In order to put some perspective on what happened this week at Pebble Beach, I need to start back in Montreal the previous week. So … another late Sunday tee time was mine for the final round of the 2011 Montreal Championship. After rounds of 71 and 70, I was finding myself in that all too familiar place of tied for 50-something.
This was becoming a common theme for me. Because of a two-tee start, I was given a late tee time, but unfortunately, it was off the 10th tee about the time those near the lead (like my roommate for the week, Tom Lehman) were teeing off the 1st. It felt like every round I was shooting on the Champions Tour was a 70. The courses lately had not been that tough, but my game was not in a groove. One day it was putting, the next it was a couple of bad shots that cost some strokes. I told my caddie that today would be about attitude. I would play with a thankful heart full of gratitude and be grateful for the opportunity, not caught up in the performance.
Being born of a French mother and still fluent in French, I was having some fun with the fans before we teed off. At three-under par, I was a full 13 strokes behind the torrid pace set by Mr. Lu from Taiwan. John Cook was a stroke back. With the low scoring, I began to joke with the crowd in French that I needed a round of 19 birdies to catch the leaders. One gentleman asked me in French who I thought would win. Since I was speaking French and I knew none of my fellow competitors could hear me, I told them that John Cook was the man to beat and I predicted he would shoot a 65 and win at 22-under.
Surprisingly, many in the gallery decided to follow me; probably since I was the only American player speaking French. After a good pitch at the par 5 10th, I made the 4-foot birdie putt on my first hole of the day. “That’s one, only 18 more birdies to go”, I joked with the gallery. After a good 8-iron approach at the par 4 11th, I struck the 15’ birdie putt on my intended line. The speed was perfect, birdie #2. The crowd was starting to get into it. “You know you can eagle a hole, too, Bobby”, one enthusiastic golf fan shouted out in French. “You never know until you give it your all”, I answered back.
Well, I didn’t shoot 53 that day as you might have guessed. But I did go on to make 5 more birdies and record a bogey free 65, my best round of the year. Ironically, I shot an 8-under par 64 in the final round of the same event the previous year, the low round of the day. By the way, John Cook went on to shoot 66 and win by three strokes for his third victory of the year.
Shooting 10-under for the week moved me into a tie for 28th but more importantly was the breakthrough that resulted. My attitude was free, thankful and one of simply enjoying the journey. I was no longer a prisoner to my low expectations and suffering confidence. I was beginning to take hold of some of the key points I had discussed with “Golf in the Kingdom” author and founder of the Esalen Institute, Michael Murphy, during a recent encounter. Michael and I had a long discussion about “the zone”.
Marianna and I flew back to Raleigh in the Piper Malibu that evening. It was an uneventful 3.5-hour journey except for the numerous lines of thunderstorms we needed to navigate. After unloading the luggage at home, we bolted to our favorite Irish pub in our neighborhood for dinner. We knew it would be a short night, for the next day we were booked on a 6 am flight to Pebble Beach for the Nature Valley First Tee, held in my native Northern California backyard!
Monday was my first day of rest in over three weeks. I didn’t hit a single shot. But Tuesday was a busy day. Needing to save my body from full swings and give it more rest, I set out to Pebble Beach with my caddie Cliff, my wedge, and my putter. Cliff hadn’t been to Pebble Beach in over 20 years, and he couldn’t get enough. He felt like he was on vacation, as I had all the yardage and green reading already done. But the greens at Pebble were firm and fast, and the putts were breaking more than usual. I needed several hours of work on the greens before I started feeling comfortable. Cliff is an excellent green reader, and he learned the greens we putted quickly. In the afternoon, Cliff and I headed to Del Monte, where one of the three rounds of the tournament would be played, for a mini-practice round. Del Monte is the oldest course west of the Mississippi and the first course I ever broke par on. I was 14 years old at the time. I was excited to play Spyglass in the Wednesday Pro-Am until I discovered my tee time was 7:20a. Being short on rest didn’t dampen my day; I hadn’t played my old high school home course in over two years. It was in the best shape I had ever seen. On Thursday, I worked on my long game and did some more chipping and putting late in the afternoon at Pebble Beach. I needed to get to bed early, as I had at least two parties to attend days prior. Fortunately, I had a late Friday tee time off the 10th tee at Pebble Beach.
