This week, in San Antonio, Brad Faxon will play in one of the most important tournaments of his life, the 54-hole AT&T Championship on the Champions Tour. He won last week's senior stop, the Insperity Championship in Houston, shortened to 36 holes because of a deluge. If he wins again this week, and only if he wins, he'll have earned enough money to qualify for the season finale, the big-bucks Charles Schwab Cup Championship, played in early November at that regal muni, Harding Park in San Francisco. It must be so much fun to be thinking the way Brad Faxon is thinking right now: Just win, baby. (RIP, Al Davis.) He wasn't thinking that way just a short while ago.
Golf is so weird. Unpredictable and weird. You never know when something is going to click. This year, before turning 50 in August, Faxon played in 12 PGA Tour events. He missed the cut in all of them. His 2010 campaign was only slightly better. That year, he had a side job, doing commentary for NBC golf telecasts. At the end of the year, NBC did not renew him.
"I was feeling pretty beat up," he said in a phone interview the other day. Faxon's press-tent honesty over his long and graceful career has contributed to the pleasure of covering golf for many of us in the typing pool.
At every skill level, the ability to boss your golf ball around comes and goes. If you stay with the game if you truly and honestly continue to apply yourself to it that ability might come back. Confidence comes and confidence goes. If you stay with the game, that might come back, too. That's what Brad Faxon is here to tell you.
You could fill a Rhode Island phone book with the names of all the teachers Faxon has seen over his long and gracious career. He's always been on a quest. For several years now, he's been stacking-and-tilting with the teachers Andy Plummer and Mike Bennett. For years, you could say, based on Brad's results, it wasn't working. But Brad didn't feel that way. He felt he was getting better.
And then, in late September, he played in a two-day event in Plymouth, Mass., the Old Sandwich Pro-Scratch, at the Old Sandwich Golf Club, a Coore-Crenshaw course. "No prize money," Faxon said, describing the spoils. "But you get your name on a nice piece of mahogany." It doesn't take much to get Brad's juices going. He was playing with a low-handicap golfer from San Francisco, Doug Mackenzie, and he didn't want to let him down. They shot a better-ball 72 in the first round. Not special. Then in the second round, Brad shot 64 and the team shot a better-ball 63.
Faxon hit one good iron shot after another. An essential part of stack-and-tilt teaching, how the hips move to the target after impact, suddenly made sense to Faxon on that day. They won, and winning gave Brad the license to attach as much meaning as he liked to that round. And he decided that Day II of the Old Sandwich Pro-Member, when he and his partner shot 63 and carted away first-place was the real him. And that paved the way for his two days of good play in Houston.
Ain't golf a grand game? Your body has to be tweeting your mind, 24-7, and all that while your mind has to be texting your body, too. It takes both.
There's always a ladder in golf. Win on the PGA Tour, and you're going to Augusta. That's nice, but Brad has a new sandbox to play in, and win-and-you're-in for him now means something different.
The golf ladder itself is always leaning against a different part of the clubhouse. Brad's win in the 1976 Rhode Island Junior Amateur helped pave the way for his first major, the 1985 Rhode Island Open, nine years later. In 1986, Brad was an alternate for the U.S. Open at Shinnecock. Late on Wednesday, he realized he wasn't going to get in, flew to Chattanooga, arrived about five hours before his Thursday tee time and won an event run by the PGA Tour, the Provident Classic. At one point it was considered a Tour event, and Brad's first Tour win. And then it wasn't. No matter, it helped pave the way for his first this-one-really-counts Tour win, his first of eight: the 1991 Buick Open at the old Flint stop in a playoff over Chip Beck.
There are some long gaps in this chronology, aren't there? Between the two Rhode Island wins? Between his Tennessee win and his Michigan win? Between his last win on Tour, in Hartford in 2005, and his win last month in the Old Sandwich Pro-Scratch?
That's not how Shivas Irons would look at it. Shivas Irons, the wise pro in the novel Golf in the Kingdom, speaks about that. He's playing with Michael Murphy, who has his head down while walking between shots. Shivas is not impressed. He says to Murphy, "'Tis a rotten shame, 'tis a rotten shame. For if you can enjoy the walking, you can probably enjoy the other times in your life when you're 'in between.' And that's most of the time ... wouldn't you say?'"
Brad Faxon would tell you that Shivas Irons got it right. Brad has used his in-between time beautifully, and look at him now: your 2011 Insperity Championship champion, and he's playing for keeps this week, too. "Just win, baby" is a nice mantra to have in your back pocket, but it's not one that lends itself to a long and graceful career, and there's a lot to be said for long and graceful.