April 14, 2008

Masters Report: Snedeker's Masters Degree

Fast-study Brandt Snedeker emerges from a four-day crash course on tournament golf ready for more

Snedeker had the look of a winner at Augusta National until he played his last 16 holes in six over Sunday.

Snedeker had the look of a winner at Augusta National until he played his last 16 holes in six over Sunday.

When Brandt Snedeker was the U.S. Amateur Public Links champion, he would drive the six hours from his home in Nashville to Augusta National to practice for the 2004 Masters. The club gave him playing privileges as it does all "invitees," and the likable Vanderbilt graduate became an honored guest. Playing the course in less than three hours, he would squeeze in 36, sometimes 54 holes a day. From up close, he saw what it was like to own a green jacket -- and it made him want one. "It was almost like I was a member," Snedeker said. "I wore the place out."

Figuring he played 40 to 50 rounds before returning this year -- including the four trips when he made the cut as an amateur -- Snedeker felt at home when he returned last week for his first Masters as a professional. For three rounds he was the patrons' Prince Charming, the most popular player on the course, and perhaps around the world, as he engaged everyone with his fast play and freewheeling flair. With his strawberry blond hair flipped up in his retro visor, and an air of ease and confidence, he pulled off shots -- like the lob wedge he holed from the putting surface on the sixth green Friday -- and played with the daring of a young Tom Watson.

But Sunday in the final group with South African Trevor Immelman, he faced a course that was unlike any he had encountered in those road trips to Augusta or on the PGA Tour, an experience that can come only in the final group of a major, and Snedeker wasn't ready for it. The place that always made him feel welcome was making him pay his dues. It was the type of meltdown reminiscent of Watson in his early days in professional golf, and with the pain came some tears.

After smiling all week and stoically handling himself until the final putt was holed, Snedeker exited the scoring hut behind the 18th green, his face hidden in a towel. Up against the wall of the press building 10 minutes later, leaning against a golf cart, he tried to compose himself before his news conference, but that took some time. Finally, he laughed, and with a big sigh headed to the door. Surrounding him were two of his closest friends, manager Jimmy Johnston and Augusta National member Toby Wilt. But when he sat at the podium, he still wasn't ready. Several times he broke down, the interview ultimately ending with Snedeker saying, "I have no clue why I am so emotional. I was laughing outside. I'm crying in here. I couldn't tell you [how I'm feeling]."

After playing the first 54 holes in nine under par, after cruising through some of the toughest holes at Augusta National, after finishing birdie-birdie Friday and with a closing birdie Saturday, after tripping his way into and out of Amen Corner, all that free form and daring were stripped away. His "Look and Shoot" putting style went cold, his 4-iron landed in the waters of Rae's Creek on the 13th hole, and he learned the same lesson his hero, Watson, did in the 1970s before he went on to rack up eight major titles. Not once did the speedy Snedeker blame his collapse on Immelman's slow pace of play. "Just a rough day out there," was his overview. "You know, it's hard to put that much effort into something and get so little out of it. But it's just part of life, part of growing up. Obviously, I need a lot more of that. It's just tough right now."

Snedeker played the Par 3 Contest and the first two rounds with Watson, who marveled at the young man's imagination. It was their first meeting. As a youth, Snedeker emulated Watson and his brisk pace, played a set of Ram irons -- including the Tom Watson signature wedges -- and his haircut reflected Watson's era as well, long and flowing, tucked under headgear like Watson used to wear. Even Watson said, "He reminds me of me when I was 25."

Tom Watson and Brandt Snedeker

After Friday's round, Snedeker marveled about an iron shot Watson chased into a green as if it was the British Open. "I love the way he swings the golf club," Snedeker said. "I love the way he has always carried himself, and to see how he still hits the golf ball at age 58 is pretty phenomenal."

Inspired, Snedeker shot 68-69 the first two days, which included that zero-putt 2 at the sixth Friday when he blocked an approach shot to the back-right quadrant of the green. The pin was back left -- but that was no problem for Snedeker, who asked caddie Scott Vail for his 60-degree wedge. "I knew there were a couple members worried when I took out the lob wedge," he said. "But I figured it would be OK if I didn't take a divot, and I didn't, so the green is no worse for wear."