The first round at Pebble was similar in many ways to the final round at Montreal. My lone bogey came as a result of a three-putt on #4. But birdies on 11, 17, 18, and 6 gave me a round of 69, the same score I had shot at Pebble in the final round the previous year.
I was off to a good start early the next morning at Del Monte with birdies on the first two holes and starting to make a move at Russ Cochran, the first round leader who shot 65 at Pebble Beach. But after getting into trouble at #3, a bogie stopped the momentum. It suddenly returned with birdies at #7 and #8, then again at #10 and #11. Suddenly, I’m 5 under for the round. After a second bogie at #12, I birdied #16 and #17 to finish with a 6 under par 66 and, for the moment, the clubhouse lead. Jay Haas would later go on a birdie run at Pebble Beach to take a two-shot lead into the final round.
I was thrilled to be in the final group on Sunday. My First Tee partner, John Dunlap and I had made the cut, so he would be playing with me again. Jay and his junior partner had also made the cut. I was happy to play with Jay. He and I had played many times before and we’ve always gotten along well. Jay is focused on his shots but relaxed in between. He and I talked quite a bit during the round which lasted about 6 hours.
On Sunday, the first tee posed a bigger challenge than usual for me. The wind was slight and variable, coming from about 8 o’clock. A three-wood was a very aggressive club that could reach the fairway bunker. A 5-wood might be too conservative. Jay hit first and ripped his three-wood into the garden spot with nothing more than a pitching wedge remaining for his second shot. Cliff and I debated for a moment, and then I took the 5-wood and hit the stinger up the right side that trickled into the fringe rough. After a good 8-iron second shot that never left the flag, I was left with an 18-foot straight-up-the-hill putt. I nailed it, as did Jay. We had both birdied the 1st.
The second hole is the shortest par 5 on the course. I hit a good drive and had a 3-iron second shot which I faded into the right-hand greenside bunker. Jay was wild right with his fairway wood 2nd but made a great up-and-down that was capped off by a holed downhill 15-footer. I missed my 10-footer for birdie and now trailed by 3.
A pivotal point occurred at the 4th. The tee shot has undergone some recent changes. The fairway bunker on the left has been pushed a little to the right and been made larger. The fairway has been pushed right to the ocean’s edge. Additionally, fairway now circumvents the bunker, bringing the larger bunker more into play when hitting a driver off the tee. I usually hit a fading driver, but the tee shot is now more difficult, so I decided to lay up with a 3-iron, leaving a 9-iron 2nd shot. The hole was cut in the back of the small green, five steps from the back edge. I drew my take-five-yards-off 9-iron shot 13 feet left of the hole. The ball landed 5 yards short of the hole high on the green then took a huge first bounce over the green and into the tall fescue. Four shots later, I made double-bogie.
My son Michael who was following me with his brother Daniel came up to me and said, “Don’t worry, Dad, we still love you.” Those were just the words I needed to hear. I was in close at 5, 6 and 7 for birdie, but they wouldn’t drop. I made a par at the difficult 8th when I two-putted from the front fringe. After a good drive at the 9th, I hit a hard +5 yards sand wedge to 12’ for birdie, made the putt and suddenly I had closed the gap to two shots. After Jay three-putted the slick 10th green, I trailed by only one shot.
I hit what I thought was a perfect shot at the challenging into-the-wind par 3 12th. Somehow, the ball carried the front bunker but stopped on the downslope in the rough, short of the green. I had never seen that happen in all the years I’ve played Pebble Beach. But I had a good lie and saw the opportunity to hit a shot I had been practicing lately the hybrid chip. I pictured the right-to-left break, visualized the ball going in the hole. A big cheer erupted when the ball disappeared into the hole. When Jay’s birdie putt curled around the edge but didn’t drop, I was tied for the lead. I could feel the adrenaline but was in my focus and zone. Time was beginning to stand still. Calm was over my body.
