by Jeff Skinner
This is why we watch professional golf. The finish at The Northern Trust Open was just about as much fun that you can have watching golf. The scene was set with great players trading punches over an historic venue and the players didn’t disappoint.
You take Phil Mickelson, one of the greats of the game, add young stud Keegan Bradley, mix in some Bill Haas, who stole the show at The Tour Championship, throw in iconic Riviera Country Club, a few clutch putts and a bunch of kikuyu grass and you get one fantastic finish.
It was a day when the leaders went back and forth, and forth and back down the stretch. It all boiled down to the eighteenth hole for Mickelson and Bradley. With Bill Haas in the clubhouse at seven under, they each needed a birdie to force a playoff. Phil hit his approach to the back fringe, 27 feet past the hole. Bradley bettered his mentor with a shot resting about 13 feet away from the hole.
As Haas kept warm on the practice range, Phil stalked his putt. He may have had doubts with his short stick as he had back to back three putts coming in. But as CBS showed a graphic that said he had a nine percent chance of holing it, Phil steeled his nerves. With a perfect stroke and a better roll his ball curled into the hole and the faithful that circled the eighteenth went bananas.
Phil gave a few of his strong, left fist pumps as the crowd screamed and hollered and jumped for joy which surely had to register on any nearby Richter Scale. Phil couldn’t keep the smile off his face as he watched his buddy Keegan Bradley line up his putt.
Bradley, not to be outdone, took his time to access his putt. But once he stood over the ball he let it go with a firm stroke. Dead center it entered the hole and set off another celebration that rivaled Mickelson’s. It was great theater at one of the most revered holes in golf and Bill Haas knew it was a three man playoff.
After all three parred the eighteenth they moved to the short, drivable par four tenth hole. Only none of them could find the green. Phil’s three wood landed in the rough short of the green. Bradley’s three wood found the bunker and Haas’ driver was left, long and buried in the rough.
With the pin stuck in a narrow area at the back of the green , getting their balls close to the hole was impossible for all three. Haas played first and knowing he had no chance at the pin opted to play back to the center of the green. Phil, knows no other way then to attack and the master of the flop shot tried his best flop. He landed it close to the hole but the ball had no spin and rolled into the greenside bunker. Bradley was next with a difficult bunker shot and his ball finished passed the pin on the back fringe.
At this point a par looked like it may take the tournament and Haas sat 45 feet from the hole. Showing the same nerve that won him the FedEx Cup with a shot from the water he calmly rolled his long putt right into the hole for an unlikely birdie. The composed Haas only raised a fist in celebration as the air went out of Bradley and Mickelson.
When Phil’s sand shot fell short he was done. Bradley needed to sink his putt to extend the playoff but it slid by the cup and Haas was standing alone as the Northern Trust Champion after an amazing finish.
We can take away a few things from this exhilarating finish. First of all Bill Haas has quietly developed some big time golfing chops. He has four tour wins in two years and having won the pressure filled Tour Championship and now showing his mettle at Riviera he has to be given his due as one tough, clutch player.
Tournament venues do make a difference. Riviera Country Club has stood up to the test of time and that layout will certainly test players for decades to come. The amphitheater at the eighteenth is one of the best in golf. History does matter and the history at Riviera is filled with the games greats.
Having Phil and Keegan, good friends and professional rivals, playing together with the lead to start the last round was a perfect script. They gave us an entertaining day of golf and that finish on the 72nd hole of the tournament will long be remembered. This is why they play and this is why we watch. We want our heroes to be there at the end. We want our heroes to be historic and we want them to give it their all. That’s just what happened yesterday. Hass, Mickelson and Bradley were great to watch and even though Haas was the only one walking home with a trophy, all three were winners on Sunday.