Here I am this morning, fresh from yesterday’s mind bending foray into the world of high finance, getting set to write another blog about golf. But this time you can blame my wife. It was Sandra who insisted I write about the lessons we might learn from the unlikely drama that unfolded on the TPC Highlands golf course in Cromwell, Connecticut on Sunday. And, no, she doesn’t play golf. Imagine that! The daughter of a golf pro, who just never got interested in playing the game.
Sandra isn’t the only non-golfer who watches those tournaments on TV. Not by a long shot. Just about everybody is fascinated by Tiger Woods, for example. Golfers, non-golfers, even non-sports fans. There’s something about golf that touches a nerve in most of us.
It’s a cliche to say that golf mirrors life. To some extent all sports do. So do card games and video games… That’s why people play, I guess. To live in an alternate reality.
And I guess we watch games to live vicariously, as we do when we read novels or watch movies, or whatever.
Which brings me to last week’s Traveler’s Championship. It is not a “major,” and despite the million-dollar-plus first prize, it did not draw the sport’s biggest stars. But it turned out to be a legendary contest – one for the ages, as the sports writers of a generation ago might have put it.
It was one of those rare events that offer a glimpse of the Bigger Picture, an insight into the things that really matter.
Even without Tiger or Phil or Adam or Rory or Luke, the cast of characters was intriguing. Last week’s US Open champion, England’s Justin Rose, was there, and he was striking the ball with his usual meticulous precision. So was a rising Canadian star, Graham Delaet, who hits the ball a ton and finds fairways and greens with uncanny frequency. There were the homegrown stars of tomorrow, too, who come on tour schooled and confident, ready to win. Chris Stroud, for one.
And there was Bubba.
It’s impossible to dislike Bubba Watson. Indeed, if you have a heart, you couldn’t resist being fond of the guy. He’s not your ordinary golf pro. Or your ordinary sports star. Self-taught and rustic, he’s Lil Abner with a God-given talent. And he’s that weird kid with prodigious power and his heart on his sleeve.
I cried along with Bubba when he won the Travelers back in 2010 while his father lay dying of cancer. And I wept with joy as he sobbed on his mother’s shoulder after winning the 2012 Masters.
But he behaved like a spoiled brat on Sunday, and he got his just desserts.
Amazingly, deservedly, it was a 44-year-old journeyman from Arkansas who emerged as the champion. His name is Ken Duke (photo above), but it doesn’t matter. You probably never heard of him and you may never hear of him again. He’s just one of those golf pros who make a living on the tour but never make headlines. Just an out-of-shape middle-aged guy with a steel rod in his back to correct his scoliosis, fighting back the pain, traveling from tournament to tournament week after week in hopes of making another cut and collecting another paycheck.
But on this Sunday, this ordinary guy, this journeyman, showed the world what a champion is made of.
In the drama that was the Traveler’s final round, it was this unlikely hero who trumphed – Rocky Balbao of the links, battered but unbowed, rising from the canvas one more time to throw one more haymaker …
And, when all seems lost, to score a knockout.
Duke didn’t drive the ball as far as some of those other guys. He didn’t hit his irons as crisply. Indeed, he hit some ugly shots – like the wedge on the 10th hole that rattled around in a tree and incredibly bounced on the green. Duke looked up at the tree in gratitude after sinking the putt for a birdie, and then went on to score a few more birdies going in.
On the 18th hole – much too nervous to make a full shoulder turn – he sprayed his drive way to the right. But he gouged the ball out of deep grass and somehow got it up by the green. Then he gathered his resolve, walked up to the ball and stroked it. As the crowd cheered, it rolled across the green and settled within a couple of feet of the hole. One more test of Duke’s nerve. And he met the challenge. Par. Ken Duke walked to the clubhouse 12 under – the leader by a stroke over young Chris Stroud, who was paired with Bubba a hole behind…
And Bubba? Bubba, who had led from the first round and was leading by two strokes going into the 16th? Bubba was out of it. He had thrown a tantrum after trying to get cute and coming up a few feet short on the tricky par-3 – an unforced error that sent his ball rolling into the pond guarding the green. Fussing and fuming, Bubba didn’t even walk up to the ball to see whether it was playable – and it might have been … I thought I saw the top of the ball poking out of the water and I recalled that shot Bill Hass hit in the Fedex Cup playoff a couple of years back… No, Bubba stalked up to the drop area and petulantly slammed his next shot way over the green. Then, pouting and fussing, he snapped at caddy Ted Scott for suggesting the wrong club.
Oh Bubba! Shame on you! You didn’t deserve to win after that. And you didn’t.
Stroud deserved to win, though. He was near-perfect all day. So was Delaet, who finished third. So was Rose – and so were several others who could have won but didn’t.
It was Duke who won. Duke, sitting in the club house with a one-shot lead, watching Stroud stripe his drive down the fairway and float a wedge on the green … watching as the ball rolled by the pin and trickled over the green… watching as Stroud sized up the chip and hit the ball… watching as the ball bumped the pin and found the bottom of the hole.
It was Duke who pulled himself together and marched back to the 18th tee for a playoff … Duke who heeled his drive into a sand trap and watched it bounce out of the trap into deep grass… Duke who somehow slogged it out of the grass and up by the green once more … Duke who resolutely salvaged a par to match Stroud’s.
And it was Duke who – on the second play-off hole – found the fairway with his drive (way behind Stroud’s of course). And it was Duke who hit the shot of his life right next to the pin. It was Duke who watched Stroud’s approach shot land on the green and roll a few feet beyond birdie range, watched Stroud miss the putt… then, here comes the hard part, it was the 44-year-old, non-winner who stood over a winding two-foot putt that could change his life forever – or not – and…
Yes, Ken Duke made the putt! Yes, Ken Duke is the Traveler’s champion!
He earned more than a million dollars on Sunday. Deservedly.
Chris Stroud will win some day. Not Sunday, but some day. You can bet on it. This kid is good. He might even be great. Ditto for Delaet.
Bubba has some growing up to do. I hope he learned that lesson on Sunday. You can learn a lot about life from playing golf.
Or watching it.
Click here for one critic’s take on Bubba’s performance.