A Tale of Two Tour Pros

A Tale of Two Tour Pros

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Hunter tied for fifth at the Shell Houston Open in April.
Kyle Auclair/Getty Images

Hunter Mahan is a stud. Twenty-five
and single, little fluffy goatee, shades
on the brim of his Ping hat, sneaky
long, big white teeth. His caddie gives
him clubs, yardages, bottles of mineral
water mixed with Amino Vital. His
psychologist is on speed dial. He’s loaded with talent and
confidence and game. He has the strut and the Oklahoma
State (first-team All-America there) pom-pom headcovers.
Uses good for well when it suits him. Finishes 13th at Oakmont
and comes to Hartford, to a tournament he first played as a
teenage amateur, and it looks …

Truth? To hell with the
golf gods. What he’s really thinking when he arrives at TPC
River Highlands in Cromwell, Conn., last week? The course
looks easy. After Oakmont? Cake. He birdies the 1st hole last
Thursday, then the 2nd and the 3rd and the 4th, signs for an
eight-under 62, breezes into the tent and says, “I really didn’t
do anything spectacular. Put the ball in play.” You’re not going
to beat this guy, not even in your dreams.

Now Vijay Singh
and David Toms and Fred Funk might have begged to differ,
and they were all going good (as Mahan might say) through
54 holes last week, and if you had all three of them in your fantasy league, you’d feel like a genius.
But all three of them spent Sunday mostly
hanging around, making pars, and you
can’t do that at Hartford. By late Sunday
afternoon the large galleries had settled
in on the final twosome of the day.
At that point, on the longest Sunday of
the year, the first stop on the Tour’s lazy
summer schedule was in full swing, right
on cue.

There was Jim Nantz setting up
Nick Faldo in the CBS booth, dappled
light all over the course and Travelers
executives, old-school insurance guys in
blazers and ties, watching from the edges.
They bought the tournament name and
saved an event that the Ponte Vedra suits
could not kill, and now Hartford is the
Travelers Championship.

But it remains
what it’s always been, a local event, philanthropic
and entertaining. Last week, it
was wildly so, even after Singh and Toms
and Funk faded and there was only one
man left who could forestall the inevitable,
Hunter Mahan’s first victory on the
PGA Tour. That man was a 40-year-old
journeyman, a Nationwide tour regular
playing on a sponsor’s exemption.

Jay Williamson came to Hartford with
no Tour status — no Tour wins, no big Tour
bag, one wife, three kids, no nanny (at
least not on Sunday afternoon, when
Kim Pride, wife of Dicky, watched the
Williamson kids despite the fact that her
hubby had missed the cut).

The Prides, the Williamsons, whole
bunches of others at Hartford, know
all about the MC life. That’s the other
Tour, the one Phil and Tiger barely know.

The stakes at Hartford were higher for
Williamson than they were for Mahan.
Mahan’s day would come sooner or later.
Everyone in golf could see that. Williamson
couldn’t make the same statement. At
his age, the journeyman knows how few
chances you get to win and to get yourself
on firm ground. Ask Bobby Wadkins or
Jay Delsing
or Dan Forsman. You’ve got
to seize the day.

A win would make Williamson an
exempt player through the end of 2009;
get him into next year’s Masters; pay
him $1.08 million; allow him to make
a schedule, a year’s worth of mortgage
payments, school tuitions and all the rest.
Sure, a win would be huge for Mahan too,
but in golf as in life it’s hard to compare
25 and single with married and 40 with

three kids.

Williamson got
into Hartford only by “writing
for a spot,” as the fringe players
call a sponsor’s exemption.
Scores of players do it, and it’s
safe to say not one of them
enjoys it. Williamson did it
by e-mail.

Williamson had an in at
Hartford. He went to college
in the insurance capital, at Trinity,
where he was the captain of the baseball
and hockey teams. (He was barely
a golfer in those days.) He graduated
in four years with a degree in political
science.
So he wasn’t Rocky Balboa or even
Roy (Tin Cup) McAvoy.

Williamson is
a son of the Midwest (St. Louis) who
went to a private high school (John
Burroughs) and whose family had a
membership at a country club (Bellerive,
where the Tour’s going in 2008
for the BMW Championship).

Still, there’s a gritty jock
in there. His left calf is half
the size of his right one, the
residue of a childhood clubfoot.
After college he moved
to Orlando to work at the
Grand Cypress Resort. When
he was Mahan’s age he was a
kid in polyester knickers who
parked cars, but the job came with one
big benefit: unlimited range balls.
Mahan and Williamson in the
final two-ball was a junior version of
the 2000 PGA Championship, with
Mahan in the role of Tiger Woods and
Williamson playing Bob May, except
this one wasn’t about sporting history
or old jugs or any grand thing. It was
simply golf.

After one hole on Sunday (bogey for
Williamson, par for Mahan) the two
were tied at 11 under. Mahan’s golf was close to perfect, one solid, smart, stinging
shot after another. Williamson was
slightly off — in the rough here, a bad chip
there — but he wasn’t going away. Through
14, Mahan had a two-shot lead. Williamson
made a birdie on 15, a drivable par-4,
and Mahan made bogeys on 16 and 17.

The can’t-miss kid and the journeyman
came to the 18th hole with Williamson
leading by a shot.

Both drove it in the fairway on the
par-4 last, and Williamson hit his approach
shot, with a seven-iron, to 11 feet.

Mahan stuffed his, a nine-iron to five
feet. As they approached the green Williamson
waited for Mahan for a moment,
tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Nice
shot.”

It was a gracious move. Some other
guys — LannyWadkins,
Hubert Green, Tom
Watson, Curtis Strange, Tiger Woods, Vijay
Singh, a long list of Hall of Famers — would
probably never have thought to do it. They’d
be thinking about nothing but the putt to
win. Nicklaus might have done it. Dan Forsman,
you could see him doing it too.

Williamson missed on the low side, and
Mahan’s was smack-dab in the middle.

All square.

The playoff hole, played on
18, was the same thing all over again:
Williamson close, Mahan closer.

Williamson missed; Mahan
closed the deal.

Williamson cleaned out his locker and
said, “My life’s better now than it was
on Monday.”

You couldn’t argue that. He
earned $648,000, and his second-place
finish got him a spot in this week’s Tour
stop in Flint, Mich.

But how the rest of
his year will play out he doesn’t know.
Where he will play next year he doesn’t
know. Where he’ll play in 2009 he doesn’t
know. He wasn’t even close to elated. A
chance had come and gone. There’s no
saying when the next one will turn up.

In victory Mahan said something insightful:
“After you play out here for a
little bit you realize, This is hard. Being a
professional golfer, it’s not easy. Not easy
to win. There are a lot of great players
who haven’t won yet. You definitely think
you’re good enough to win. I thought I
was. But you just never know what’s going
to happen.”

In April he’ll be in the field at Augusta.
The last time he was there, he was a hotshot
amateur. There are a lot of hotshot
amateurs. Over the years, fewer than a
thousand guys have won on the PGA Tour.
It’s an elite club. Hunter Mahan is now
in. At this very moment there are a few
hundred golfers out there, prowling the
country, trying to join him. Jay Williamson
is one of them. He’s still at large.