The Old Man and The Kid: Jim Furyk stole the spotlight from Jordan Spieth and nearly won the Players

Until Tiger returns and Phil Mickelson finds himself, American golf has The Old Man and The Kid. The game is in good hands.
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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — It was supposed to be The Kid’s day, one way or another.

The Kid wins The Players? Oh yeah, baby, it’s officially the start of what we’re already imagining as The Jordan Spieth Era. Please refrain from The Kid loses The Players? It’s another heartbreak like the Masters, where he was runner-up, another building block and learning experience that bodes well for the future while merely delaying the inevitable start of what we’re already imagining as The Jordan Spieth Era.

It was not The Kid’s Day here Sunday at the Players. The 20-year-old who wowed us for three days went 58 straight holes without a bogey at the mighty Stadium Course. Then he broke open a piñata or something and the bogeys started falling like fun-sized Snickers bars. He bogeyed the 5th. Then the par-3 8th with an ugly, confidence-shattering snipe hook that fell well short of the green. He bogeyed the 10th, three-putted the 14th and butchered the 15th, too.

There will be more days for The Kid, who settled for a tied for fourth with reigning U.S. Open champion Justin Rose. Settled, of course, is the wrong word. Spieth was gracious in defeat at the Masters, where the most impressive part about his runner-up finish was the fact that he was quietly seething over not winning a tournament he believed rightly belonged to him. Ditto here Sunday, where he showed that he’s maybe not quite ready to go the distance yet although he’s awfully, awfully close.

It seemed as if The Kid couldn’t escape Sunday’s spotlight no matter how he played. But he did. It wasn’t The Kid’s day because it almost turned into The Old Man’s Day. Freshly minted star Jimmy Walker shot a closing 65, the only score better than the 66 turned in by Jim Furyk. Furyk lives inside the gates at Sawgrass, is a local resident and has been for years, doesn’t have many great Players finishes despite that, and, by the way, turns 44 on Monday.

Furyk has suffered some bad finishes in recent years and let some big tournaments slip away in unpleasant fashion. Errant shots on the last few holes at the U.S. Open at Olympic Club, a horrible 8-iron from the final fairway at Firestone that turned into a double bogey that handed the Bridgestone Invitational win to Keegan Bradley, and a Ryder Cup loss.

It would be understandable if you expected 2014 to be the year that Furyk faded away, 11 years after his only major, the 2003 U.S. Open at Olympia Fields. Yet here he is, in a home game on a course he says has always felt awkward to him, nearly winning the darned thing.

Something is happening. He posted 65 on the previous Sunday, the low round of the day, to finish solo second at the Wells Fargo Championship. He posted 66 on this day, the second-low round, to finish solo second at the Players. Not that it matters but this runner-up pays more than $1 million, about what a victory pays at most regular Tour stops.

The Old Man stole the spotlight from The Kid this time and nearly won the Players from the clubhouse. He finished early and then, after a storm delay, watched Martin Kaymer nearly hand him the title. After a terrible double bogey at the 15th, not a hard hole, Kaymer struggled for par at 16, and holed a mind-bending 28-footer to save par at 17 and a clutch three-footer for par and the win at 18. Furyk’s charge made Kaymer finish par-par-par after a shocking double. Even more surprising, it got us thinking about Furyk and how he may still have some life in his career instead of fantasizing about all things Jordan.

“I feel good about my game and where I am mentally,” Furyk said. “It wasn’t like I sat on the lead and finished second both weeks so it wasn’t a huge letdown. I fired good numbers on Sunday and really didn’t think either one was going to hold up and then it got so close. It’s worse watching, I’ll say that. I like being out on the course.”

Furyk has made a career out of being underrated, no doubt thanks to his unorthodox swing. He’s having a nice season, not that you would’ve noticed until lately. He was fifth at the Match Play, sixth at the Valero Texas Open, 14th at the Masters, seventh at Harbour Town and second the last two weeks.

Hey, Jordan Spieth, your road to the future right now runs through Jim Furyk, among a few others. Furyk effectively hit all 18 greens in regulation Sunday (two were on the fringe, Furyk said) and that was nearly as impressive as Spieth’s 58-hole bogeyless stretch.

Golf seems a little like a rudderless ship right now. The No. 1 world ranking is up for grabs with Tiger Woods on the sideline after back surgery. Spieth was among a batch of candidates as a replacement. So was Bubba Watson, Matt Kuchar, Henrik Stenson and a few others. Kaymer, a former No. 1, is on the way back up. Is it too far-fetched to think Furyk should be added to the list the way he’s playing? No, it’s not too far-fetched.

He looks rejuvenated in all ways. He’s not spraying shots under pressure at the end. He’s back to grinding out pars, getting up and down on a regular basis the way he used to, and he’s back to holing putts with his old cross-handed grip. That last part could be the biggest of all.

His putting was placed in a crucible by the Stadium Course. Furyk had a 12-footer for birdie on the 72nd green and figured he needed to make it to have any chance of catching Kaymer, who was three shots ahead. He missed and slid his putt almost three feet past. He fussed and futzed around, backed off once as the threatening clouds rumbled closer and then, as he was lining up to finish it off, the horn sounded, halting play.

“When you take that long,” NBC analyst Johnny Miller chided, “that’s what you get.”

The storm was slow-moving but not heavy. Still, it appeared there was little chance of finishing the tournament Sunday night. But the players went back onto the course and resumed playing at 7:15 p.m. and Furyk had what figured to be an afterthought par putt of not great consequence.

“The wait was good in that when I missed the 12-footer, my mind was racing,” Furyk said. “I was thinking what I would have done differently and I was disappointed I missed it. At times like that, it’s hard to rein the focus back in and concentrate on knocking in the little one.”

It wasn’t any good sitting in the clubhouse with a three-footer hanging over your head like a dangling scimitar, either, whether it mattered or not.

“I really didn’t believe that knocking that putt in was going to give me an opportunity to win the tournament,” Furyk said. “I felt like Jordan or Sergio Garcia might even catch me for second.”

Furyk always prepares, however. When the order to get ready to resume went out, Furyk went to the putting green and hit about 20 three-footers. “I think I missed one but I knocked in a whole bunch,” he said. “I had a lot of confidence going back out there.”

Furyk did, indeed, brush that last putt in. The Jim Furyk of the past few years may have holed it, maybe not, but this Furyk made it appear easy.

Perhaps you thought he wasn’t going to play in another Ryder Cup and perhaps, if you were really a Debbie Downer, you thought he shouldn’t play in another Ryder Cup. Furyk was seventh on the points list before The Players. He’s going to make this team. So is The Kid. He was fifth before The Players and he’s still learning and improving.

Until Tiger returns and Phil Mickelson finds himself, American golf has The Old Man and The Kid. The game is in good hands.

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