March 30, 2008

Wait Watcher

Argentine Andres Romero, the leader in the clubhouse for hours, takes the Zurich Classic when several others can't

Look of a winner: Romero, who came so close at Carnoustie, finished with a 68.

Look of a winner: Romero, who came so close at Carnoustie, finished with a 68.

Without the Barry Burn to bounce off this time, Andres Romero got to post a score and watch the carnage from a comfy chair in the clubhouse. And watch, and watch ... and watch.

Romero, who won the Zurich Classic Sunday by a shot over Peter Lonard, finished so much earlier than his closest competitor that he could have signed his card, driven across the Mississippi River and into the French Quarter, had a leisurely meal at K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen and still returned in time for the playoff, had one been necessary. Instead of hanging around for the jazz band and bead-throwing at the prize giving, he could have been halfway to Houston, where he'll be playing this week in preparation for the Masters. Of course, had he done that, he would have missed the spectacle of more people throwing up on themselves over the last two holes at the TPC Louisiana than a Fat Tuesday on Bourbon Street.

The 26-year-old Argentine with a name that sounds like a bullfighter in a Hemingway novel and a gift for making birdies in bunches almost waltzed away with the British Open last July, making 10 birdies in the final round at Carnoustie before ricocheting a ball out-of-bounds off the wall of the burn and ultimately finishing double bogey, bogey to miss the Padraig Harrington and Sergio Garcia playoff by a single stroke. This time, Romero closed with a pair of hard pars and had the best seat in the house to witness the bloodletting.

A rain delay Saturday brought most of the field back Sunday morning to finish the third round. Romero had two holes to play, both of which he birdied. The leaders going into the third round, including Lonard, had only gotten through the third when the thunderstorms commenced. The decision was made to forego the Saturday cut (more on that later) and not re-pair the players but, rather, just keep on keeping on. The result was Romero teed off for his final round nearly three hours before Lonard. Never have so few waited so long to see so many fold like chocolate crepes.

Romero's birdie-birdie morning finish capped off a 65, the lowest round of the tournament. In fact, in four rounds he played the final four holes 10 under par. His 68 in the afternoon was constructed on birdies on the first three par 5s, a 6-iron to kick-in range on the 12th and an easy wedge on the short par-4 16th to post his 13-under-par 275. That's when the fun began -- for him, anyway.

The first player to have a realistic chance to catch the kid was the luckiest man at Carnoustie last summer, Harrington. He needed to finish birdie-birdie on TPC Louisiana's final two holes, a 215-yard par 3 and a 589-yard par 5. After a wonderful tee shot on the 17th, the Irishman missed the 16-footer. That meant only an eagle at the 18th would do him any good. He drove it in the fairway bunker on the right, tried to hit a 5-wood out, knocked it in the lake that protects the entire right side of the hole and finished by making a 30-footer for bogey.

Next came Woody Austin. Poor Aquaman. All he needed was birdie at the 18th to tie Romero. He drove it in the left rough -- easy enough to do -- and tried to hit a hybrid up by the green where he could aim a sand wedge at the tightly tucked pin. He moved his second about 60 feet, then hit his third in the water. Double bogey.

"I choked my guts out," Austin said afterward. "I didn't have my game today because I was scared out of my gourd, and I was puking my guts out. That's the reality of it. Some days I'm better prepared to deal with it, and today I was hiding it pretty well. I was hanging in there but eventually it caught up to me."

Which brings us to Nicholas Thompson, older brother of Alexis, who was the youngest competitor ever in the U.S. Women's Open last year. A birdie on the 16th, a drivable par-4 for much of the field, got him to 12 under par, but after a bogey at the 17th he (like Harrington) needed eagle at the last. His tee shot cozied up behind a small tree and his second caromed off the trunk and across the fairway. From there, he made 6. Adieu, mon frère.

Next to step to the plate was Tim Wilkinson, the left-handed New Zealander. He just never could get anything going on the back nine. A birdie at the 10th brought him to 11 under, but he closed with eight straight pars, which, by comparison, looked almost like a charge. Last, but not least, was Lonard. The Aussie with the massive forearms and the long putter tied Romero at 13 under when he drove it a foot from the front edge of the 16th green and got up-and-down for birdie. However, he gave that back immediately on the 17th, shying away from the water on the left, hitting his tee ball right of the green, chipping long and leaving his seven-foot par putt short. When he drove it in the left fairway bunker on 18 and could only wedge it out over the steep embankment in front of him, his chances for a tying birdie evaporated. While arguably no one felt worse than Austin coming off the 18th, Lonard was the one who seemed to give away an invitation to Augusta National.

