Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Cinderella Story

“Cinderella Story... ”. There was not a golfer in the United States, and probably not many in the world, who didn’t have that phrase running through their mind coming into the final round of the AT&T Pro-Am at Pebble Beach last weekend, as comedian Bill Murray, an iconic figure in the world of golf for 30 years on the back of his portrayal of gopher-obsessed greenskeeper Carl Spackler in the 1980 film Caddyshack, and a fixture at the AT&T tournament on the Monterey Peninsula since 1992, lived every duffer’s fantasy when he became the amateur champion at the 2011 AT&T Pro-Am.

In case you’ve been living in a cave in a remote Central Asian mountain range since 1980, the phrase “Cinderella story” comes from the scene in Caddyshack in which Murray, as Spackler, fantasizes about winning the Masters while beheading a row of mumms in a planter bed outside the clubhouse with rhythmic swings of a weed cutter: “What an incredible Cinderella story! This unknown, comes out of nowhere, to lead the pack at Augusta. […]  Cinderella story, out of nowhere, former greenskeeper, now about to become the Masters champion. It looks like a mirac- it’s in the hole! It’s in the hole!” Murray used the line in the title of his biography, Cinderella Story: My Life In Golf, published in 2000.

Murray has been paired regularly over the years at the AT&T with pro Scott Simpson, but with Simpson not playing the tournament this year as he transitions to the Champions Tour full time, the pro slot alongside the Clown Prince of Pebble Beach was open. Partnered this year with D. A. Points, a fellow Illinois native and Caddyshack fan who is reported to have actively sought out the pairing with Murray, the comedy star played the clown as well as some outstanding golf (for a player with a reported 12 handicap), contributing 20 net strokes under par to the team’s tournament total of 251. Murray has made the Saturday cut at the AT&T Pro-Am 5 times previously, posting Top Ten finishes in 1995 (T7 – 259) and 2005 (T4 – 258) with Simpson. Murray and Simpson were in the running for the championship in ’05, but a closing round 67 dropped them to 4th place.

Some of the more rigid-minded pros equate a pairing with Murray to a 2-stroke handicap, but Points, who admits to having watched Caddyshack “…like 5,000 times…” thought that having Murray as a partner would help keep him loose. That theory proved to be sound as Points shot an opening round 63 at the Monterey Peninsula Country Club’s Shore course; a par 70 acknowledged to be the easiest of the three courses in the tournament rotation, but no pushover even under the benign weather conditions that prevailed over the four days of the tournament.

Points could only manage a 2-under 70 on the tighter, more difficult Spyglass Hill course in Friday’s round, but the Points/Murray team were near the top of the Pro-Am division leader board as they started play on Saturday morning at Pebble Beach, inspiring Murray to don an Elmer Fudd-style hat and declare, “It’s official – we are in the hunt!”. Points posted a 71 at Pebble on Saturday, stumbling slightly with a double-bogey at the iconic par-4 9th hole, the middle hole in the famous oceanside stretch of the course dubbed “Abalone Corner” by golf writer Dan Jenkins.

Hunter Mahan made a run at the championship on Sunday, shooting a 66 to follow up rounds of 70-67-70 at Spyglass, Pebble, and Monterey Peninsula CC for a tournament total of 273, but Points held him off,  recovering from Saturday’s stumble to post a 67 in Sunday’s final round at Pebble Beach. Crucial to his low score was a spectacular eagle at the par-5 14th hole, where he holed out from the fairway on a fortuitous bounce off the back side of the slope above the treacherous front bunker. Backed up by a timely birdie at 15—where he had to make his approach shot while practically straddling an out-of-bounds stake, then sink a curling 28-foot putt—the two strokes he saved with the eagle at 14 turned out to be his margin of victory.

Murray and Points both admit to being nervous as they entered the final stretch of holes, especially following errant tee shots by Points at 15 and 16, but Points turned Murray’s comic relief technique around as Bill stood over a downhill 45-foot putt on the 16th green, calling out to him from across the green, “You know, Bill, I think everyone would really like it if you would make this putt.” Murray and the spectators surrounding the green laughed, and with the pressure eased, the pair played the final two holes in a more relaxed mood, Points smoothly parring 17 and 18 to cruise home for the win. Points’ pro and pro-am sweep is only the seventh solo double-victory since the the tournament moved to the Monterey Peninsula in 1947.

Murray, fittingly, finished off his round with an impromptu monologue styled after the famous “Cinderella Story” scene from Caddyshack as he lined up his bogey putt: “A meaningless putt, for the World Championship, formerly known as the Crosby Pro-Am, now known as the AT&T National Pro-Am…”, jogging after the putt as it rolled just right of the hole, and sweeping it in backhanded as he tossed his hat in the air.

Despite his often irreverent behavior, Murray is no joke on the golf course. He has played the game since he was a boy, and many of the antics in Caddyshack spring from the boyhood experiences of Bill and his brothers Brian (who co-wrote the film’s screenplay with Harold Ramis and Doug Kenney) and Ed as caddies at a local country club golf course. Golfers and sportswriters who decry Murray’s on-course antics should take note of his sober reaction after he and Points posted the victory: “I could not speak,” Murray said. “I realized that this is it. We have won this tournament.” Of course, Bill being Bill, he had to end on a funny note: “When we got to 18, I wanted to do something dramatic. I hit one really good shot, but unfortunately there was a tree in front of it.”

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