April 13, 2009

Faceless In The Crowd, Hamilton Journeys On

Rooters for the rich and fans of the famous can relax. Todd Hamilton did not win the Masters, disappointing peers who know him as an encyclopedia of jokes that enliven practice ranges and locker rooms. Had Hamilton prevailed during an eclectic, occasionally electric week, one could only imagine him opening the victory ceremony with, "I'm truly honored to receive the green jacket … and by the way, did you hear about the priest, the rabbi and the minister stranded on the desert island?" But we'll never know because Hamilton, who could have been a contender, did not pull an upset as colossal as, say, his 2004 British Open conquest. He came out of nowhere then, and into this season's first major with a rank World Ranking of 373. Yet Hamilton played well enough for a T-15, a surprise to some, though a greater surprise to most was that he played at all. Various story lines wafted about these hallowed grounds, but his always seemed to wind up on the cutting-room floor.

Sunday was vintage type casting for Everyman. The gallery for Tiger Woods-Phil Mickelson was thicker than Augusta National's manual on spectator etiquette. Half an hour later, here came Hamilton, a blue-collar guy in a blue shirt, followed by family and friends. His sidekick, flashy Shingo Katayama, was stalked by waves of Japanese media and spectators. "Reminded me of my 12 years over there, with everybody rooting for the other guy," said Hamilton, smiling. Maybe he needs a schtick or louder clothes. Also, he could use more than one top-10 since 2005. "Hey," he went on, "the way I've been going, it's nice to work a weekend."

In the NFL draft the last guy selected is tabbed "Mr. Irrelevant." After Saturday's round, in the next-to-last pairing with champion-to-be Angel Cabrera, Hamilton heard that he got about as much air time on CBS as Gary McCord. Hamilton just blinked. The Augusta Chronicle doesn't miss much during Masters week. However, in Sunday's listing of his scorecard, it was simply numbers. Other players merited circles for birdies and squares for bogeys, but Hamilton's 72 lacked symbols, if not symbolism. It's a wonder he isn't introduced as the "1992 Asian Order of Merit winner, season ticket holder to the Dallas Stars, and a devotee of crossword puzzles." Didn't Hamilton beat Ernie Els in a playoff for the claret jug at Royal Troon?

"That win was great for my career," says Hamilton, "but I don't wear it on my sleeve, because my buddies back in Dallas won't let me." With 68, he was only three shots off Chad Campbell's first-round lead, and Friday's 70 put him just three back of Campbell and Kenny Perry after 36 holes. Yet, the most attention the invisible man received followed his round, when an observer flagged an alleged violation. "I moved my marker on the fifth green to get out of Steve Flesch's line," Hamilton explained. "Then I replaced it real quick. Too quick for whoever was calling in, I guess." Fred S. Ridley, chairman of the competition committees, initiated an inquiry. You don't want to be cross-examined by Fred S. Ridley. He's very serious. He makes an IRS audit seem like a square dance.

On Sunday, midst piercing roars for Woods-Mickelson, Hamilton elicited a polite cheer when he sank a 90-yard lob wedge on No. 12 for par after rinsing his tee ball. He made an unsightly three-putt at No. 17, but saved par and 73 at No. 18. He thought it might be important, but not moreso than kids asking for gloves, hats and balls beside the scoring tent. "I made 'em earn it, though," said Hamilton. "I gave them math and spelling tests. No, no jokes." After walking a few more yards, another youngster sought tips for success. Hamilton, who is not impressed with self—"I'm a regular guy earning a living by doing what most people do on vacation"—told the lad to identify a dream, then chase it.

"Golf is unique," he said. "Basketball, you can practice shots all day, but you still have to prepare to be guarded in a game. Hockey, you practice picking a corner of the net, then you have to face a goalie. But golf, you practice alone, then you go play, and it's still just you. Maybe in front of 30,000 people, but still just you." When he finally reached a computer, Hamilton realized his T-15 finish secured his 2010 Masters invitation. "This week tells me I can still play at the elite level," he concluded. "But I gotta get moving. Can you see me playing here next year, yet losing my tour card?" There was no punch line, because this was no joke.