Friday, May 27, 2011

A Tiger Comes Roarin’ Back

No, not that Tiger… the tiger who is roaring on the PGA Tour in recent weeks is David Toms, the soft-spoken LSU alumnus and dedicated Tiger sports fan who provided PGA fans with thrills, heartbreak, and triumph at the 2011 editions of The Player’s Championship and the Colonial Invitational.

Toms thrilled golf fans with a strong performance during the first two days of The Player’s Championship at TPC Sawgrass, braving heat, humidity, weather delays and that crazy 17th hole and posting a 69 and a 67 to head into the weekend with a 1-stroke lead over Nick Watney, 2 strokes over Steve Stricker and World # 3 Luke Donald – with a pack of other strong contenders 3 and 4 strokes back.

At the end of the 3rd round, which concluded Sunday morning due to a 4 ½-hour weather delay on Saturday when torrential rains pounded the area, Toms and Korea’s K.J. Choi were tied at 2nd, 1 stroke back of 2010 U.S. Open Champion Graeme McDowell, whose rounds of 67, 69, & 69 had fueled a steady climb to the top of the leaderboard. Seven players were sitting 2 strokes back of Toms and Choi at the start of the 4th round, and eventual 3rd-place finisher Paul Goydos was sitting 3 back along with the long-hitting young Spaniard Alvaro Quiros.

At this point the press pundits, both print and TV, were starting to talk about David Toms. At 44, Toms hadn’t had a win in the past 6 years, though he had been playing pretty consistent golf in recent years, with two top-5 finishes in 2010, seven top-10s (including a pair of runner-up finishes) in 2009, 6 top-25s in 2008, and an impressive 4-0-1 record in the 2007 U.S. President’s Cup… well, you get the idea. Like many Tour pros Toms has suffered his share of injuries and medical issues over the years, including wrist surgery in 2003, back problems and a heart-related scare in 2005 when we was rushed off the course to a hospital during the first round of the 84 Lumber Classic. Doctors diagnosed a non-life-threatening condition called supraventricular tachycardia which was cured through surgery the following November. All these facts were recounted by the on-screen commentators as the weekend progressed, increasing the viewers’ appreciation of what David has accomplished, and overcome, throughout his career.

The final round of play saw Toms and Choi duking it out toe-to-toe. Toms was 2 up at the end of the first nine with a 2-under 34, thanks to 3 birdies and a bogey against Choi’s birdie/bogey even-par 36, then Choi battled back on the inward nine, pulling even after Toms hit an indecisive hybrid shot from the right rough that fell short of the 16th green, splashing down in the hazard a yard or two short of being safe. Choi birdied the (in)famous 17th hole to go 1 up, but Toms made the shot of the round – and probably the tournament  – when he put his 2nd shot on the green, hole high, from 180 yards out, out of a sand-filled divot, and poured in the 17-foot putt for a birdie. Choi made par after his approach shot came up just short of the green on the right – and it was back to 17 for a playoff.

Just as it was for Paul Goydos four years ago, when he and Sergio Garcia went to 17 for the first hole of a playoff at the Players Championship, the crazy little island green par-3 was David Toms’ downfall – though not in as spectacular a fashion. While Goydos went out with a splash when his tee ball was knocked down by an untimely gust of wind, Toms went out with – let’s face it – a whimper. His birdie putt whispered past the hole, narrowly missing going in, then he just made a bad stab at the 3 ½-foot par putt and missed it – a $684,000 mistake. Choi walked right through that open door and hoisted the crystal, becoming the first Asian-born champion of The Players Championship, and the fourth consecutive non-American winner.

The second-place finish had to be a bittersweet result for David Toms. After 6 years without an appearance in the winner’s circle, he was that close to hoisting a trophy (and banking a big check… ) again. In a post-round interview he allowed as how he had been thinking about the next shot, the (potential) tee shot on 18, instead of the short putt on 17. That  moment’s inattention was all it took to whiff the putt. After 6 years of close-but-no-cigar Top 10 and Top 5 finishes, Toms can be excused for getting a teensy bit ahead of himself at this point, but the afternoon’s outcome should serve as a lesson to all of us, recreational, amateur, and professional alike, that golf is an exacting game, and inattention – even for an eye-blink – will bite you.

That is a lesson that David’s 13-year-old son, Carter, can take away from his father’s heart-breaking loss that afternoon. Carter, who plays on his school golf team, and is described by Toms as “a real golf nut” has been credited by his father with restoring his enthusiasm for the game. If Carter, who was visibly upset at his father’s loss, had only known what was coming the next week in Fort Worth, he might have felt better about that 3 ½-foot putt his dad missed on 17 at TPC Sawgrass…

………………………

The 2nd place finish at The Players Championship vaulted David Toms so high up the World Golf Rankings, so fast – up 29 places, from 75 to 46, in one week – that it probably gave him a nosebleed. The sudden ascent into the Top 50 didn’t affect him, evidently, any more than that missed putt had – because he came out of the gates the next week at the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial Country Club like a man on a mission, posting a blistering pair of 62’s to once again lead going into the weekend.

