Why a ridiculously long wait may have cost Brendan Steele the Sony Open title

January 13, 2020
Brendan Steele's approach shot on 18 likely cost him the tournament.

It began, like most tragedies, with a squeegee.

As Sunday’s Sony Open was nearing its wild conclusion, the 18th green was puddling, the result of hours of drizzle. That meant the third-to-last group of the day, the trio of Sungjae Im, Mark Anderson and Bo Hoag, had to wait as volunteers came out to squeegee away the standing water from the final putting surface.

Two-hundred and ninety-seven yards away, Webb Simpson waited in the rough for the green to clear. He must be an optimist. Another 287 yards further back was the final group of Brendan Steele, Cameron Smith and Kevin Kisner. Steele had opened up a three-shot lead early in the back nine, but he’d been leaking oil, missing shorties for par at Nos. 13 and 17, notable entries in what was the day’s worst putting performance in the field (-3.61 strokes gained putting). As he waited on the 18th tee, he clung to a precarious one-stroke lead at 11 under..

Up ahead, Simpson basically topped his 3-wood from the rough, but did so effectively: it skipped some 230 yards up the fairway, leaving a half-wedge. Then came Palmer’s turn. From 284 yards out in a soggy fairway bunker, Palmer — also just one shot back — pulled 3-wood. It didn’t go well.

All that was good news for Steele (and Smith and Kisner) because it meant they finally got to hit their tee shots, and they did quite well: Kisner found the fairway, then Smith outdrove him, and then Steele outdrove them both. Three good looks.

But up ahead, there were issues. Palmer’s ball had gone screaming way right of target and hit something metal on top of the greenside scoreboard, ricocheting to parts unknown. For some reason, he hadn’t hit a provisional. (Always hit a provisional!) He, Simpson and Collin Morikawa headlined a search party that lasted at least the allotted three minutes, rummaging through brush, TV trailers, fencing and hospitality. No sign of the ball.

After PGA Tour rules official Mark Russell’s watch indicated searching time was up, he directed Palmer to take the worst cart ride in golf: the trip back to where he’d just hit one out of play. In the meantime, the volunteers went to work on the 18th green, squeegeeing away.

As Palmer approached the site of his second (and fourth) shots, Golf Channel cameras showed Smith and Steele looking on, less than pleased with the developments. Steele was fidgeting about with his umbrella. Palmer was much more successful this time around, finding the fairway just short of the green. Up ahead, Simpson waved off the squeegeers; that was quite enough, thanks. He skipped his shot some 15 feet past the hole.

Eventually, Palmer pitched up to kick-in range. Simpson left his birdie putt one full rotation short. Morikawa faced a four-footer for birdie. He missed that. Cameras cut to Steele in the fairway.

The stopwatch eventually worked its way past 15 minutes. Morikawa missed his next putt, too, eventually tapping in for a costly bogey.

Two more shots remained before Steele could play: Kisner, who found the green, and Smith, who found the bunker. Then, finally, Steele’s turn. There’s no way to know for sure what caused his next shot. The pressure of the moment. (Felt like it was kind of mine to win,” he said later.) The basic difficulty of golf. (“It’s just a 2-iron to win a golf tournament. Just a hard shot.”) The heebie-jeebies that came from watching Palmer’s search party come up empty-handed. ( I was watching Ryan and trying to figure out what he was doing. I was trying to figure out where he could have possibly hit it, and then I was thinking, oh, he’s hit it out of bounds right.) Or the wait. (“Yeah, wasn’t helpful.”)

Whatever the cause, the result was a high, hard hook, left of left, over-the-hospitality left, wrong-hole left.

It didn’t end his tournament — he got a generous free drop and a look at birdie — but it cracked open the door enough for Cameron Smith to jump up from the chase pack. (He would go on to beat Steele on the first playoff hole). Solo second is nothing to shake a stick at, but that’s not to confuse it with winning. Steele won’t soon forget those 15 minutes.

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