Every Sunday we watch someone – multiple someones depending on how active we are with the remote control – win a golf tournament. Or at least try to win.
The champions always smile (something that’s surprisingly difficult for many PGA Tour players), recount a key moment or two in their final round and usually say something about how they’re going to celebrate this one for a while, the relief on their faces almost contagious.
Winning is hard. Harder than we realize. Much harder.
Just look at last Sunday in the RBC Heritage at Harbour Town. It’s a wonderful tournament, as comfortable as a good beach chair, and for the longest time in the final round it seemed as if no one might win.
C.T. Pan, who managed to finish 35th on the FedEx Cup points list last season with almost no one outside his immediate family realizing that, managed to win the red tartan jacket but only after multiple players with better résumés kicked away chances to win.
Let’s start with the obvious: world No. 1 Dustin Johnson.
Johnson spent the first three days handling the gusty winds and Harbour Town’s narrow fairways, showing the world that in addition to his immense power, his advantage isn’t limited to bomber’s courses. A win at Harbour Town would have been among the more impressive in Johnson’s career because it would have demonstrated a diversity in his game that tends to be underappreciated.
Winning was only easy when Tiger did it and that wasn’t as easy as he made it look.
On Sunday, though, Johnson chopped it around the final nine holes like a resort guest. With the tournament his to win, he played a five-hole stretch in 7-over par. For many of us, going bogey-bogey-bogey-double bogey-double bogey is nothing new but for Johnson it’s as unlikely as him becoming a stand-up comic.
Johnson would seem immune to such meltdowns, considering he’s won 20 PGA Tour titles. But think about the ones that got away from him – a U.S. Open, a PGA Championship and an Open Championship come to mind. Golf has a finish line and it’s sometimes impossibly far away.
Shane Lowry, a world-class player, left Harbour Town thinking about the double bogey he made coming in, a two-shot mistake that matched the margin he finished behind Pan. Sam Burns, who’s going to win often, doubled his way out of winning at the par-3 14th hole.
Ian Poulter, who probably already has tartan trousers to match the Heritage blazer, didn’t wait until the back nine to play himself out of winning.
Then there was Patrick Cantlay. So close again.
Just like a week earlier when Cantlay suddenly found himself leading the Masters with three holes remaining. He was there in part because of his good play but also because others – take your pick from Francesco Molinari, Brooks Koepka, Tony Finau and Poulter – made victory-killing mistakes on the snakes-on-a-plane scary 12th hole at Augusta National.
Cantlay backpedaled after taking the lead, making two late bogeys at the Masters because, yes, winning is hard.
If it was easy, everyone would do it.
Winning was only easy when Tiger did it and that wasn’t as easy as he made it look. Only since he has returned have we fully appreciated how great his achievement of winning 79 times before his fusion surgery was.
Jon Rahm took the lead into the final round of the Players Championship and shot 76. Justin Thomas closed with 75 at the Genesis Open and saw J.B. Holmes win. The list goes on but the point is obvious.
It is a reminder of what Gary Player said between push-ups and sit-ups years ago: “When you play the game for fun, it’s fun. When you play it for a living, it’s a game of sorrows.”
* Expect Tiger Woods to announce in the next day or two that he will play the Wells Fargo Championship next week at Quail Hollow Club, a regular stop for him through the years.
It’s two weeks before the PGA Championship and a perfect landing spot for him between the Masters and the next major championship.
Beyond the PGA, figure that Tiger will play the Memorial Tournament two weeks before the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.
* We all know the line about there being three kinds of untruths – lies, damned lies and statistics.
Making an occasional trip through the PGA Tour’s voluminous statistics this week, a few things jumped out. Read into them what you will:
Jordan Spieth ranks 142nd in FedEx Cup points. It’s easy to snicker about the tour’s insistence on using its points race to define many things but the truth is Spieth wouldn’t qualify for the playoffs at this point. He almost certainly will but the season is more than half over and Spieth needs to stack up some good finishes. Same goes for Jimmy Walker (163rd) and Jason Dufner (186th).
What has Woods done best this season? He leads the tour in greens in regulation percentage, hitting 75.5 percent of his greens followed, not surprisingly, by Matt Kuchar and Charles Howell III.
Most surprising may be Justin Rose, who ranks 154th in GIR percentage. Perhaps because he’s hitting fewer greens, Rose ranks second on tour in three-putt avoidance, a key stat, trailing only Sam Burns. Dustin Johnson is third.
Johnson is sixth overall in strokes gained putting and it may surprise you to learn that Adam Scott ranks 14th in strokes gained putting. Perhaps demonstrating stats can be misleading, Paul Casey is having a very good season but he’s 178th in strokes gained putting, which probably says something about the misleading nature of stats.
Dustin Johnson looked like a potential winner at Harbour Town until Sunday’s back nine. Photo: Streeter Lecka, Getty Images
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