Relaxed week at Harbour Town will have gut-wrenching finish on Sunday

April 15, 2012

HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. — Somebody will be riding an adrenaline tsunami come late Sunday afternoon, when the RBC Heritage comes down to the final holes.

Their stomachs will be churning about that annoying tree in the crook of the dogleg at Harbour Town’s funky 16th hole, or maybe the postage-stamp green. Their heads will be buzzing about the tee shot at the par-3 17th hole, about picking the right club and figuring the wind, and getting on the proper side of the green’s annoying ridge. Any tournament’s 72nd hole is a rush, but here there’s marsh short and left of the green, bunkers beyond and a firm green that requires a precisely struck approach shot to set up a birdie or maybe a victory-clinching par.

The leaderboard has a host of candidates who may be lucky enough to have those feelings Sunday. On top are Carl Pettersson (-12) and Colt Knost (-11), two relaxed-fit-sized guys. Knost is a former U.S. Amateur champ who will go into the final round one stroke behind Pettersson, a four-time PGA Tour winner. Petterson is Swedish but played at North Carolina State and now lives in Raleigh, which more or less qualifies him as a local here. He likes to joke that he’s the world’s only redneck Swede.

There is Zach Johnson (-8), the 2007 Masters champ. When his putter is on, it’s as good as anyone’s in the game. He was seen hanging out earlier in the week with youngster Rickie Fowler, who may be rubbing off on Johnson. They waited at the counter at Truffles, a restaurant just up the street from Harbour Town, to pick up carryout orders after Thursday’s round. Fowler, wearing his Puma hat backward, was recognized often while he waited and posed for several photos with fans, even signing a few autographs. On his way out, he graciously held the front door for a woman, then a couple, then a whole foursome, then another couple. It was almost comical, but proof that the kid has manners.

Johnson, meanwhile, leaned against the counter, working his cell phone — texting, playing a game, whatever it was that required thumbing — and going largely unrecognized because he, too, had his cap on backward. Maybe he was just trying to keep up with his Bible-study buddy, Rickie, or maybe he took a page from Payne Stewart’s celebrity camouflage tips. Stewart was known on the course for his driving cap (like those worn by Ben Hogan and Ken Venturi) and knickers, but when he left the course bare-headed in a T-shirt and jeans, he went unnoticed for years. Zach with a backward cap didn’t look like Zach. It was remarkable.

There are a couple of wild cards in the mix. Boo Weekley (-7) is now one of the “other guys” from Bagdad, Fla., thanks to Bubba Watson's winning the Masters. Weekley's a solid ballstriker who won here in 2007 and 2008. He’s got history, but it’s been awhile. Boo, the man who made camo gear chic for golfers, more or less disappeared the last few years due to a labrum injury and a subsequent temporary loss of interest in golf. Don’t count him out.

There’s also Brandt Snedeker, the defending champion, who has been sneaking up the leaderboard quietly, like he does most things, to get into fifth place. He came from well off the pace last year with a front-nine 30 and stunned Luke Donald in a playoff.

Other players have a chance, perhaps. Matt Kuchar, who shot 69 Saturday and is three under par, probably isn’t one of them. But he’ll know exactly how they feel. Last week, he had a chance to win the Masters. He earned one of the week’s loudest roars when he stiffed a shot close on Sunday afternoon at the par-5 15th hole and made a two-footer for eagle that tied him for the lead.

He’s still thinking about that moment and savoring it. (OK, probably mostly because I brought it up.) But a mention of it brought an instant smile to his face.

“I was definitely on a big high last Sunday night,” he said after his third round here Saturday. “There was a huge amount of adrenaline pumping.”

His Masters hopes faded considerably when he hit a poor tee shot on the par-3 16th and made bogey, but he was there with a chance to win on the last three holes at Augusta National. Not many can say that. And that’s part of why he’s playing the RBC Heritage this week. If you’re a player and you’re on a roll, you want to keep it going and maybe, just maybe, make another moment like that one.

This tournament isn’t in the same class as the Masters; the field isn’t nearly as strong. But Hilton Head Island is a great place to bring a family, as Kuchar did — his wife and two sons are here — with its beaches and golf courses and boating and tennis and full-bore springtime weather. He took his wife, Sybi, to dinner at the Sage Room for a date night one evening. Dinner, Matt said, “was fantastic.”

He enjoys the scene at this tournament every year, an odd mix of family values and on-course party atmosphere often featuring adult beverages. The Kuchars, like a lot of Tour players, stay right at Sea Pines. They’re staying with friends, so they can take part in all the family activities, including watching dad play golf, without leaving the grounds.

“It’s a proper family week,” Kuchar said. “I love this setup. There’s not much I don’t like about this week.”

He likely won’t be the guy sweating out the tough finishing holes Sunday afternoon, but this tournament is still up for grabs, and the winner may have to do something special. Make a clutch putt. Get up and down from the marsh. Maybe even make a 3 on a par-5 the way Kuchar did last week.

"That eagle was awesome," he said, grinning.

On Sunday night, someone else will enjoy an awesome moment.