ATLANTA — The hardest thing in golf is to keep it going. You know that. You're even fives through 11, you start doing the math about what you need to do to break 90 and … BAM! Snowman, double, four-putt triple. Now you may not break a 100.
And so it was for Jim Furyk Friday at East Lake. Fifty-nine is to them what 79 used to be to me and 89 is now. It's the grail. What a card he had going out. I've never seen anything quite like it: 333 333 344. East Lake — surely the second-best course in Georgia and maybe the first — is a par 72 dumbed down to 70 for the Tour Championship. (Why? Why is that necessary to do? Just to make the course sound harder?) It's 35-35. Furyk carded a 29 going out. All he needed was 30 coming in, on a day that was perfect for scoring.
It was warm, but not hot. Muggy, but not overbearing. The air was still. He was playing with Bubba Watson, and the advantage there was that Bubba is so fast that, even with Furyk's woefully slow pace, he'd never be in any danger of being put on the clock. He made another birdie on 10 and a par on 11, two more 3s on the card. Seven under through 12. On pace.
Furyk said he wasn't thinking about 59. I'm not calling the man a liar — I think he's one of the more honest people in the game — but they all say that. The pitchers all say that when they had a no-no going through seven the thought of a perfect game never even entered their capped heads. I'm more inclined to believe the billionaires, who say they were never trying to become rich.
The vibe out there was saying something else. Mike Cowan, Furyk's caddie, had his game face on, big-time. No chit-chat about the upcoming Pearl Jam concert that the caddies are all abuzz about. (Fluff, bless him, is more of a Dead man anyhow.) Furyk walked the course's gorgeous zoysia-grass fairways silently and alone, not thinking about 59, not thinking about $10 million (what he won here two years ago and what, in theory, he's playing for again this year), not thinking about Ryder Cup (so next week, dude). So what was he thinking about? Who knows? He's a professional golfer. The head is a mystery they cannot solve themselves.
"If I ever get to where I need to make two more birdies, and I've got two, three, four holes left, I promise you 59 will be on my mind," Furyk said. The man speaks in complete sentences. He wears that awful, awful hat, but the man does speak in complete, thought-out interesting sentences, and for that he will always have my admiration. "I was just having fun writing 3 on the card. I was marveling. I've never seen a card that pretty. None of them through the first 11 holes."
A 4 on the card seems kind of plain, compared to 3. On 13, a par 4, he was right in front of the green in two. He chipped it up to about four feet. Four feet for par is mildly annoying when birdies and tap-in 3s are the order of the day. From four feet only bad things can happen. If you make it, well, you're supposed to make it. If you miss it, it's mildly depressing. Your run is over. You've made a bogey. You've made a … FIVE! So inelegant. I mean, great if you're trying to break 90. Not if you're trying to break 60.
He stood over the putt. He backed off it. How many times has he done that? So many times that the networks would rather show you Carl Pettersson at close range than this guy. And then he backed off again. Uh-oh.
You guessed it, gentle reader. He missed. The spell was broken. He played the remaining holes in even par, shot 64 for the day, low score for the day by four on a difficult course, and he leads the Tour Championship by one through 36 holes. To get the big haul he'll need help from Rory McIlroy, who isn't likely to give him the help. McIlroy trails by four. With a top-5 finish, and two wins in the so-called FedEx Cup series, McIlroy will win the $10 million. Still, a man can dream.
Regardless, it's all good. Furyk could have won a second U.S. Open this year, but it really is all good. Next week, he'll be one of Davis Love's elder statesman on a Ryder Cup team for which he was hand-picked by Love, his assistants and the eight players who made the team on points, all of whom have been advising Love on whom he should pick. Money's nice. Money's great. Shooting 59 is nice. Shooting 59 is great. But having the admiration of your fellow pros is maybe the greatest thing of all. And Furyk has that.
The single most revealing thing I have heard this year came from Lucas Glover. I was talking to him at Hartford, the tournament after the U.S. Open, asking him about what it was like to come to Hartford after winning the 2009 U.S. Open at Bethpage. He said the single greatest moment of his professional career came when he arrived on the practice tee at Hartford for the first time, and the lodge brothers looked at him a little differently. They shook his hand. They said well done. He was in the pantheon for all time.
Furyk knows all about it, and not only because he's won the U.S. Open.
"My teammates know that I'm going to give it 110 percent," Furyk said on Friday.
Of course he will. That's why he has managed to play some beautiful golf this year even after kicking away the Open at Olympic. That's why he has managed all these years with a swing that looks like it was created out of some unholy union between Raymond Floyd and Miller Barber. That's why he really doesn't care what I or anybody else says about his 5-hour Energy hat. (It's heinous.)
I don't think he's going to win another $10 million this week. But I do think he's going to wind up in the Hall of Fame. I really do. All he needs to do is not change a thing. And Jim Furyk is an expert at that.