May 19, 2008

Second Time Around

Another year, another AT&T Classic playoff appearance for Ryuji Imada -- this time he gets it right and picks off his first tour victory

Imada's victory got him into the 2009 Masters, but unless the Atlanta stop finds a title sponsor, he may not get to defend his crown.

Imada's victory got him into the 2009 Masters, but unless the Atlanta stop finds a title sponsor, he may not get to defend his crown.

Call the 18th hole at TPC Sugarloaf what you will, just don't call it boring. For the second consecutive year, Ryuji Imada returned to the plunging downhill rollercoaster par 5 for a playoff in the AT&T Classic but this time the Japanese Georgia Bulldog found redemption instead of water, beating Kenny Perry in melodramatic sudden death.

With visions of the Ryder Cup dancing in his head, Perry, who is already 47 and has probably aged another decade or two in the last couple of weeks, seemed to be in firm control of the golf tournament when he made three clutch birdies on the back nine, at the drivable par-4 13th, the 15th and the 16th to reach 15 under par and stave off the Colombian Biceps, Camilo Villegas, who came charging down the hill at the 18th, chasing after his second shot from 225 yards, watching it stop inside 16 feet but could only reach 14 under at the end of his thrill ride when he was unable to convert the eagle. Imada put himself in the mix early on the back nine with birdies on the 10th, 11th and 13th but needed 4 at the last to tie Perry, still out on the course.

Even with a birdie, Imada's chances seemed dim. The 18th is a dogleg right with a downhill tee shot then a tremendous fall off from the landing area to a green guarded by a lake in front. Even with a stout wind in the players' faces, it is eminently reachable and Perry is still recognized as one of the longest, most accurate drivers on tour. Last year, in his playoff against Zach Johnson, Imada drove it through the fairway and tried a risky 3-wood shot out of the rough from 262 yards that came to a watery end. This year, Imada also was through the fairway, though the rough was virtually non-existent thanks to Georgia's drought, and he was 20 yards closer to the green, though into the wind. The University of Georgia grad hit the same 3-wood, hanging it out to the right away from the water this time, then nearly holed the pitch and walked away with an easy 4 to post 15 under, the same number, 273, he and Johnson tied with in '07.

Perry, of course, could still win with a birdie but his 3-wood tee shot only traveled 268 -- the same club would go 295 in the playoff -- and he had no choice but to lay up. From there he wedged it to 30 feet, misread the putt and ended up back on the tee in sudden death. Imada drove right into the rough, and Perry was perfectly positioned in the fairway.

Because of the dogleg, Imada was closer to the hole, however, and Perry played first. This time, he went for it. In one of the cruelest caroms since Charles Howell III hit the bottom of the pin on the 72nd hole at Torrey Pines in '05 and ricocheted back into the water, Perry's 5-wood headed for the bailout area right of the green, flew too far and struck a pine tree 10 feet above the heads of a clump of spectators. The ball shot all the way across the putting surface and rolled into the hazard on the left side of the green. Back up in the fairway Perry began frantically asking where his ball had gone. When he found out, the news was even harder to take than the 81 he finished with in the final twosome at the Players the week before.

Back in '05, Howell, who ironically was playing with Perry in Atlanta, said, "Obviously, it's a crazy game." Perry was disinclined to react so philosophically. The only player to break 70 all four days, he was doubly cursed, though it's fair to say had his ball missed the lone pine tree, there is no telling where it might have finished. On the other hand, had the ball entered the hazard somewhere to the right of the pin instead of on the left, Perry would have been able to take a drop much closer (keeping the point between himself and the hole) and offering a far easier par-saving up and down than the one he faced from the drop area. While the Kentucky native is determined to bury the ghosts of his Valhalla PGA Championship playoff loss to Mark Brooks (and the momentum-cooling TV-tower sojourn he's never allowed to forget) by claiming a spot on Paul Azinger's Ryder Cup side in September, he seems hellbent on conjuring up more in the process. Still, he nearly holed his fourth shot but missed the subsequent 11-footer for par while Imada, who had the luxury of playing the 18th conservatively for once, two-putted for his first tour victory.

Parker McLaughlin and Kenny Perry

While tournament sources hinted at possible sponsor prospects in Atlanta, the no-longer AT&T Classic remains one of the two spring events without a deep-pockets backer next year. If this was the last "Atlanta Classic" in its many incarnations spanning 40 years, at least they were giving out a generous cash prize and a Masters invitation for Imada as lovely parting gifts.

