February 10, 2008

Monterey Moment

Steve Lowery wins his third tour title, the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, when he birdies the first playoff hole against Vijay Singh

Lowery parred the scenic 18th in regulation, the birdied it to run his playoff streak to 3-0.

Lowery parred the scenic 18th in regulation, the birdied it to run his playoff streak to 3-0.

With the undeniably rich and the unreasonably famous circling like seagulls all week, with the weather so perfectly un-Crosby the seals barked only to order another glass of Chardonnay, 44-year-old Vijay Singh tried to show there's a little life left in the old Fijian. Yet Singh ended up rolling over like a sea otter down the stretch and offering up the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am to 47-year-old Steve Lowery, a man who was born in Alabama, raised in Alabama and went to the University of Alabama, but sounds like he is from Holland, Mich., when he talks. Apparently, anything is possible when the sun shines on the Monterey Peninsula. Cue the fog, Clint.

After tying on 10-under-par 278, Lowery's birdie on the first extra hole, the par-5 18th, gave him his third title, all in playoffs, in 20-plus years on the PGA Tour. He was playing this season on a minor medical extension after injuring his left wrist hitting a driver on the eighth hole in the final round of the FBR Open last year and sitting out three months. Naturally, the $1 million and change he won wipes that slate clean. But that isn't even the half of it.

One of the ancient maxims on tour is that you can't win with a 7 on your card. Lowery had two of them -- in three holes. Saturday at Poppy Hills, he double-bogeyed the par-5 10th, birdied the 11th, then double-bogeyed the par-5 12th. All he did was play his next 15 holes 10 under par. But there's more. After Lowery bogeyed Pebble's par-5 14th Sunday, missing the green left, Singh was standing in the fairway of the same hole with a wedge in his hand, 90 yards to the pin and three shots clear of the field. Singh's approach landed on the green but anything left of the pin won't stay up and nothing good ever happens under the tree to the left of the putting surface. Singh was lucky to equal Lowery's 6. He threw away another shot on the 15th with a loose iron and an indifferent chip. Then, on the 16th, Singh drove it into the first fairway bunker at the dogleg and hit his second shot over the green into the cavernous bunker from which there is no redemption. None. Nada.

Meanwhile, playing together and finishing on the front nine, 48-year-old Corey Pavin and John Mallinger, two decades his junior, shot 66 and 65, respectively, to post nine under par, and suddenly found themselves in a tie with Singh and Lowery. Pavin went to the tent by the practice ground to watch the denouement while Mallinger's caddie, Mac McCauley, was scrambling around looking for golf balls because they had given away all of theirs as souvenirs.

Lowery hit his 7-iron on the 17th 19 feet past the hole and ran the putt dead in the heart to take a one-shot lead as Singh watched from the tee. On 18, Lowery drove it in the fairway bunker so near the lip he could only get an 8-iron out. His choked-down 6-iron approach from 167 yards went all the way to the back of the green. A Japanese bullet train doesn't move as fast as Lowery's birdie putt was tracking. It hit the hole, popped into the air and stopped two inches away. Adios, Pavin and Mallinger.

Singh missed his 17-footer for birdie on the 17th, then, on the 18th, hit one of the trees in the middle of the fairway with his tee ball. It kicked left, giving him a clear path toward the green even though he couldn't reach it in two. He forced the playoff when his pitch finished two feet from the hole. Back on the 18th tee, it was Singh's turn to drive it into the fairway bunker. He had a clean lie but hit his 5-iron thin and advanced it just 86 yards. His third shot from 192 yards buried in the front bunker. Lowery never even bothered to look at Singh's lie. Assuming the 31-time winner would get it up and down somehow -- which he miraculously did -- Lowery knocked his wedge inside seven feet and made the putt in the middle.

"It's not a matter of him giving it to you," said Lowery. "It's a matter of: 'Are you going to go out there and win it?' "

If nothing else, of course, the AT&T is the unofficial end of the official silly season. From Pebble Beach to Augusta (where Lowery is now also headed), it's time to get ready to play golf. No one allowed inside the ropes who surfs or sings or CEOs, not that there is anything wrong with those activities when taken in moderation. How else could you learn that it is an anatomical impossibility for John Daly and Kevin James to chest bump? Where else could you find out Ray Romano yells "fore" as if he's offering a tentative answer to the question, "How many chambers in the human heart?" Or that Chris Berman (he's at least a YouTube celebrity, right?) rumbles across a golf course like a water buffalo and swings a club as if he is driving cattle with a switch. And what can you say about George Lopez, his Daniel Chopra fake hair and his McRuPaul kilt?

Vijay Singh

Other than the AT&T, the biggest news of the week on the Left Coast was the possible settling of the writers' strike and the Chinese New Year. These were supposedly unrelated events even though the Year of the Rat, according to one online source (and how could that be wrong?) is supposed to bring material prosperity and is associated with aggression, wealth, charm and order. Apparently even a billion Chinese think it's going to be a big year for Tiger Woods.

With Poppy Hills, Spyglass Hill and Pebble Beach rotating for the first three days, there is no discernible leader, just a lower, slower pro. The weather was as good as it gets, the wind sufficient but not brutal, the pins impolite and the greens traditionally inscrutable. Kent Jones was low on Thursday at six under par at Pebble. Friday it was Tim Herron at seven under through Pebble and Poppy. At least, there was some poetic justice in Lumpy leading on greens of the same description.

Singh and Dudley Hart (didn't Singh and Hart write Broadway musicals?) jointly held the third-round lead at nine under par on a day known as much for its oddities as its celebrities. Padraig Harrington was on the cusp of contention until he made a snowman on the 11th at Spyglass, but Phil Mickelson, the defender, did him one better. Well, three, actually. Excluding the back nine the first day, Mickelson putted atrociously all week but was still only a handful of birdies behind until he hit back-to-back hybrids out-of-bounds on the 14th, then threw away a couple more shots under that dadgum tree en route to an 11. He delivered a fond farewell to the cut by dunking one more in the Pacific Ocean hard by the 18th. But as everyone noted, at least the weather was good. Everyone except Singh. He was in a fog all his own.