Kevin Chappell is emotional after shooting 59 in first PGA Tour start since a back injury 10 months ago
Jared C. Tilton
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — Yes, Kevin Chappell beat up on a defenseless golf course Friday at A Military Tribute at The Greenbrier, scorching the Old White TPC for an 11-under 59 that gives the place the distinction of becoming the first course in PGA Tour history to surrender two sub-60 rounds.
The course was soft, and the day equally so—overcast and calm. The place already had yielded three 62s. It wasn’t just ripe for the taking but also for a raking, and the only thing surprising about Chappell’s performance in the second round, which featured a PGA Tour record-tying nine birdies in a row, was that he was the man responsible.
It’s not that Chappell isn’t capable of such a scoring outburst, but 10 months ago, the California native wasn’t sure how much golf he’d ever play again. A back problem that he had kept at bay for five years with stretching, physical therapy and gobs of Advil finally caught up with him. Last November, he flew home to Scottsdale, Ariz., from Mexico, where he had just finished T-41 in the Mayakoba Golf Classic, and he triple-bogeyed the jetway coming off the plane. He could barely move.
“I literally couldn’t get to baggage claim,” he said.
By Thanksgiving, he lost all feeling in his left leg. On Nov. 28, he underwent a microdiscectomy and laminectomy in the region of his lower back. He didn’t hit a ball for four months. He played his first nine holes on May 11 and couldn’t believe how exhausted he was. But he adhered to his rehab schedule, took things slowly.
He leaned on his wife and two children, among others, for support. “I just couldn't feel more lucky to be here right now,” Chappell said after posting the 11th sub-60 round in PGA Tour history. “Ten months ago, I was laying on my couch and couldn't get up. So many people sacrificed to get me here, especially my family. A lot of people believed in me, put in a lot of hard work.”
Fast forward to the season-opening PGA Tour event. Strangely uncomfortable after so much time on the sidelines, Chappell shot an opening one-over 71. He suffered two quick bogeys and never found his rhythm. He and his caddie, Brian Vranesh, a long-time friend who voluntarily left the bag of Rookie of the Year Sungjae Im, retreated to the range, talked things out, worked out some anxiety.
“I'll be completely honest, I've been uncomfortable for two days," Chappell conceded. "Just kind of getting back into the swing of things, it's not as innate as I thought it was. I really enjoyed it and embraced it today. Obviously seeing the ball going in the hole you can really embrace being uncomfortable.”
“Yesterday you could tell he was nervous, but after going to the range last night he was very in control of his game,” said Vranesh, a former tour player. “Yeah, he was dialed in. I didn’t even realize he made nine in a row. I just knew he was firing them in.”
During the streak, which began on the 11th hole after an opening par at No. 10, Chappell holed slightly more than 111 feet of putts, with the longest coming at the par-4 18th when he holed out from 28 feet. “I was giving him grief after that one,” Vranesh said. “I knew it was getting ridiculous.”
The run tied the record Mark Calcavecchia set in the second round of the 2009 RBC Canadian Open. Going for the record breaker on the par-4 second hole, Chappell spun a wedge 23 feet below the hole, but then left his birdie effort two feet short.
He got to 10 under with a 12-footer at the short par-4 fifth and another 12-footer for birdie found the cup at No. 7. He could afford to par in for a slice of PGA Tour history.
“I made the birdie on seven and told my caddie, 'Let's shoot 57. Let's not stop,'” said Chappell, whose 59 was the 10th in tour history and the first since Brandt Snedeker in the opening round of the 2018 Wyndham Championship at Sedgefield Country Club, also a par-70 course.
“I’ve never seen a 59 in a tournament. It was really impressive watching him reel off nine in a row,” Patton Kizzire, one of Chappell’s playing partners, said. “You know, he didn’t hit a lot of them close, but he made all those 12, 15 footers. I kind of lost count.”
One of the biggest putts of the day came at the next when his 52-foot birdie putt on the 230-yard par 3 came up seven feet short. He managed to knock that in with the Star-Spangled Banner playing within earshot as an exhibition tennis tournament was about to get underway. It seemed to relax him, he said.
That left the ninth for a chance to tie Jim Furyk’s tour mark of 58 that he posted in the final round of the 2016 Travelers Championship. Chappell went with a 3-iron off the tee and punched a 52-degree wedge from 117 yards to 12 feet. He took a little off the stroke so that he wouldn’t face a knee-knocker coming back. It broke hard left across the front of the cup.
He settled for a share of the course record with Stuart Appleby, who carded a 59 in the final round to win the inaugural edition of this tournament.
“To go out and have my first start back on the PGA TOUR to shoot 59, get myself in contention going into the weekend, I just couldn't be more proud of myself right now,” said Chappell, who several times during his post-round interview started to choke up with emotion.
Chappell revealed that a superstition -– and poor planning –- might have cost him that 58 or even 57. He will not play a ball after he makes a birdie with it. When he converted that 11th birdie on the seventh green, he knew he was in trouble. He never thought he’d make more birdies in a row than the number of balls in his bag. He had to reuse two different balls on the last two holes. No birdies in them, it turned out.
He promised to be better prepared for Saturday when he begins the third round in fifth place, three strokes behind leaders Scottie Scheffler, Joaquin Niemann and Robby Shelton. He’s excited to be in contention for his second tour title. “What a story that would be,” he said. “Take 10 months off and win your first time back. There is a long way to go before I can realize that dream, but it's there and it's obtainable.”
He added that he felt validated, “that my game is still there.”
And, apparently, his confidence is restored, too.
“Tomorrow,” he said with a grin, “we’ve got to bring out one more ball.”