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.