Woody Austin and Peter Lonard

"Well, I've never made a cut at Augusta," the 40-year-old Lonard said of his four previous appearances in the Masters, "so it doesn't really worry me whether I'm going or not. But I would like another go before I die." Londard needn't worry. His New Orleans finish bumped him to No. 46 on the World Ranking and earned him an Augusta invite.

There's always something going on in New Orleans, and if news reports are to be believed, frequently it involves a shooting. That was the case when Paul Prudhomme got winged when a stray bullet literally fell out of the sky as he was setting up to cook on the practice ground of the TPC Louisiana Tuesday, striking him in the left arm. The grits must go on, however, and the superstar chef courageously continued to rattle his pots and pans in the face of this .22-caliber danger, ensuring the Zurich Classic would continue to boast the best-smelling range in golf. Fortunately, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem was on the premises the following day to award Prudhomme the Gumbo Heart and engage in a lot of mutually congratulatory backslapping with the tournament folks, much of which is well deserved in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. There was, however, absolutely no truth to the rumor Finchem was overheard saying, "So, this is what a full-field event looks like."

As if New Orleans didn't have enough problems, political odd couple Mary Matalin and James Carville announced they'll be moving to the Crescent City soon. So there goes another neighborhood.

In contrast, the fortunes of the Zurich Classic were much improved. With players such as Jim Furyk, Zach Johnson, Retief Goosen, Steve Stricker, Mike Weir, Harrington and Davis Love III (to name a few), the '08 version was like a major championship compared to the pitiful field that showed up a year ago. Until the rains Saturday, the baked and browning greens were about a half-load of cement short of being ready for a U.S. Open, all of which was good preparation for the Masters just two weekends away.

Dean Wilson -- who until he won the last running of The International was mostly known for being from Hawaii and playing with Annika Sorenstam at Colonial in 2003 -- took the opening-round lead at six under over Lonard, Chez Reavie and Briny Baird, whose peculiar putting stance looks like a French Quarter mime, minus the tip bucket. He didn't need to strike a pose on the sixth green, however, because he holed a 5-wood for eagle on the 476-yard par 4 that was playing directly into a stout wind. When asked how hard the wind was blowing he replied, "Fifty miles an hour. It's like a fishing story, it's going to get better and better."

Friday's second round was notable for two things, neither of which was Baird leading at eight under. The first was Tim Clark, who finished his round on the front nine, coming in birdie-birdie-ace, and the second was the kvetchfest between Steve Elkington and Bubba Watson captured in all its vituperative glory by Golf Channel. It seemed Bubba thought Elk was walking on his backswing on the 10th and that it wasn't the first time. Just as apparent, Bubba seems to have picked up a little of Tiger Woods' lingo during their practice rounds together and a lot of it went out over the air, live and off-color. After the round the two players "hugged it out," as Bubba put it, and then Watson apologized to everyone except the Governor of Louisiana and FEMA for a breach of etiquette that wouldn't have turned a head in the Quarter.

Then again, there are a lot of things that go on in the French Quarter that shouldn't be televised, either. Michael Collins, the XM Radio announcer, caddie and comedian, said watching Elkington and Watson in the glass-walled scoring tent afterward was like "watching an episode of Jerry Springer in a fish tank." So not only did the Zurich Classic have a shooting, it very nearly had a mugging, too. By the time the third round finished Sunday, John Merrick might have been leading at 10 under -- or maybe that was The Elephant Man or the Phantom of the Opera. Who knows?

That was about as much excitement as anyone saw until the massive pile-up that afternoon. Well, not entirely. When the decision was made to forego the "made the cut, did not finish" Saturday cut, a number of players who believed themselves to be MDF'd discovered they were, oops, still in the tournament. Retief Goosen, for one, turned his private jet around and came back. Unfortunately, his caddie was already on a flight out of the country so the Goose's pilot was on the bag. Johnson did a U-turn, as did Brandt Jobe and Jonathan Kaye. Alex Cjeka made it all the way to Las Vegas, caught a flight back to Houston, drove six hours from there, got to the golf course about 6 a.m., bought some clothes and borrowed some clubs and broke par for the first time all week.

Anyway, it wasn't your usual crawfish festival, that's for sure.