Brendon Todd and the art of the painful comeback
Brendon Todd is a PGA Tour winner.
It’s a sentence nobody expected to say for the second time in his career in 2019, or a first time in 2014, but we said it nonetheless. He made us say it, by a stubborn force of will that can only be measured in the invisible pain of lost weeks, months and years. He made us say it in Bermuda earlier this month, and on Monday he made us say it for a third time in Mexico with his victory at the rain-delayed Mayakoba Golf Classic. The vast majority of the golf world didn’t know him well enough to root for him while he was gone, and wouldn’t have missed him if he quit, and yet …
Here he is.
It would be difficult to forget the strangest and perhaps most important shot of Brendon Todd’s 2014 season, roughly 90 minutes before the culmination of his first improbable comeback. It came on the par-3 13th hole in the final round at the HP Byron Nelson Championship, where Todd, then 28, held a two-stroke lead over Mike Weir. Todd’s tee shot had flown left and come to rest against the trunk of a hackberry tree. As Todd marched to the green—tall, thin, serious, shoulders hunched, chin tucked into his neck—he had little idea of what he would encounter. Remotely, he understood the stakes, how a win would give the former college All-American at the University of Georgia the kind of career security he could only have dreamed of in the wilderness of 2009, when he finished his first PGA Tour season with 10 straight missed cuts, or 2010 on the Nationwide Tour, when he missed the cut in all 13 events he started.
The dark days couldn’t have been far from his mind.
“I really lost it,” Todd said of the first long slump of his career. “I would get to the first tee, no confidence, nervous, and I’d hit it 50 yards right. It might go out-of-bounds, and from there it would be an all-day grind just to keep the ball in play. Then I’d chip and putt phenomenally, shoot 75, and miss the cut.”
At home, Todd would break down crying with his wife, Rachel, and though he never lost his desire to play, he began to question whether there was a real future. He knew he could get a regular job if he needed to, and a lot of people had it much worse, but that didn’t make him feel any better.
Then, after a mediocre 2011, he found his form at Q school and regained his PGA Tour card when it was still possible to do so in a single weekend. Two middling years followed, but he held on to some status each time by finishing just inside the top 150 in the final standings.
The lead at the Byron Nelson, though, that was unprecedented. And with a life-changing victory so close, Todd found his ball snug against the base of the tree. And not just snug—snug on the wrong side, with the immovable trunk ensconced just where Todd would have liked to stand.
As his incredulous caddie, Steve Lohmeyer, looked on, Todd attempted something that went beyond wild ambition. Rather than simply inverting the blade, Todd turned the entire club around, took a left-handed stance (he is not left-handed) and prepared to hit the ball with the back of his 4-iron. The actual back, mind you—the part without a smooth face and grooves, the part that is expressly not designed to strike a golf ball.
Just to increase the degree of difficulty, Todd hooded the backward iron to try to produce a slight draw. It was the most unique shot he’d ever attempted in a competitive round, and if it worried him that he’d chosen the most important day of his professional career for the experiment, he didn’t show it. His face remained placid, and he made clean contact. The ball skipped out onto the green, caught the upslope and filtered down to the flag, stopping seven feet from the pin.
Todd made par. He won the tournament. His life changed. The wilderness was a distant memory.
And then, because life doesn’t respect tidy narratives, and good luck in small moments doesn’t mean much in the grander scheme, it all happened again.
Is it something about the game, something about people or some unknowable spark in the ether that explains the ebbs and flows of golfers’ lives, the way valleys follow peaks, and peaks follow valleys in a pattern that can seem beyond our control? When I asked Todd about this, in the wake of his victory at the Bermuda Championship earlier this month after another career drought so prolonged that he resorted to meeting with his financial planner to discuss the next phase of his life—maybe he’d start a fast-food franchise or find a job in corporate America—I caught myself rambling, and at the end of my question somewhat desperately asked, “Does this make any sense to you?”
“It makes perfect sense,” Todd said. “You’re dead-on. The answer is the difficult part.”