When he came off the course with a 70 Saturday, his instructor, Todd Anderson, talked about the ease he saw in Snedeker as he made his way around the course. "He loves this place and the way you have to play it," Anderson said.

But right from the start, Sunday was a different matter for the 27-year-old Tennessean. The tone was set when he missed the green and short-sided himself from the middle of the first fairway. That unforced error began an afternoon where his short game was short-circuited by swirling winds and final-round nerves. "He knew it was going to be a tough day," Anderson said. "But he could never get any momentum going. His pitching and putting were not as sharp, and those putts you've got to make to win majors, those four- to six-footers to save par, he never got his rhythm. It got going south. The first time you're in that position, in contention at a major, in the last group, you never know how you're going to act."

After Snedeker bogeyed No. 1, he quickly rallied with an eagle at No. 2 but gave it back by burying his drive at No. 3 in the face of a fairway bunker. When he lipped out for par, it was the first sign that his putter was going to behave differently than it had the first three days. Still, after dropping shots at the sixth, seventh, ninth and 11th holes, he was not out of the tournament. After a birdie at No. 12, and a ripped drive around the corner at No. 13, he faced his most important decision of the week. Immelman already had laid up.

"Golly man, if somebody could tell me how to play that second shot, I'd love to know," Snedeker said afterward. "Because two days in a row I've hit it right in the middle of that damn water."

He never recovered after the bogey at No. 13, shooting 77 and finishing four strokes back in a tie for third place. Although he would have taken third place at the start of the week, that was before the thought of owning a spot in the Champions Locker Room had become such a possibility.

While Immelman was on the practice green at the green jacket ceremony, Snedeker was sitting next to an Augusta National member named Larry Pugh who was doing his best to keep the news conference moving while the golfer tried to steady himself. Asked to describe his range of emotions, Snedeker said, "I think I'd put myself in a psychiatric ward, put it that way. I went from extreme highs to extremes lows, and that's what you don't want to do around here."

Outside the club's pro shop, Snedeker was greeted by his family: father Larry (where he gets his hair); mother Candy; and his older brother, Haymes, who hugged Brandt for what felt like a week before letting go. "It's hard to watch someone that close to you go through something like that," Haymes said later in the parking lot by Washington Road. "I know what the game means to him. It seemed like the script was written."

Still, in the minds of those closest to him, Snedeker accorded himself well. "The opportunity knocking at his door could have changed his life," Wilt said. "But when somebody's going through adversity and they handle it with maturity and as a gentleman, they kind of rise above it all -- and I thought he did that today. He didn't pout and carry it forward. He did all the things we hope we'd do whether it was for a $5 bet or the Masters."

Wilt, a halfback at Vanderbilt in the 1960s and now the first-tee starter at Augusta, saw potential in Snedeker as a high school sophomore, when he qualified by himself for the Tennessee Fourball because Haymes, his partner and an All-SEC golfer for Ole Miss, couldn't get home. When Wilt heard Snedeker was medalist on his own ball against some of the best golfers in the state, he pushed for the Commodores to sign him.

Sunday night, after attending Immelman's Champions Dinner, Wilt added an anecdote: During the recent PODS Championship in Florida, Brandt was in the lead two-thirds of the way into the third round when he tried to ram in a birdie putt, three-putted, fell behind and never contended again. He noted how Snedeker three-putted for bogey at 16 Friday but birdied 17 and 18 coming in, showing he had learned from his PODS experience. He believes Snedeker will learn from this Masters as well.

So does Andy North, the two-time U.S. Open champion and ESPN analyst. "He's a terrific kid," North said. "He gets it, which isn't true of a lot of guys out here. Sure this hurts, and you can listen to all the psychobabble about this being a learning experience, but it still hurts. But there's a lot of old school in him. He impressed a lot of people this week. It's cool what he did and the way he did it. He'll be back to win one of these things."

On the ride home to Sea Island, Anderson's cell phone rang. It was Snedeker, and he had a message for his coach: It was time to move forward and drive to Hilton Head Island for the Verizon Heritage.

"He told me he's done crying for today," Anderson said.