Redemption
February 19, 2020

Bill Haas and the way back

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RIO GRANDE, Puerto Rico — A storm rolled off the Sierra Luquillo mountains late Tuesday afternoon. Its gusts were unwelcome guests to those preparing for the Puerto Rico Open at Coco Beach Golf Course, the winds so stiff—paired with an ominous skyline—that many players deemed practicing a futile effort.

But one remained, carving trajectories through the Caribbean gale, directing the little white spheres to dance at his will. Alternate events on the PGA Tour are filled with unfamiliar names, yet his is well-known. Even if his current status feels highly foreign.

"Obviously, you'd rather be in the top 50 [in the world], at a WGC," Bill Haas says. "It hurts a bit not being there. But at the end of the day it's still golf.

"And just golf."

It is a perspective that was painfully embedded this time two years ago, Feb. 14 to be exact. Haas was involved in a rollover car accident in Pacific Palisades, a short distance from Riviera Country Club, that left the Ferrari Haas was riding in damaged beyond recognition. He emerged relatively unscathed (although would battle leg pain for the rest of the year) but the driver, Mark Gibello—who was hosting Haas in his home for the week of the Genesis Open—died.

That Haas survived is nothing short of a miracle; any talk of his golf plight warrants that caveat. As Haas notes, "Things could be worse." It is also irrefutable that Haas has been a shadow of his former self since.

After finishing 35th or better in the FedEx Cup standings seven out of eight seasons from 2011 to 2017—highlighted by winning the 2011 Tour Championship and FedEx Cup—Haas has finished 152nd and 140th in the past two years, and this campaign has not been an analgesic. With a third of the season complete, Haas has a lone top-50 finish and sits 199th in the FEC standings. The struggles are systematic rather than an Achilles' heel: 180th in strokes gained/off-the-tee, 172nd in approach, 225th in sg/putting.

Perhaps the most jarring figure is Haas' official world ranking. Reaching as high as 12th, Haas enters the week 521st on the global pecking order.

"I am not playing well, there is no other way to put it," Haas says.

Those pains in mind, Haas' presence at the Puerto Rico Open seems incongruous, like a kale smoothie at a burger stand. He's made more than $30 million in his career. As for the drive to turn things around, well, it is not as if Haas is running out of chances, as he will receive plenty of Tour starts this spring and summer thanks to past wins, exemptions and priority ranking. This game and humility are synergic, yes, but isn't an alternate event beneath Haas?

Haas understands those questions, and sounds like he's pondered them himself. Which could explain why he delivers his response with authority.

"It's simple," Haas explains. "I'm in a rough patch. And I'm not going to improve by sitting at home."

Haas has not come to Puerto Rico because he's in golf's wilderness. He's here to find a way out.

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With only 80 minutes of sunlight left and the breeze still strong, Haas embarked on a tour of Coco Beach's second nine, his caddie and agent in tow. He's played this event once before, in its debut in 2008, so the course was a tad fuzzy in his memory. Still, whatever angst harbored towards his game was kept at bay, Haas making the conversation light and cheery with the group.

There is angst, make no mistake. Not just with his string of no-show results, but in his process.

"I'm practicing more than ever," Haas says. "That's the frustrating part. Because it seems the more I practice, the more something will tend to pop up that requires attention to fix."

There wasn't much to adjust Tuesday. Coco Beach will never be confused with Carnoustie, and observers—fans, caddies, media, even fellow players—tend to air on the side of acclaim rather than criticism when judging a practice session. In the same breath, Haas hit a lone poor drive and one so-so approach on his round, the wind never taking a breather throughout his trek.

Moreover, Haas is feeling fine physically, his legs no longer out of sync with the rest of his body. There is the ongoing emotional toll of the wreck, a battle that's alluded to but left unsaid. "Everyone has their theories on what's wrong, but at the end of the day I'm the one who has to turn it around," Haas says.

In short, he looked very much like the top 30 performer he used to be, and can be.

"Listen, I know I'm not 23," says Haas, who turns 38 in May. "I don't hit the ball 350 yards. I know who I am and who I am not. But I'm not fried, either."

Haas does raise a fair question on age, however. It's one matter to recapture a lost game, feel, confidence. Quite another to do it on with 40 on the horizon. It can be done—Graeme McDowell serving a recent example—although the list is short. But there is a list, offering evidence that Haas' conviction is not delusional. It's also not lost on Haas that McDowell's rejuvenation came at an alternate event last year.

"The stars might be somewhere else, but the guys who are playing this week are still the world's best," Haas said. "You beat, or contend, with this group, it can be a springboard."

"It's a PGA Tour event, and everyone starts at zero. That is a challenge I'm happy to take."

With that, Haas finished his round, and headed into the parking lot. His was the last car to leave. As he pulled out, the winds began to fade. The storm had passed.