David Toms was never a fan of Notre Dame, understandably so. For Toms, an LSU zealot, that 55-yard, game-winning, gut-wrenching touchdown pass with 35 seconds left in the Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day 2018 probably is still a festering wound.
“I was never a lover of all things Notre Dame,” Toms said, maybe not reflecting the best mental attitude to take into his title defense of the U.S. Senior Open at Warren Golf Course at Notre Dame this week.
But then, in a recent visit to South Bend, Ind., he was introduced to Tim Brown and Jerome Bettis, NFL Hall of Famers and former Fighting Irish stars, who gave him a tour of the campus—Touchdown Jesus, the Golden Dome and the rest.
“It was a treat,” he said. “They are really nice guys. Just hearing their stories about when they were there, hearing some of the traditions, made me a fan of Notre Dame, to be honest.
“When you get there you appreciate the traditions they have. I look forward to spending the week there. The hotel is basically on campus, and the golf course is on the campus.”
This doesn’t necessarily forgive Notre Dame for its Citrus Bowl victory, and Toms is not likely to be overheard singing “Cheer, cheer for old Notre Dame, wake up the echoes cheering her name.” And maybe he won’t incorporate into his pre-round routine the Irish players’ tradition, as they make their way to the field, of touching its “Play Like a Champion” sign.
Toms, at any rate, already has adequately demonstrated that he knows how to play like a champion. In a long, borderline Hall of Fame career, Toms won 13 times on the PGA Tour, including a victory in the 2001 PGA Championship at the Atlanta Athletic Club in Duluth, Ga. And his one-stroke victory in the 2018 U.S. Senior Open on the East Course at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Colo., though occurring on the senior circuit, was among his finest.
“It’s got to be up there, just because of it being a USGA event,” he said. “I was close at the Olympic Club [the U.S. Open in 2012, when he tied for fourth]. I played really well at Oakmont (2007, T-5), and I was close in the U.S. Amateur in ’89 when I made it to the semifinals.
“But I was never able to win a USGA event, even as a junior player. I didn’t have the patience for it. I got better and better with my patience, but was never able to win one. So it meant a lot to me for a lot of different reasons. The main one was that it takes a lot out of you. It takes a lot of toughness, concentration.”
Toms, 52, was tested on all of it from the outset of the U.S. Senior Open last year. He was in a great frame of mind in the days preceding its start. “I fell in love with the golf course,” he said, “and I’m a fan of the Broadmoor in general. It’s hot in Louisiana this time of year, and I’ve always enjoyed Colorado. We go every year to ski. Just being there was a lot of fun, the practice rounds, everything. And I felt good about my game.”
Then walking from his room at the Broadmoor to its golf clubhouse on the morning of the first round, he learned that Scott Gneiser, his long-time caddie, was experiencing chest pains and was headed to the hospital. Turmoil ensued, and Toms hesitantly turned to son Carter, 20, a golfer at LSU with no experience as a caddie. Before the round began, Toms apologized to his playing partners Davis Love III and Vijay Singh and told them that “if he gets in your way just yell at him, whatever. He can take it.”
Toms moreover was concerned that he might hit a shot into a bunker, unsure whether Carter would rake it properly. As mindsets in golf go, notably in a national championship and its heightened demands, this was the kind to avoid. And yet …
“I think it actually was a blessing, having my son caddie for me,” Toms said. “I couldn’t get ahead of myself on the greens. I had to do yardages and things myself, things you take for granted as a player that your caddie does.
“My son did a great job. He never let me get ahead of myself. He did a great job of reading the greens, helping with clubs. One of the reasons he helped me win the event was that he gave me a pep talk on the second day. I wasn’t playing that well and I got right back into it.”
Carter caddied for Toms for two rounds, and patience, once a liability, became an asset. "That's the thing I was most proud of," Toms said.
Fortunately, Gneiser’s situation was considered related to altitude and was not serious and he returned for the final two rounds. “It was good to have him there when I had a chance to win the tournament,” Toms said. “He’s always done a really good job keeping me calm.”
It remains Toms' only PGA Tour Champions victory. In May, he tied for second in the first major on the senior schedule, the Regions Tradition. He then vacationed with his family in Mexico, and chose to skip the next major, the KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship in Rochester, N.Y., to play in the PGA Tour’s Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial—“my favorite stop on tour,” he said, noting his victory there in 2007.
“I hadn’t played there in a few years. It was a lot easier to get from Mexico to there than to Rochester. I would have been going from a warm climate to the possibility in Rochester of it being cold and wet. For me, it was a competitive decision to play Colonial. I had a solid week, a productive week [tying for 31st]. I was able to catch up with a lot of people I hadn’t seen in awhile, went to the [past] champions dinner, put on the plaid coat. I enjoyed it. No regrets.”
He returned to the senior tour at the Principal Charity Classic, where he finished fourth in a prelude to the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.
“I had a great week at Pebble Beach,” he said. “It was the best I’d ever seen the golf course. I was paired with a young man who didn’t have his driver’s license yet [17-year-old amateur Michael Thorbjornsen] and Chez Reavie, who finished third. It was fun. My wife and daughter were there and we stayed at Spanish Bay. Just a couple bad swings kept me from making the cut.”
His form heading into this year’s Senior Open does not necessarily portend anything, good or bad. He tied for 13th in the American Family Insurance Championship on Sunday. “I feel good about the game,” he had said in advance of that tournament. “A couple things in my golf swing maybe I need to tweak in my game, but that’s normal.”
What is not normal is an LSU die-hard heading to the shadow of the Golden Dome and expecting to enjoy all things Notre Dame without regard to its musical pledge to shake down the thunder. "Geaux Tigers" in those parts is a non-starter.