Laid out through grand canyons of jumbo mortgages, the roiling fairways of Sugarloaf are, to say the least, a logistically difficult host site. That does not mean great associations do not make allowances to stage championships at difficult venues, but the TPC Pimp My Villa is no Merion. If Atlanta falls again and Sugarloaf should go the way of Tara in the process, Johnson, who has won there twice, Stewart Cink, who lives there, and now Imada, who found redemption there, will probably be among the few who will miss the place very much.

One group that surely won't regret a change of venue is the caddies who have never fully embraced the mountain stages of the Tour de Sugarloaf. In a Wednesday interview Greg Norman, the architect of the course who was playing as a tune-up for the Senior PGA Championship at Oak Hill CC, said, "The terrain really dictates a lot of it and the land plan, the housing and the road system, the infrastructure that needs to go in, dictates a lot. We were given corridors to work with here. We weren't involved in the land plan originally." Just a wild guess, but we would bet Norman would never agree to a similar arrangement now.

While this publication remains committed to ferreting out all worthwhile ferretable facts, when courageous workmen began drilling holes in the plywood floor beneath the media tent to allow the standing water to drain Thursday afternoon, this reporter decided it was time to unplug our laptop, Old Sparky, and retire to the cozy warmth of L'Hotel Maison Chien to watch Perry deliver what was easily the best round of the day on the telly. Perry dragged his old bones through 18 holes of varying degrees of deluge to tie Jonathan Kaye, Ryan Palmer, Jonathan Byrd and Parker McLachlin, all morning players, at six-under 66. As proof that the afternoon half of the draw got by far the worst of the weather, 21 players shot in the 60s in the morning. Just six were able to break 70 in the afternoon.

"I was hitting knuckleballs off the driver," Perry said. "I never seen balls do that." Imada had quite the adventure himself. In the same half of the draw as Perry, Imada played without the size small rainsuit he accidentally left in the bag room at TPC Sawgrass. "I didn't think it was going to get that bad," he said of his decision not to replace it Wednesday. "I mean, if it did get really bad, I thought they were going to stop play anyway." Oops. "I had a really good day up until my last four holes. Things started to get really bad. I hit a shot on six, my third shot, my right hand came off the club. I almost shanked it, made bogey. Number seven, tried to hit a tee shot and my right hand slipped off the club and that went about 90 yards off line into somebody's living room. It was just a crazy few holes."

After adding a second round of 69, Perry was three shots behind Byrd, who posted dueling 66s to take the halfway lead at 132 and would end the week solo fourth with a lengthy eagle putt on the 72nd hole, making him five under on the hole for the week. The 36-hole lead should have been at least one better, too. On the par-5 sixth hole, his 15th, Byrd missed a six-footer for birdie, then absent-mindedly lipped out the 14-inch tap-in. It knocked him back sufficiently that, while he had good opportunities on the closing three holes, he never seemed truly comfortable on the greens again.

Camilo Villegas

"I mean, it frustrated me, I can say that," Byrd said. "I'm like, 'What am I doing?' You just can't give away shots in a PGA Tour event with guys that are this good. You do that in junior golf, but you don't do that on the PGA Tour."

The frustration only got worse Saturday when, in the Chris-Berman-polar-exploration-pairing of Byrd and Perry, Byrd got behind the course early and struggled to a 73. Perry, meanwhile, went out in three under par through his first four holes, eventually posting another 69 to put himself in Sunday's final pairing for the second straight week, a shot ahead of playing partner David Toms and one behind Howell, who led at 13 under par.

Until Perry, Imada and Villegas took the back-nine stage, much of the final round belonged to McLachlin who was the first player on the course to reach 15 under par. McLachlin went out in 32, then played the first four holes on the back in four under. Twice he hit it five inches from the cup. On the short 13th he holed a 75-foot explosion from the cavernous front bunker for an eagle. He stumbled with bogeys on the 14th and 16th holes, but the true disappointment came on the 18th. After driving it perfectly, McLachlin was 226 yards out, staring down at the green below. He was 13 under par, with a chance to post at least 14, maybe 15. The wind, however, had kicked up hard into his face. After lengthy deliberation, he decided to lay up, then wedged it poorly and three-putted, eventually finishing T-5. Dude, you're from Hawaii. You grew up in the wind.

As Ryuji would say, live and learn. Maybe he'll get a chance to come back.

Fast Finisher chart