalla, Kirk wouldn’t let him off the mat so easily.

There is very little glamor to Kirk’s personal life, past or present, and he doesn’t try to hide it—when asked what he had done between the third and fourth rounds, he told a tale of domestic headaches. For one, his two-year-old boy Sawyer was having temper tantrums, and then his wife had to get their 8-month-old son Foster to sleep. The next morning, his son acted up again when he had to pack up the toys in the toy bin for the upcoming travel—always the hardest part of every week. It gave him very little time to reflect on the upcoming duel with Rory McIlroy, which was probably a bonus, as less time to think meant less time to worry. Still, it was hard not to laugh at the contrast of his own personal life with Rory’s jet-setting, night club lifestyle.

Come Monday, Rory missed two birdie putts by mere inches on the first two holes, and Kirk had to rescue himself with an 8-foot par putt on the second after misjudging a wedge into the par-5 green. Kirk could feel the nerves moving through him, and he told me later that making the par putt might have been the most important shot of his round. Even the simple benefit of having a good feeling with his putter calmed him down, and filled him with a confidence that he was missing on the first tee.

On the par-3 third, he kept the momentum going with a 6-iron to five feet, setting up his first birdie of the day and putting him a shot up on Rory. Separately, they walked the long, wooded path between holes, and Kirk sipped water and had a muted conversation with his caddie about golf course design. “How do you see holes, standing in this shit?” he asked rhetorically, to which the caddie grunted a reply. The quiet looper was jut one of the rotating pool of caddies that Kirk keeps, refusing to stick with just one for any set length of time due to his “self-sufficiency” and, as he told Golf Week in November, not wanting to blame anyone but himself.

On the tee at the driveable par-4, Rory and Kirk chatted amiably, which was strange on both sides—Kirk isn’t talkative by nature, and Rory usually gives his playing partners the silent treatment, especially during the final round. Kirk took driver and came up short, and Rory hit 15 yards farther with his 3-wood, which showcased the difference in length between the two that would become a recurring them all day. While Rory made an easy birdie, Kirk had to land his pitch from off the green on the first cut to make sure it didn’t run by the hole, and he did well just to give himself eight feet for birdie. He holed it, and put the pressure on Rory, who sunk his own from inside five feet.

Rory made the first mistake of the round on the fifth hole when, after out-driving Kirk by 50 yards, he pushed his approach right and hit a weak chip to make bogey. He hit his drive on the sixth hole into a fairway bunker, and compounded the error by hitting his next shot straight into the lip. He was forced to chip sideways then, and did well to go up-and-down from 175 yards for another bogey, but he had dropped two shots, and he threw his ball in a nearby pond in frustration.

Kirk now trailed Henley by just a shot—another Georgia duel in the making—and Rory had fallen behind those two and Billy Horschel. He fought back with two birdies on seven and eight, but Kirk rescued himself with a terrific shot from a short-side bunker on eight, and an aggressive 7-iron on the ninth to the back left pin set him up for his third birdie of the day. By the time they hit the turn, Henley had dropped a shot, and Kirk was now tied for the lead with Horschel at -13.

The muggy heat intensified on the back nine, and Kirk gained a fan who wouldn’t stop yelling “Captain Kirk!” after each shot. Rory, who out-drove him on every hole and hit high, looping irons with that beautiful, liquid swing, looked like the better golfer—especially when you watched Kirk’s rigid, paint-by-numbers swing, and the blank, almost robotic look in his eyes. He still had the back nine left, and everyone knew that’s where he’d make his move. Still, nothing seemed to faze Kirk.

On the 10th, he hit a perfect chip to stave off a potential bogey, and reached the green on the long par-3 11th with a hybrid to set up a long two-putt. By the time he made par on no. 12, Rory had missed par putts of eight and three feet to start the back nine, and suddenly he had dropped to -9. Without a miracle, it seemed like he’d fallen out of contention. On 13, Kirk mishit his second shot—a “drop-kick,” where the club hits the ground in front of the ball, but bounces up before impact to turn a fat shot into a thin one—but got lucky when it carried the bunker and rolled onto the green anyway. From there, he stared down a 23-footer and sunk it for birdie to reach -14. He held the lead now, one ahead of Geoff Ogilvy, who had made six birdies on the day, and Billy Horschel, playing steady but unspectacular golf in the final group.

From there, Kirk had to pass a series of tests. He pushed his drive into the right rough on 14, but hit a beautiful approach from a thick lie to carry a cross bunker and reach the green. It was the riskiest shot he hit all day, and also his best—the solid contact kept him away from the sand, which would likely have meant bogey or worse.

By this point, Rory had grown frustrated with his round, and when his short approach on the 15th landed an unsatisfying 16 feet away, he threw his wedge at his bag. Meanwhile, Kirk, was like a metronome, hitting shot after shot like clockwork and showing very little emotion in the process. He holed another long putt for par on 15, and made a 13-footer for birdie on the par-3 16th after Rory nearly made a hole-in-one. On that putt, a memory from an earlier round came back to him, and he realized before he hit that the ball broke away from the water on the left of the hole, which allowed him to take the proper line.

