Brandt Snedeker won legions of new fans at Augusta, but as always, family came first

Friday August 19th, 2011
A contemplative Snedeker found splendor in the Augusta National grass on Friday afternoon, when he was still loose and carefree.
John W. McDonough/SI

Round 1
An Augusta National member was on the 1st tee, introducing the fog-delayed 12:24 group: John Senden and Tom Watson and ... "Now driving, Brandt Snedeker."

\nToby Wilt, in his green club jacket, didn't struggle with the golfer's I'll-buy-a-vowel name. First and last, it is Dutch, but Snedeker, 27, was born and raised and went to college in Nashville, where Wilt lives too. They've known each other for years. There was warm applause. Watson, who was 27 when he won his first Masters, always gets a crowd to the 1st tee, but people also are drawn to Snedeker.

\nThere's something about him: blue eyes, narrowly spaced; freckled face protected by a bright-white, broad-brimmed visor seemingly lifted from Watson's locker, circa 1985; lanky, boyish frame; easy, bashful smile; longish, curly strawberry-blond hair. He lets people in.

\n He had played in one other Masters, as the U.S. Publinks champion in 2004. He stayed in the Crow's Nest with the other amateurs, soaked up the lore, shot 300 for four rounds. He came to the Masters this year as the reigning PGA Tour rookie of the year, a winner in '07 at the Greensboro stop, engaged to his college girlfriend, brimming with life. All around the 1st tee was a slew of people with a rooting interest. Among them:

\n• Mandy Toth, formerly of Cleveland, whom Snedeker, jumping the gun, sometimes refers to as "my wife." (They have an October wedding date.)

\n• Brandt's parents, Larry, a lawyer and real-estate man who had played so much hard-swinging golf he needed back surgery, and Candy, retired from both her Nashville pawn shop and her career as a middle school teacher. (Nothing says "take early retirement" like open-heart surgery, right? A pacemaker and two dozen pills a day keep her going.)

\n• Brandt's only sibling, his brother, Haymes, who knew Brandt was the real deal when Brandt beat him for the Nashville city men's title on the muni course they grew up playing. Haynes was 23 and Brandt 18.

\n• J.D. Jones, a retired Nashville narcotics cop, avid duffer and family friend, who would spend a week here and there on the road with Brandt when he was on the Nationwide tour and feeling lonesome.

\n• Todd Anderson, Snedeker's swing coach, who got Brandt to move his ball position back four or five inches with the driver in a session in Sea Island, Ga., just six days earlier.

\nAnd here was Toby Wilt — chairman of the Christie Cookie Company of Nashville, a founder of the Golf Club of Tennessee, donor of the golf scholarship that allowed young Sneds to attend Vanderbilt for four years tuition-free — telling the crowd that Snedeker was now driving. Wilt had been Brandt's host at Augusta National on many occasions, including one when he stayed in Tennessee Cabin, just down the path from Butler Cabin, where the winner's green coat ceremony takes place.

\nSnedeker, absorbed by every facet of his favorite event and course, had no real thoughts of winning the 72nd Masters. His last time out, at Doral, he had finished 48th and left Miami thinking of his swing as "mangled." His goal for Augusta was to give it his all, nothing more, nothing less. (Same as always.) He hoped to play well enough to get an automatic invitation for 2009 (top 16). He wanted to put on a good show for his many people, his family and his friends and his fans. Regarding that last group, he had no idea how its ranks would swell over the course of four days.

\nRound 2
He couldn't believe his good fortune, getting paired with Tom Watson. In the mid-1980s when Brandt was five and six and seven and first taking up the game, Watson's name was a fixture on sports-page headlines and golf telecasts, and the eight-time major winner was a model for the boy golfer.

\nCandy and her sons would make summer trips from their home within the city limits of Nashville to rural Missouri, and Haymes and Brandt would play all day at the West Plains Country Club, a place where they'd see tractors in the parking lot and where Candy's mother, Honey Hayes, was a manager and boss of the restaurant.

\n\nAs a young woman, Honey dated Bill Stewart, who later had a son named Payne, so there was a rooting interest for sweet-swinging Payne, too. Brandt had good swing models and no formal instruction. When Watson won the Memorial in 1996, ending a nine-year drought, 15-year-old Brandt felt the tingle of victory himself. By then he was playing Ram clubs, same as Tom.

\nSnedeker began the day one stroke back after a three-under 69 on Thursday, and his play in the second round picked up where the first left off. Through five holes he was one under for the day.

\nOn number 6, the downhill par-3, Snedeker faced a monster-long birdie putt. The route to the hole was blocked by fringe. He took out his lob wedge and played a pitch shot off the green, landing it where he knew the grain would kill it, and watched the ball roll into the hole for an unlikely birdie. He took no divot but could see where the club had brushed the grass.

\nWatson clapped and smiled and said nothing. Snedeker's second-round 68 left him one shot out of the lead.

\nRound 3
Snedeker was paired with the leader, Trevor Immelman, in the last group of the day. This was the round in which they were both supposed to make a mess of things — neither had ever contended for a major before — and let the big boys take the stage: Tiger, Phil, Vijay. When Brandt made bogeys right through Amen Corner, he looked to be playing his role. As an amateur, in his first round, he had made three straight birdies on those very holes. Now, as a pro, he had played them in six shots more. His caddie, Scott Vail, told him he'd make three birdies coming in, and he did, on 14, 15 and 18, to go along with two pars.

