Long Road Back
Pebble beach has always been a special place for comebacks. Roll the highlights, please...
Jack Nicklaus pours in five straight birdies on the final nine to tie for the lead at the 1982 U.S. Open, a surge that is quickly forgotten when Tom Watson chips in at 17 for his first Open title. Hale Irwin hooks his tee shot at the famed 18th into Carmel Bay during the final round of the '84 Bing Crosby National Pro-Am, but his ball miraculously bounces off the rocks and back onto the fairway, allowing Irwin to make the birdie that forces the playoff that he wins, which is why no one remembers Jim Nelford. A game but yip-plagued Johnny Miller climbs down from the TV tower and, at age 46, somehow clips Tom Watson at the '94 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, Miller's last hurrah as a player. Tiger Woods holes out for eagle from the 15th fairway as he comes from seven shots back with seven holes to play to pip Matt Gogel at the 2000 Pro-Am. A year later Davis Love III goes eight under on the first seven holes of the final round to blitz Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson, who cements his go-for-broke reputation by hitting driver off the deck on the 18th fairway and scores a direct hit on the Pacific.
Last week's multiple comebacks at Pebble hardly carried such historical heft, but Steve Lowery's playoff win in the 2008 AT&T over Singh was easily the biggest of his 20-year pro career. Lowery, a laid-back 47-year-old, hadn't won in seven years and probably got more attention for losing his house in Orlando in a fire in 1999 than for his two wins, the last one coming at the 2000 Southern Farm Bureau Classic. The Pebble victory couldn't have happened at a better time. Last winter Lowery felt something pop in his left wrist as he launched a drive during the FBR Open. He didn't have surgery but was sidelined for more than three months, and by the end of the season had tumbled to 151st on the money list. "After all those years of playing golf, that was really hard," Lowery said. "I had a hard time even watching golf on TV."
Lowery began this season on a minor medical exemption that required him to win about $280,000 in eight starts to earn a major medical exemption and retain his status for the rest of the year. The problem was, the only other events he was likely to get into before April were the satellite tournaments in Mexico and Puerto Rico held opposite the Tour's lucrative but exclusive World Golf Championships. With the AT&T win, Lowery will be exempt almost to age 50, plus he can pick and choose where he plays. The cherry on top is that the victory gets him into the Masters. "After what I've been through, this is absolutely the most meaningful win I've had," he said. "After seven years, winning on this course and doing it against Vijay really means a lot."
There's more. Lowery had to mount quite a comeback just to get into position to win. He floundered in the third round, at Poppy Hills, making double bogeys on the par-5 10th and 12th holes. Suddenly, simply making the cut looked like a challenge. But he birdied five of the last six holes to salvage a two-under 70. "I told my family, 'If I win it's because of those bounce backs after the double bogeys,' " Lowery said.
On Sunday he was still three shots behind after making bogey at the par-5 14th, but Singh, playing in the group behind, bogeyed there too. Singh also bogeyed the 15th and 16th, and Lowery grabbed the lead with a nice downhill birdie putt at the par-3 17th. Singh dropped a sand wedge shot at 18 to within a foot for the tying birdie. In the playoff Lowery won with three good shots and a seven-footer for birdie.
Technically, Singh's losing a three-shot lead with four holes to play might sound like the furthest thing from a comeback story, but realistically, the Fijian's solid play for the first 63 holes indicates that his return to the upper echelon is on track. Maybe you thought he didn't fall all that far to begin with, since he won twice early in '07, but his play deteriorated as the year wore on and his swing was an unrecognizable mess by season's end. Not surprisingly, the hardest-working man in golf, having dropped to 10th in the World Ranking, worked harder than ever over the off-season to get his body back into tip-top shape and his swing back on plane. Opponents who were hoping that age (Singh turns 45 this month) might've finally caught up to a man who has won 19 times since turning 40, will probably be disappointed.
Some of last week's comebacks were more meaningful than others. The 43-year-old Love, playing for the first time since tearing ligaments in his left ankle last September, finished 24th. He had used the rehab time after his surgery to improve his overall conditioning and make minor swing changes. "This is as good as I've ever felt," he said at Pebble.
Ranked 78th, Love needed to finish third or better to qualify for next week's Accenture Match Play Championship, so his streak of being eligible for every World Golf Championship event since the series began in 1999 is over. More pressing, he has only until the Shell Houston Open to break into the top 50 or follow Lowery's example and win, either of which would allow him to qualify for the Masters and avoid ending his run of 70 consecutive majors, the longest streak among active golfers.
As comebacks go, though, Dudley Hart's must stand as the second biggest after Lowery's. Hart didn't tee it up after last May, when his wife, Suzanne, was found to have a softball-sized mass in her lung and underwent surgery to remove two thirds of one lung. She was hospitalized for a month. The mass turned out to be benign, but while Suzanne was recuperating, Dudley stayed home in Buffalo to take care of the couple's six-year-old triplets. "It was very scary," Hart said. He meant the surgery, not the parenting.
Hart, 39, got a medical exemption for his wife's illness and put his time at Pebble to good use, tying Singh for the lead through 54 holes. Hart struggled for most of the final round but birdied the last three holes to tie for third and win $312,000, taking a big bite out of the $485,000 he's required to make in 15 starts to retain his full-year eligibility. "I'm in a lot better shape now," he said, "but it was a long day."
The man has survived triplets. Now that's an impressive comeback, even for Pebble Beach.