The first order of business on Saturday at the Waste Management Phoenix Open at the TPC Scottsdale in Scottsdale, Arizona, was to decide which group to follow. And that couldn’t be done until Saturday morning because four guys got caught in the dark Friday night and had to finish their rounds Saturday morning.
You could make an educated guess on how it was going to play out (players paired by their scores in threesomes with tie scores settled in the order that they finished; first in, last out), but it’s never official until the Tour staff says it is.
The groups I was attracted to had players who had established or brought significant attention to themselves on the Tour and whom I had not seen play. Unfortunately, it took some scanning because it seemed all the players who captured my fancy were surrounded by guys I had already seen play. Finally I found my best choice, but surrounded by two guys I’d be happy to see play again.
My lead guy was Kiradech Aphibarnrat from Thailand. You may recall the piece I wrote about his play in Kuala Lumpur at the PGA Tour’s CIMB Classic. He finished one stroke short of a playoff with Gary Woodland and eventual winner, Ryan Moore. But he had an edge to get himself there. He won the 2013 Malaysian Open on the very same Kuala Lumpur Golf and Country Club course where the CIMB was to be played earlier in 2013, putting him at the top of the Order of Merit on the Asian Tour. That got him into the CIMB and the WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai, where he finished T55 in a 78-man field. He got into the British Open where he missed the cut, but finished T25 in the PGA Championship in August. What a year he had.
So I wanted to see him in person. And he was paired with Nick Watney whom I’d only seen play a couple of holes and a dogged, journeyman hero of mine, Ken Duke, who I saw play as a second alternate in Phoenix two years ago and got an exclusive interview with afterward (“Ken Duke: Far From the Madding Crowd“). Done deal; that was my group.
But it took setting up my computer, checking email, my site stats, the latest weather for temps and winds, affixing my Inside the Ropes credential to my media badge lanyard, a cup of coffee and two danish to figure all this out. That caused me to have to catch them going down the first fairway, an easy trick since the 1st tee is just 75 yards away.
So, back to the source of this flurry of activity, Aphibarnrat. I caught him informally on the range on Wednesday, told him how impressed I was with his story and his leap into the world of International golf, welcomed him to the U.S. and wished him luck for the week. He was grateful and perhaps a little embarrassed.
I knew from the CIMB broadcast that he was overweight (230 pounds his bio says), but I did not expect him to be just 5’8”. Having said that, I don’t think I have ever seen such a large man with so much flexibility. He makes a full turn and gets the club all the way to parallel and sometimes further. And he hits the ball accurately and a long way. He was always within easy distance of Watney and Watney gets it out there. And there is a certain poetry in the way he moves his girth. The other good thing about him is that he does not loiter. When it’s his turn, he makes two brief wrist-cock waggles while looking up at his target and then he hits it. No apparent thinking.
And it paid off early. He birdied 1, 3 and 4 right out of the box. But he went cold after a bogey on 6 that produced a string of six pars and then closed over the last six holes with two bogeys and a double. Watching his zippy swing at the bottom and his soft-touch short game, including his putting, I concluded that he has a bright future, never mind today’s round. All of his misfortunes sound worse than they really were; he was only 2-over on the day, but fell 24 spots to T40 because of the density of the leaderboard.
Watney was interesting to me because of his inspiring victory in the 2011 WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral and Tiger’s AT&T National later that year. He is a tall, stylish player who hits it a long way. On the 595-yard, par-5 13th, he hit this towering cut shot against the turn of a desert outcropping in the middle of the two fairways that didn’t come down for 342 yards. He had just 223 yards to the hole, hit an iron to 24 feet and made birdie.
Duke had an up-and-down day, 4 bogeys against 3 birdies to go 1-over. But the birdies came late to save the day and he tenaciously played each shot even though he sometimes gave up 30 yards to the other two. He told me in that interview that he just minds his own business and doesn’t much care what the other two players are doing. And from his determination to go 100% full out on every shot, you’d have to believe him. While his play was not robust, it was definitely inspiring.
I let them go on the 14th tee to pick up the group right behind them: Scot, Martin Laird; thunder-driver, Jason Kokrak and the can’t-miss-kid, Spencer Levin, who is still hanging in there. Laird’s classical swing was a treat to watch, Kokrak is so long he hit 3-wood on the only two tee shots I saw him play and Levin birdied the first hole I watched to pare some early damage. I let them go at the 16th to pick up Patrick Reed’s group on the 15th green.
Reed, as I say incessantly, is my Monday qualifying hero (successfully qualifying six times in 2012); I just love his gritty determination to persistently try to make birdies. It’s the Monday qualifying mentality. I knew Scott Piercy and Morgan Hoffman, but not well enough to distract me from oogling my hero and how he gets after the game.
Reed got “screeched” at address on the 18th tee and backed away with a look of disapproval into the throng on the hillside. Settling back into the matter at hand, he killed his drive — that thing looked glorious in the air — but it came to rest on the right edge of the left fairway bunker, 303 yards away. He’d need to stand in the bunker to cover the remaining 124 yards. After several experiments, he choked down to the steel on what could have been a gap wedge and whacked it to 20 feet. He got a huge roar from the crowd which he then encouraged with his arms.
Unfortunately the 2½-foot putt for par got spit out by the hole and made a “180.” I had hoped to get a mastery interview with him on the tenaciousness that Monday qualifying has instilled in him. He looked sullenly angry as he headed for the flyover bridge to the scoring area. Nevertheless, I hopefully, but realistically followed. When I saw his wife, I thought to ask her how she thought he would react, but didn’t. Just see what happens, I decided.
He came out of the scoring trailer with angry scorn on his face and just as I was about to ask for an interview, the Golf World writer said, “Patrick?” To which Reed responded “No,” without so much as looking at either one of us. He was so furious with himself (I assumed) that he even stalked by his wife and headed straight into the clubhouse. Pretty inconsolable, even from her.
So I headed back into the Media Center for a chocolate chip cookie and to wait for the leader, Bubba Watson to finish. You can always count on Bubba for some good stuff.
And that’s exactly what I got, which I’ll tell you about on Tuesday.