It was supposed to be a Phil Mickelson victory march. After all, the old left-hander had led the Desert Classic—re-named this year after the title sponsor pulled out—for three rounds, beginning his week with a remarkable 12-under-par 60 and maintaining the lead for the next two days.
Mickelson took a two-shot lead over Adam Hadwin into Sunday’s final round on the Nicklaus Stadium Course, not surprising since Hadwin—who shot 59 a couple of years ago during this event—always plays well in the desert.
Most of the crowd would be for Mickelson, although Hadwin would have the support of the many Canadians who show up every January in the Coachella Valley searching for warm weather and the chance to cheer on their fellow Canadian.
The third player in the group was Adam Long—who started the day three shots behind Mickelson—meaning he was cast in the role of the invisible man.
“Between everyone pulling for Phil and all the Canadians out here for Adam, I sort of felt like the third guy in the group,” Long said when the long day was over.
He was standing behind the 18th green, not far from where he had just drilled a 14-foot birdie putt to beat Mickelson, Hadwin and the entire field, shooting a seven-under-par 65 to win the golf tournament.
“I’m still not sure what happened,” Long said.
He wasn’t alone.
It’s almost a certainty that most of those watching Sunday—whether in person or on television—had never heard of him before the day began.
He is a 31-year-old PGA Tour rookie who was playing in the sixth tour event of his life. In 2011, a year after graduating from Duke, he qualified for the U.S. Open at Congressional and comfortably missed the cut. The next time he teed it up in a tour event was more than seven years later, when he finished T-63 at the Safeway Open, the season opener for 2018-’19.
After seven years wandering the world a la Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman, searching not for true love but a way to earn a living playing golf, Long had managed a 13th-place finish during last year’s Web.com Tour regular season—earning a PGA Tour card.
That T-63 in the Napa Valley was the only cut he’d ever made in five tour starts when he arrived in the desert. He opened with a 63, backed up with a second-round 71, but then shot 65 in the third round. That put him in the final group, a place he no doubt had never dreamed of being. Making the cut and a decent-sized check would have been a very satisfactory week.
Long’s day was supposed to go this way: try not to shoot a million and make as big a check as possible. How many times have we seen Sundays when the player you’ve never heard of shows up on television just long enough to tap in his final putt on 18 while the guy in the tower says, “Rough day for the young man, but a T-10 finish is nothing to be ashamed of for him.”
And then the ex-player in the tower adds, “He’ll learn a lot from this experience.”
Someone forgot to tell Long the script. The magic touch Mickelson had on the greens for three days was nowhere to be found right from the start Sunday. Like Joe Hardy in "Damn Yankees," after the devil makes him old again, Mickelson looked 48 every time he lined up a putt. Hadwin played well for 14-plus holes and seemed to be in control of the tournament until he missed a short birdie putt on 15 and let Mickelson—who finally made a birdie putt there—back into the ballgame.
Almost all the non-Canadians in the crowd were imploring Mickelson to get to the finish line in first. Golf is unique in that most otherwise-neutral fans do NOT root for the underdog. No one—other than friends, family, alumni and lifelong fans—roots for the Patriots, the Yankees or Duke basketball. Did anyone—other than their countrymen—root for the Soviet hockey team? Don’t think so.
Golf, though, is different.
Years ago, I walked the final 36 holes of the old BellSouth Classic with John Daly and Brian Henninger. Daly had become a star after winning the 1991 PGA and was a folk hero to most golf fans. Henninger had gotten into the tournament out of the 126-150 category and was known to about eight people watching.
“I felt invisible for two days,” Henninger said when it was over. “The tough part was people stampeding for the next hole whenever John holed out before I did.”
Daly won the tournament (Henninger finished T-2, his best tour finish until that point) by making a birdie on the 18th hole while the crowd went completely berserk. The next day, I asked Frank Chirkinian, who produced golf on CBS for 100 years, why that was so.
“Golf’s not like other sports,” Chirkinian said. “You go to Wimbledon and someone you’ve never heard of gets the No. 1 seed down a set and everyone in the place is rooting for the guy. Golf fans are OK with a nobody on the leader board on Thursday or Friday but come the weekend, they want their heroes to win.”
If you happened to be breathing last year, you may have noticed this during Tiger Woods’ comeback season.
And so, after Mickelson just missed an eagle putt to take the lead at 16, the crowd was in complete hysterics while he, Hadwin and Long walked to the 17th tee, all at 25 under par.
Long had already played much better than anyone might have suspected and was clearly going to cash a check that would change his life.
He had sneaked along all day, staying right with the superstar and the Canadian desert fox. He chipped in twice, made a couple of putts along the way and, before you could say, "Holy Rocky," (that’s now an opera, musical and movie reference all in one column) he was standing on the 18th tee tied for the lead after all three players made two-putt pars at the island-green 17th.
Then Long pushed his drive into a tough spot, a mound to the right of the fairway where he had to play his second shot with the ball below his feet. He hit a brilliant 6-iron from 175 yards to 14 feet. Hadwin missed the green long left and chipped to a foot; Mickelson just burned the edge on a long birdie putt.
That left Long suddenly alone in the spotlight, the tournament his to win. At worst he was going to be in a playoff and finish T-2, which would have earned him $519,200—slightly more than the $13,568 he had made for his T-63 at the Safeway in October.
Clearly, Long wasn’t thinking that way. His birdie putt was dead center and, at that moment, his life changed forever. That’s not a cliché, it’s a fact. His wandering days are over. The term "journeyman" no longer applies. He is a PGA Tour winner, which is a forever thing.
The $1,062,000 he won is a huge deal—it increased his career tour earnings by 7,927.24 percent—but there’s much more to it than that. He’s exempt until the end of the 2020-'21 season and he’s in the Masters and will be on Maui next January. He is a lifetime tour member, meaning he will always have some status to play on the tour.
Beyond all the tangible rewards, there’s this: knowing you were good enough to beat everyone in the field at least once in your life on the world’s most competitive tour.
In 1994, Loren Roberts won at Bay Hill, his first tour victory. Unlike Long, Roberts had already had a good deal of success in golf. But, at age 38, he had never won. “Until you win out here,” he said after Arnold Palmer had handed him the trophy, “you kind of feel like a day worker. You’re not really sure if you belong. When you win you know you belong. That’s a feeling that’s almost impossible to describe.”
Roberts would go on to win seven more times on tour and 13 times on the 50-and-older tour, including four majors.
There’s no way of knowing where Long’s career will go from here. But one thing is for certain: years from now he’ll be able to tell his grandkids about the Sunday when beat Phil Mickelson and a very good player named Adam Hadwin in the desert. Then he’ll be able to point at the trophy he won that afternoon.
That’s a forever thing, too.