The previous Friday, at The Players’ Championship, David Toms’ lead going into the weekend was only 1 stroke. Nick Watney was the guy sitting back there with a 135 to David’s 134, and there were a gaggle of guys you can’t afford to ignore – Luke Donald, Steve Stricker, Graeme McDowell, etc. – at 2 or 3 strokes back. One week later, on Friday night at the Colonial, Toms was sleeping on a 7-stroke lead, and I imagine his head rested more lightly on the pillow that evening than it had the Friday before. Unfortunately, Saturday’s round at Colonial had Toms-watchers thinking that maybe he relaxed a bit too much, as he ballooned to a 74 and slid back to 2nd place, one stroke behind the consistent Charlie Wi, who shot a cool, collected 66 through the swirling, blustery North Texas winds for a 3-day total of 197 (64-67-66).

The increase in the wind on Saturday threw more than one player off their game; the scoring average was up by a hair over 2 strokes, and the high and low scores – especially the high score – were higher than the Thursday and Friday rounds (81/65, vs 75/62 and 74/62). With the temperature and the humidity both hovering in the 90s, ever-colorful on-course commentator David Feherty likened the winds to “…the breeze blowing off my morning bowl of oatmeal”.

Saturday night must have been a long one for Toms; he had blown up by 12 strokes compared to the two days before and turned a 7-stroke lead into a 1-stroke deficit – and the wind would probably still be blowing on Sunday. It was gut-check time for the 44-year-old former LSU Tiger, and he must have engaged in some heavy contemplation that evening. It wouldn’t help his state of mind that he had a long morning ahead of him on Sunday waiting for his tee time; time and again I have heard Tour pros talk about the difficulty in staying loose, both mentally and physically, while they waited for their turn up on the tee in the last group, especially when they are in the position of having to protect a slim lead, or in Toms’ case, regain a lead that they had squandered the day before.

Things got worse before they got better for David Toms on that hot, humid, windy Sunday afternoon at Colonial Country Club. He dropped one, then two shots to Charlie Wi. At the par-3 4th hole he gained a stroke on Wi, with a par to Wi’s bogey, then gave it back at the 5th, with a par to Wi’s birdie. Toms got his second wind, or found his “GO” gear at the 6th hole, though – he got another stroke back on Wi, then another, and held on to close out the front nine back where he started, one stroke back.

Toms got his back nine off to a good start with a solid par against Wi’s bogey 5, closing the gap to even; and then, at the 635-yard, par-5 11th hole, those Texas winds came around and bellied David Toms’ sails. Two good swings left him in the fairway with 83 yards to the flag. The flag was tucked right, with a bunker between the hole and Toms’ position in the fairway, but neither the flag’s position, nor the intervening bunker impressed themselves on Toms. He lofted a beautiful wedge shot dead on line with the flag, dropping it a foot or two short and mere inches right of the flagstick; with a couple of bounding hops it carried past the hole, then thought better of things, bit, and spun back, right into the hole for an eagle 3 – and the lead.

With the wind at his back and the bit in his mouth (metaphorically-speaking), after the timely hole-out at the 11th hole, David Toms took command of the tournament. He built his lead up to two, then three strokes, going par-par-birdie-par through the 15th hole to his opponent’s bogey-par-par-par. Charlie Wi surged back with a birdie at 16 to cut his deficit by one stroke, then Toms gave a shot back when he bogeyed the par-4 17th hole. The Korean-born Wi’s surge was too little–too late, though, as the man from Shreveport, Louisiana matched pars with Charlie on the 18th hole to step into the winner’s circle for the first time since the 2006 Sony Open in Hawaii.

In a PGA season that was being lauded as the “Year of the Youngsters”, David Toms is the third 40-something to win on the Tour this year. In two weeks he has banked just over $2.1M in prize money, shot from 75th to 28th in the World Golf Rankings, and showed that hanging in there, staying cool, and bringing experience to bear when the chips are down is the key to success on the PGA Tour.

While I wouldn’t say that there are any “bad” guys on the PGA Tour, David Toms is certainly one of the “good” guys. A die-hard LSU Tiger supporter and a passionate Louisianan whose David Toms Foundation has raised millions to help underprivileged, abused and abandoned children, in addition to bringing much-needed aid to the victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, David Toms has shown the golf world that a sleeping tiger may come back, roaring, when least expected. Will o'the Glen congratulates David on a thrilling, inspiring couple of weeks on Tour, and I wish him continued success.

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