Sentimental Journey

Sentimental Journey

Byron Nelson was not at the TPC Four Seasons Sunday, but Scott Verplank certainly felt his presence.
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Even Iron Byron, the robot hitting machine featured in those old golf gear ads; even the giant Nelson statue at the TPC Four Seasons; even the most hardened cynic couldn't help but shed a tear at how this one turned out.

Scott Verplank, a Dallas native who carried a scoring standard at this tournament as a boy, who was befriended by Nelson and his wife, Peggy, and received encouragement from the golfing legend through the years, won the EDS Byron Nelson Championship on Sunday.

When he finally coaxed in the last two-footer (Verplank called it "an out-of-body experience") to par 18 and edge Luke Donald by a stroke, Verplank bent over and held his head in both hands before looking to the sky. It was eerily similar to Ben Crenshaw's reaction to winning the 1995 Masters shortly after the death of his own mentor, Harvey Penick.

"I think Byron had a hand in this week," Verplank said in the media pavilion after his round. "[Peggy] told me right before I came in here that he picked the winner this week. I think he might have."

More sober-minded observers might point out that Verplank won Sunday because he hit 10 of 14 fairways and 14 of 18 greens in regulation. He made three straight front-nine birds to blow by playing partner Donald, the 29-year-old Brit.

Such an uplifting finale seemed unlikely, if not preposterous, early in the week, when several downer storylines, Nelson's absence chief among them, dominated the news.

First, only two of the top 10 players in the World Ranking bothered to show, a signal that Nelson was a better recruiter than anyone knew.

Then thunderstorms on Tuesday prevented Phil Mickelson from flying into Dallas, and he missed his early tee time for Wednesday's pro-am, an offense punishable by disqualification. But the Tour sent out a press release that said, in part, "Phil did everything physically possible to get here Tuesday night but was grounded in Little Rock due to circumstances completely beyond his control."

Finally there were the greens, which Rich Beem called "the worst I've seen in nine years on Tour." They were a bumpy, pitted mess that every player struggled to tame, and almost all assailed. (Mickelson called them "fine.")

But none of these things were why the Nelson seemed unlikely to get Sunday's happy ending. Verplank, 42, had not won since the 2001 Bell Canadian Open, and had fallen on lean times partly because of injuries. He had plantar fascitis in 2004, had undergone three elbow operations since 1992, and suffered a shoulder injury that forced him to withdraw from the Nelson last year and that never totally went away.

After playing for the U.S. Ryder Cup team last fall, Verplank had done little this year, with his best finish a T8 in his first start, at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic.

"I just haven't played very good," he said on Friday after shooting a 68. "I haven't hit my irons very good and I haven't putted like I've been used to for the last 20-something years."

Verplank was an amateur when he notched his first victory on the PGA Tour, at the 1985 Western Open. Before he got his fifth W Sunday, it seemed his time had passed. But sometimes a Tour pro pushes Shivas Irons off the stage at the nexus of golf and mysticism, and no one can doubt the karma.

Even the most addled equipment geek wouldn't believe Verplank won his first Nelson in his 22nd attempt, the first Nelson played without his mentor and the event's titular host, because he switched from graphite to steel shafts in his irons last week. Surely it was Nelson, the kindly old gentleman who won 11 tournaments in a row in 1945, the gold standard of golf stats, picking his winner one more time.

For one thing, Verplank's chronic shoulder pain decided to take the week off.

"It went away," he said, shaking his head Sunday. "I'm serious."

And when did it go away?

"Thursday," he said. "I mean, it's still a little beat up, but I'm telling you, I didn't feel any pain, and I've been struggling with it pretty severely. I haven't really said anything…"

Then this: Nursing a one-shot lead over Donald on the last, Verplank felt a sort of presence wash over him.

"I walked off the tee and felt a cool breeze," he said, "and it wasn't cool out there."

Whether or not he picked the winner, Nelson would be pleased with him. Verplank was a 17-year-old high school kid when he first met the famous retired golfer, who knew Verplank's mother, a longtime tournament volunteer, and decided to ring the house after reading of her boy's golfing acumen in the newspaper.

"He called me up and said, 'This is Byron Nelson,' and I can't speak," Verplank recalled. "And he said, 'Would you like me to watch you hit some golf balls?' I was barely — I think I was just barely smart enough to say, 'Yes, please,'"

Verplank guesses that he played about half a dozen rounds with Nelson, and received more than 30 of his signature hand-written notes. All of which could explain a few happy breaks, if you believe in that sort of thing.

It's easy to be a cynic covering the PGA Tour, a legion of millionaires trying to become multi-millionaires and multi-millionaires trying to become billionaires. In a recent Sports Illustrated cover story Tiger Woods said, in all seriousness, apparently, that his goal was to earn enough money to provide for his family.

But unless you've got a divot repair tool for a heart, it's impossible not to be moved by Nelson's legacy of kindness, what it means to the game and its players, and how it propelled Verplank on Sunday, when as if by magic he looked a much younger man than 42.

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