\nThe hardest shot in that five-hole stretch was the third shot on the par-5 15th, a sand wedge from 85 yards.probably the one that looked like a standard-issue pitch to the millions of people watching on TV. Four yards too short can funnel the ball to the water. Four yards too long, the same. Snedeker nipped it just right — dead arms, no spin — and left himself with an eight-footer for birdie.

\nIn that third round Anderson could sense that Snedeker was feeding off the gallery, which was joyful behind him. He realized for the first time how much the Masters means to Snedeker, how much he wants to be one of the best players in the game and how much he enjoys showing people what he can do with a golf ball.

\nHis third-round 70 left him two shots behind the leader, still Immelman.

\nRound 4
Nobody prepares you for the long wait leading up to the most important round of your life.

\nOn Saturday night, at the home Snedeker rented at West Lake, a sprawling development on the out skirts of Augusta, J.D. Jones worked the grill, just as he did every night.

\nGrilled bologna and prime rib and chicken wings, of which Brandt ate at least 12, maybe 15. No beer, but many diet Cokes. He went to bed but never to sleep and got up at 7 a.m., 7 1/2 hours before his tee time.

\nHaymes came over for a visit, "but after a while you run out of things to talk about," he says. "There's an elephant in the room that nobody wants to bring up, that you're in the last group on Sunday at the Masters."

\nLarry and Candy and Mandy were in and out, everybody putting on a brave face, everyone feeling the tension. Anderson was on the practice green. Wilt was on the 1st tee. Now driving, Brandt Snedeker.

\nThe course was hard and fast, and the wind was strong and gusty and all over the place. Brandt found that he could not get comfortable over the ball. His new ball position didn't feel right and the ball crept forward in his stance and his shoulders were open and he was aiming right and hitting pull-hooks.

\nSnedeker gave Immelman a congratulatory soul shake on their way up 18 and a warm favorite-uncle smile to Immelman's red-haired son, Jacob, then came off the green, aching with disappointment.

His final-round 77 left him tied for third place, four shots behind Immelman. He could have won the tournament with 72, even par.

\nLater Immelman praised Snedeker for being gracious in defeat. Brandt's people huddled around him and the patrons gave him a nice hand. Here was the happy-to-be- here kid, giving it his best shot and coming up short. How endearing.

\nHe came into the press building for his fourth straight formal, recorded session with reporters. He had been funny and light and candid all week. He had talked about the pleasures of Masters week, his joy in people-watching, looking at the way people walk and dress, identifying the overserved and the under-sunblocked.

\nNow he was fighting tears with every sentence, and then he finally gave up. Applause filled the interview room. (Beyond rare.) An excellent adventure was over. Next year he'll be back for more.

\nThe Aftermath
On Sunday night Wilt went to the winner's reception, Anderson headed home to St. Simons Island, Ga., and Jones and Haymes and Candy and Larry packed up for the trip back to Nashville. On Monday, Mandy and Brandt drove to Hilton Head, where he was committed to play.

\nHe was spent, mentally and physically — he had lost eight pounds during the Masters — but he played Hilton Head on a sponsor's exemption when he was a struggling Nationwide player in 2005 and out of loyalty there was no way he would pull out. He had a Tuesday press conference at Harbour Town, during which he asked for a box of Kleenex before he took his first question.

\nFor his Wednesday pro-am he had a gallery of at least 200 people. (Unless you are Tiger Woods, a more common gallery is three.) At breakfast at the Hilton Head Diner on Thursday morning people asked for his picture and he happily (truly happily) obliged. Watson called — Tom Watson! — and told him how impressed he was with his game and his manners and gave him a tip on how to play the second shot on 13, a tip Snedeker wisely wants to keep to himself.

\nHe spent a lot of time trying to figure out what went wrong on Sunday and some time trying to figure out why he was so emotional when it was over. He finally decided that it was a lot of things, but more than anything it was this: Candy.

\nCandy was the one who took him to play at West Plains, and Candy taught him what to say when a customer came into the shop looking to pawn a boa constrictor. ("We don't take anything you have to feed.") Brandt is close to his father and closer yet to his mother. He describes himself as a "mama's boy."

\nWhen he was at Vanderbilt, Candy's heart issues nearly claimed her life. Seeing his mother become suddenly frail, "grew him up," Larry Snedeker recently said of his son. But at the Masters she was able to trudge up and down Augusta's mighty hills, exhausted though she was.

\nBrandt's mother and father and brother will tell you that Brandt has a personality that impels him to please the people in his life, and there are a lot of them, but especially Candy. And what would please Candy more than seeing her son walk through their Nashville front door with a green jacket on?

\n"I'm aware," Brandt said last week, "that she's living on borrowed time."

\nThat may be, but at the Masters this year, she had the time of her life: her family and friends together, chasing a dream.

\n"I heard somebody say, 'Who's that blond boy with the smile?'"

\nCandy Snedeker recalled the other day. "And I said, 'That's mine.'"

\nA win wouldn't have changed a thing.

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