It’s tempting to look for clues in his demeanor, in his history. “I’m not Mr. Personality,” Todd once told me. But that’s not entirely true. Yes, he keeps to himself, but there’s an undercurrent of dry humor and more than a little intelligence running through him. Among the subset of American PGA Tour golfers, he sticks out for a few reasons. He doesn’t refer to God in interviews, he’s never been interested in the notoriety that comes from social media or being part of the in-crowd and, though he doesn’t go out of his way to court controversy, he’s more honest about some of his peers than most you’ll speak to on tour.
He also has the rare quality of being approachable—after his Byron Nelson victory, he and Rachel, who was pregnant with their first child, stayed in the media center eating pizza and chatting with reporters and volunteers and anyone else in the vicinity, and they were in no hurry to leave.
Todd understood the importance of appreciating the good times, even then. He grew up in Peters Township, a Pittsburgh suburb, his father an executive at Kaufmann’s department store, his mother a homemaker with limitless energy. He had two older brothers, and they would tease him about being an “OCD case.” Todd was neat to a fault—by the time he was 7, he would voluntarily clean everybody’s golf clubs and shoes in the garage at night, and nobody ever had to ask him to make his bed. He became an obsessive collector, hoarding everything from baseball cards to Micro Machine toy cars to Pogs milk caps. He especially liked change—he’d keep it all in a big bag, and it didn’t matter what kind of coins he found. This was not about collecting exotic foreign currencies or having a quarter for every year back to 1900—this was about pure accumulation, which satisfied him in a way he couldn’t quite explain. If he saw change in his brothers’ rooms, he’d dart in and steal that, too, and he’d never spend a dime.
Which prepared him for the first part of his path to becoming a professional golfer—the need to practice and play with a kind of relentless focus.
“My brother hates when I say this, but I’d try all the time to get him to come out and play with me, and sometimes he’d say no,” Todd said. “He’d just want to sit on the couch and watch TV. But there was never a time when I sat inside. There was never a time when he asked me to go outside and play that I said no.”
The second part of the path—learning that he couldn’t cure bad play with hours on the range, and that obsessive practice could be a detriment—was a harder lesson to learn.
The swing yips. The coaching carousel. The lonely thoughts of how things changed so quickly, just as his pro career, finally, seemed ready to take off. For inspiration, he had what remained of his self-belief. And he had the example of his father, who had been laid off in 1997, and moved the family to Cary, N.C. (where Todd found a rival in Webb Simpson, beating him twice in the high school state championships), then lost his job again in 2008, at age 58, only to start a new interior-design business with his wife. He also had Rachel, who earned the nickname “Pennypincher” for her management of the couple’s finances, but who never pressured or even hinted that Todd should give up his dream and pursue a “normal” path.
Todd stayed hot for a month after his win in Dallas, and the next year he finished 46th in the FedEx Cup standings. But the yips returned in the fall of 2015. In 2016, the final year of his exemption, the nightmare of 2009 played out again as he missed the cut in 20 of his final 21 events. His full status gone, Todd missed eight of nine cuts in 2017, and all six in 2018. The negative momentum built on itself, and his World Ranking dove below 2,000.
“One of the toughest things for me during both of my bad stretches is if I don’t play weekends, I have a harder time getting that confidence,” he said. “If you miss the cut, you probably shot even par or worse, so you’re not seeing more birdies than bogeys, you’re not seeing yourself get under par and go further under par, so to go to the next Thursday and Friday, it’s hard, because what do you have to draw on besides your own internal self-belief?”
As for that self-belief, Todd was almost dismissive. “I’ve never been super high on that. But then again, how could I come back from all this if I don’t have self-belief?”
Faced with the prospect of having to start another comeback, this time with young children at home and his 30th birthday growing distant, there were two modes of thinking. The first was positive—I’ve been through it before; I can do it again. The second was not—I know from experience how hard it is, and I don’t want to face the climb.
