IRVING, Texas, April 29 — You didn’t need to see any of the 66 shots Scott Verplank played Sunday in the EDS Byron Nelson Championship’s final round. You didn’t need to see the two-footer he shook in for the victory that meant so much, the win of a lifetime.
You didn’t need to see any of the 68 strokes played by Luke Donald, not even the valiant birdie try on the final green that would have forced a playoff. Or Phil Mickelson’s chip-in for eagle. Or anything else.
Everything you needed to know about the Nelson happened in the few brief moments that seemed to last forever after Verplank holed that short winning putt. You could see the shock set in, the eyes glaze over and the disbelief. Then he looked to the sky, in the general direction of Byron Nelson’s spirit, and said, “Thank you.”
You don’t have to believe in fate for this story, but Verplank does … now. There was no other way to explain how Verplank pulled himself out of a long dry spell and conveniently won the tournament he’d always dreamed of winning, the tournament named after his friend and boyhood mentor, or why he did it now, the first time the dearly departed Nelson was no longer on hand.
Nelson wasn’t there to watch this tournament, perhaps, but surely he was there to watch over it. At least, that’s how Verplank saw it. He became close to Nelson as a teenager when Nelson called him, out of the blue, and talked admiringly about the scores he’d seen Verplank shoot and how well he’d played. And oh, by the way, would he like to get together? And would he like Mr. Nelson to offer some help? They’d been friends ever since. That’s why the Nelson was Verplank’s biggest win, his Masters and U.S. Open all in one.
“There’s no question the stars lined up, and I got a little help from upstairs,” he said. “I had some help out there. I walked off the last tee and I felt a cool breeze — and it wasn’t cool out there.”
Verplank wasn’t the only one who felt that way. So did Peggy Nelson, Byron’s widow. Verplank made the long walk from the green up some steps to the scoring trailer — it’s not a long walk at all but on this day, at this moment, it was interminable. Peggy greeted him at the top of the steps and they hugged. “Byron picked the winner this week,” she told him with misty eyes.
Do you believe in fate? “I guess I do,” Verplank said. How can you not? “Byron had a hand in this,” he added. “I felt like I was living a dream.”
Why now? There was nothing to indicate that Verplank, who outdueled the third-round leader Luke Donald for his first victory since the 2001 Canadian Open, would suddenly get his game together this week, when play stopped during Saturday’s third round for a moment of silence in honor of Mr. Nelson and a flyover by a foursome of local Air Force jets.
Verplank had broken 70 in only three of his previous 18 rounds. He was 27 over par in his last six stroke-play tournaments, and a tie for 18th at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill was his only top-25 finish since he was eighth at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic in January.
Then there was his bad shoulder. He withdrew from last year’s Nelson after one round because of the pain. It has been bothering him severely this year, and this is a guy who’s as tough as anybody on the PGA Tour when it comes to dealing with pain. He’s fought the fatigue and pain of diabetes all of his adult life, and he’s faced foot pain and bad elbows.
Thursday, something funny happened to his shoulder. It quit hurting.
“It just went away,” Verplank said. His eyes got wide and glazed as he said it and realized what he was implying. “I didn’t feel any pain,” he said. “I’ve been struggling with it severely, I haven’t said anything. It didn’t bother me one bit.”
His eyes still held that look of amazement. If there was a higher power at work, they said, this was the proof. If not, there were always Verplank’s scores. The man who hadn’t cracked 70 in 11 straight rounds shot in the 60s all four days — 67, 68, 66 and, when it mattered most, another 66.
In fairness to the other side of the science-versus-religion debate, Verplank did make one change. He has long played graphite shafts in his irons, which have a softer feel and cause less wear and tear on his formerly troublesome elbows. Few other Tour players use graphite-shafted irons.
Wednesday, on a whim or a hunch (or fate, right, Byron?), he put steel shafts in his irons. He noticed a difference immediately. “I hit the ball at the hole all week,” Verplank said. “I haven’t done that for a year.”
Not much else went right at the Nelson until the finish. Byron wasn’t there. Neither was Tiger Woods, who took a pass. Neither were most of the world’s best players — only two of the top 10 showed up. The Nelson’s new April date falls when most top players want time off before they start prepping for the Players Championship and the U.S. Open.
On top of that, the greens at the TPC Four Seasons Resort were some of the worst the Tour players have seen in a decade. On Saturday, when local sports fans in Big D were buzzing over the Cowboys’ wheeling and dealing with the Cleveland Browns, Tour players at the Nelson were still whining about the Dallas browns — what was left of the TPC’s greens.
A litany of excuses was offered, but mainly, the greens were old and weary. Plans have been made to re-do them, and to redesign the course under the watchful eye of D.A. Weibring, the former Tour player who has become a praiseworthy designer. The work will start immediately.
“We should not have greens like this at a PGA Tour event,” former PGA champion Rich Beem said bluntly early in the week.
It was all going wrong, terribly wrong. And then Sunday, Byron’s protege finally landed his marlin, the tournament he’d been trying to catch for years. There were disappointments. He lost a playoff to Robert Damron in 2001. He was fourth in ’03 and sixth in ’05.
This time, Verplank got it right, and in many ways, saved what is one of the Tour’s most successful tournaments.
Let’s all look up and say it together — thank you.