He found the right rough on 17, and his ball landed in an old divot, but he dug it out to reach the green with an easy par, and came into the 18th with a one-shot lead on Horschel, who had birdied 15. On the par-5, Kirk nearly made a monumental error when his lay-up kicked off a ridge and came close to landing in a small pot bunker in the fairway—the only one for miles around—but it held up in the rough. He still faced a dicey shot, but he landed his short approach two feet onto the green and watched it tunnel toward the hole. He left himself 10 feet for birdie, and again he remembered was something strange about the putt. This time, his memory failed him—he thought the putt broke less than it looked, and so he aimed almost straight, but in fact it broke more, and his birdie attempt swung well wide of the hole.

He made par for a bogey-free 66 and headed for the scoring tent, where his wife met him with his sons. “I have to go talk to the man, okay?” he told Sawyer in a gentle voice when the tv cameras beckoned, and the boy cried as he was passed back to his mother. In the hallway outside the scoring room, Rory McIlroy saw his assistant Sean O’Flaherty—a few sprigs of chest hair popping through the neck of the plaid shirt that matched his pastel pants, sunglasses hung backward around his neck, hair caked with gel—and grinned. “Fuckkkk,” he said, letting the word hang in the air. “So bad.”

Out on the 18th hole, still trailing by a shot, Billy Horschel bombed his drive 318 yards down the right side of the fairway. From there, he watched Kirk miss his birdie putt, and turned to his caddie Micah Fuggitt.

“I’m going to hit this on the green, I’m going to make eagle, and we’re going to win the tournament,” he said.

He took dead aim with his 6-iron from 211 yards away. Deep down, he understood that this shot gave him not only a chance to win the tournament, but to make the Ryder Cup team—unlike Kirk, he had exactly the kind of energy that Watson coveted. The ball was below his feet, but on an uphill lie relative to the hole, and before he hit, Horschel reminded himself “stay in the golf shot”—not to rise too soon and risk sending it right.

It was a sound piece of strategy, but as it turned out, he overcompensated, and caught the ball very fat. It rose up in the air, and Horschel immediately knew it was his worst shot of the day—a total chunk. When it came down, it landed in the thick native area guarding the front of the green, from which no recovery was possible. He took the penalty drop, made bogey, and finished in a three-way tie for second.

Horschel had always struggled with his anger, and after conquering his emotions for most of 2013, they had started to creep up and get the better of him in the past few months. I’d watched him kick a trash can with fury in Greensboro, and when he came into the scoring room after his chunked 6-iron, and heard from Tom Alter that he had dropped in the FedEx Cup standings because of the bogey, he let out an anguished scream and punched his own hand. Horschel’s rage is the kind that looks very frightening up close, and Alter briefly wondered if he might hurt himself by punching a wall.

He didn’t—he collected himself in time to talk to reporters, and all he could say was that he hit the ball well all day, that he believed in himself standing over the 6-iron, and that hopefully he could get a win next week.

*

Which left Chris Kirk, and the possibility of that captain’s pick. Would he advocate for himself, now that he’d won?

No chance. Doug Ferguson and I did our best to probe beyond the stubborn silence, but he just reiterated that the event didn’t mean as much to him as the other players.

“I’m not going to really base how happy I am with how I’m playing or how my year has gone on whether I make the team or not,” he said. “Obviously I would love to do it. I would love to maybe be making a bigger deal out of it than I am, but that’s just honestly how I feel.”

Ferguson gave it one last shot, hoping against hope that he might get some indication that it mattered to Kirk.

Q. You talked outside and you spoke well about not being entitled and if it happens, great. And if it’s not, look what you’ve done this week which is great in itself. Is there any part of you that’s a little bit antsy about a phone ringing with news one way or the other?

CHRIS KIRK: No.

Q. If not, can you make something up for us?

CHRIS KIRK: Like I said, I wish that I was a little bit more excited or freaking out about it, but, you know, I mean I don’t really know what else to say. I’d love to do it, but, I don’t know, I’m not worried. It’s not like there’s anything that I can do to sway it one way or another. I can’t say, hey, Tom, please, please pick me now. I don’t think that’s going to change his mind a whole lot. I think he’s probably got a pretty good idea of what he wants to do regardless of what I want to do.

And so, with a potential chance to talk his way onto the team, golf’s most stubborn player stuck to his guns, and left the course without compromise. Back at home, two-year-old Sawyer realized his dad had won, and though the concept was still abstract to him, he could pick up on the excitement. And when he got excited, that meant Foster would too, and soon both boys were wired. Kirk had to fly to Denver the next morning, and it would be a long time before he could get his sons to sleep that night. If you had seen him at that moment—this slim, slightly nerdy figure struggling to wrangle two young boys—you’d never guess that he’d just spent two days playing alongside the best golfer in the world. And it wouldn’t have crossed your mind, in a million years, that he actually won.

(Excerpted from the original manuscript of Slaying the Tiger.)

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