For Todd, the lowest moments saw him gravitating toward the second mind-set. “In ’16, it was like, Oh, man, I’m playing my way off the tour, and I don’t want to go through this again. It’s hard, it’s depressing, and I just kept hitting the ball bad and to the right in golf tournaments. It was really difficult from the standpoint of knowing what was ahead of me. I might get five holes into a tournament, and realize, Oh my gosh, what I just worked on wasn’t right; I’m still hitting it bad. And then you’ve got 31 depressing holes before you miss the cut and you can go home.”
He looked for new secrets, tried new approaches and did his best to keep his spirits up. As often happens, resilience took the form not of constantly feeling upbeat, but of the simple, dogged act of persevering absent any evidence that it would pay off. By the end of the 2018 season, when he missed the Monday qualifier at the Wyndham, he felt lower than low. He met with his financial manager then, and he thinks today that if he flamed out at Q school that fall, he would have made a change.
But there was reason to hope. That summer, he was practicing with his college teammate David Denham in Athens, Ga., when Denham told him about an instructor and former PGA Tour player named Bradley Hughes whose videos he’d been watching. Todd looked him up, and found an e-book called The Great Ball Strikers that he bought and read on vacation. Todd loved it, so he went and visited Hughes, who gave him a drill to work on at home that involved hitting an impact bag with a club using each hand individually and then together. Simple as it was, it was the perfect drill for Todd, and it re-trained him to square the clubface. Though he continued to struggle that summer, things changed in November at the second stage of the Korn Ferry Tour Qualifying School in Mobile, Ala.
Todd had taken six weeks off in the lead-up, exchanging videos occasionally with Hughes, and when he started the first two days with scores of 74-71, he knew it would be very difficult to advance. But that gave him a paradoxical freedom, and crucially, there was no cut at Q school as there would have been on the PGA Tour. Todd felt liberated. He shot 68 in the third round, and knowing he’d have to put up a ridiculously low score on the final day, he adopted a “make birdie on every hole” mentality and shot 63. It wasn’t good enough, but something clicked.
In 2019, he began making cuts on the PGA Tour when he could get into tournaments on sponsor’s exemptions and past champions status, and he told Hughes that he thought he would win again. His year peaked with a pair of T-18 finishes at the Wells Fargo and John Deere. He earned his Korn Ferry status for 2020 by finishing second at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Championship, and though his season started with four missed cuts—most of them close calls—he fought to a T-28 in Houston and then reached the mountaintop once again in Bermuda.
In the midst of his spectacular final-round 62 that Sunday, on the seventh hole, he first believed in his chance to win.
“I had a 40-footer for eagle to go six under for the round, Harry Higgs had missed the green left on this par 5 and had to chip it out left-handed, and I could tell he was going to make bogey or worse, so it looked pretty clear that all of the sudden I was about to have a four-shot lead.”
He also knew that even if a second-place finish would be a terrific result, there was an enormous difference between a runner-up and actually winning. The victory would mean more money and the coveted two-year exemption (which, since this is a fall event, is more like a three-year exemption). None of it bothered him; it barely registered. He felt calm, and though he came back to earth after starting with nine birdies in 11 holes, it was like the hard part was already over. He coasted to a four-shot victory.
The second comeback, even more improbable than the first, was complete.
Todd believes he can sustain it this time, partly because of the drills Hughes introduced and partly because he knows he’s one of the best players in the world from inside 150 yards. If his performance at the Mayakoba this past weekend is any indication, it’s hard to doubt him. At the absolute least, he won’t have to worry about getting into tournaments for a few years.
But there are always those ebbs and flows. Nobody knows better than Todd how quickly it can all be lost, and how hard it is to hunt it down again. He’s been through the cycle twice, and for whatever reason, his particular journey takes him down to the murky depths. To have clawed his way back from that abyss both times, over a period of years, is a feat that falls short of traditional notions of excellence, and is, therefore, difficult to recognize. Still, it marks him for a rare, resilient sort of greatness that has less to do with the triumph of a weekend and more to do with the longer, messier struggle of enduring the vagaries of human performance.
In that way, the really impressive part wasn’t the win in Bermuda, but the fact that he hung around long enough to have a chance. The comeback wasn’t complete until the pinnacle, of course, but to get there, he had to come back, and back, and back …