I striped another drive at #13, leaving only 128 yards for my second shot. Needing a -10 yards 8-iron, I hit the ball a little thin, leaving a difficult 45-foot putt that I thought would break 18 feet. It broke 24 feet, but the straight in 6-footer never left the center of the cup. I was still tied for the lead, but now with Jeff Sluman who had just birdied the diabolical 14th. After striping another tee shot down the middle at 14, my sometimes TV colleague, Billy Ray Brown, ran up to me and asked for an on-course interview. This is allowed on the Champions Tour, but not on the regular Tour. It caught me a little off-guard, but being in the TV business, I knew it was best to do the interview. “Need to hunker down. One shot at a time, Pebble is playing tough,” is what I told Billy Ray. I received many comments the following day from many who tried to blame the interview for my double-bogie at 14. The reality is that it didn’t bother me. The third shot at 14 is possibly the most difficult approach shot in all of golf. I was faced with a 123-yard uphill third shot from the center of the fairway. I hit another slightly thin 9-iron shot and paid the price. The ball landed on the green into the top of the steep slope and began to trickle off the front of the green, leaving me with one nearly impossible flop shots in golf to a tabletop.
Jay also double-bogeyed #14 and we both now found ourselves trailing Sluman by two. When I arrived at #17 tee, I was trailing by three, needing the next-to-impossible birdie, eagle finish to tie. Jay had the honor at the famous par 3, playing 184 yards to a back left hole location. The greens had been getting firmer with each passing moment. The breeze appeared to be directly right-to-left, perfect for a holding 5-iron. Jay struck what looked to be the perfect shot. The ball landed just past the flag and rolled over the green into the deep rough with a very difficult chip remaining. I turned to Cliff, “We can’t hit it over the green here! We’re better off in the front bunker than over the green. How about a +3 yards 6-iron.” “Yes, I like it”, Cliff agreed. “The wind appears to be helping a bit.” I struck it well, but the trajectory was slightly higher than I had envisioned. “Go”, I screamed. The ball landed onto the lip of the front bunker. My concern was that I could get a slightly buried lie, as the ball landed softly. When I arrived at the ball, I was pleased to see that it had just barely popped out of its pitch but left a crater directly behind the ball. I jumped into the bunker to survey the lie. It was one of those lies that would leave no room for error. It was perched high, almost teed up in the sand. It would require the perfect strike. I settled in, waggled the club, picturing how the club would enter the sand, seeing the flight of the ball and the result. The contact was perfect, the ball came out strong, with a ton of spin, landing 4 feet short of the hole and amazingly, stopping a foot short of the hole. I actually thought it was in when I struck it. I did my best high-hurdler imitation and jumped out of the bunker. I later would receive comments about that move, thank God for the P90X Plyometrics workout!
As I stood on the 18th tee, I felt that awful sensation one gets when all the adrenaline has left one’s body. I just then realized I had lost the tournament. I didn’t even want to play at that moment. My thoughts went back to “attitude”. It was time to have a real self-talk. “Ok, a birdie here at 18 will get you into a tie for 2nd. Let’s see you hit 4 quality shots even though you don’t feel like it. Can you do it? Prove it to yourself!” After a perfect stinger 3-wood tee shot, a perfect shaping power draw with a 5-wood and a flag hunting 68-yard, -16-yard cut60-degree wedge shot, I was faced with a downhill, left-to-right 7-footer for birdie. The hole was cut in its traditional front right final round placement, but this time it was two steps closer to the middle of the green. I had never seen that exact hole location before. Cliff and I read the putt, 2 and ½ inches outside left edge, we agreed. “Trust it”, I told myself. I saw the line, made a good stroke, but then watched in amazement as the ball wouldn’t break. I had just missed a short putt which caused me to finish in a tie for 5th. The tournament was over. Congratulations to Jeff Sluman who had just won his third First Tee tournament in the last four years!