Fringe Benefits In late-season tournaments like the Texas Open, it's the grinders, not the mostly absent golden boys, who get a chance to shine

October 07, 2001

In his 1998 book, Rookie on Tour, Carl Paulson asks, So what is
the difference between the guys who finish in the top 10 year
after year and the guys who never earn their card? The mournful
mystery of what separates Paulson, who has struggled to remain
on Tour his entire career, from the game's elite hangs over the
book like a black shroud. In a weird bit of life imitating art,
Paulson answered his own question at last week's Texas Open.

Rookie on Tour is subtitled The Education of a PGA Golfer, and
on Sunday at LaCantera Golf Club in San Antonio, Paulson, a
30-year-old from Quantico, Va., endured yet another bitter
lesson. He found himself in unfamiliar surroundings--playing in
the final group with glamour boys Justin Leonard and Matt
Kuchar. Yet Paulson was in an all-too-familiar position: 130th
on the money list and fighting for his livelihood. In 10 years
as a pro, he has endured self-doubt, bouts of yippy putting and
countless Podunk towns so small they don't even have a Shoney's,
to lift one of the memorable descriptions from Rookie on Tour.
Through it all Paulson has kept clawing, with an iron will
forged by his father, a colonel in the U.S. Marines, and an
unshakable faith that comes from his grandfather, the pastor of
a Greek Orthodox church in Virginia Beach. On the eve of the
final round in San Antonio, Paulson reflected on his journey.
"I've learned a lot about myself," he said. "I've learned that
I've got what it takes to bring it home, given the chance."

Beginning Sunday three strokes back of Leonard, the third-round
leader, Paulson got off to an encouraging start, making solid
fairways-and-greens pars on the first four holes. Number 5 at
LaCantera is a steeply downhill par-4 of 494 yards that doglegs
to the right. Paulson has one of the Tour's most reliable long
games--he ranks 12th in total driving--but on this tee shot he
took a conservative line down the left side. His ball skittered
through the dogleg and into a dense grove of the trees.

Back to the book: The elusive "something" that separates the
winners from the strugglers is a mental toughness. It is a
deep-seated desire to win that gives one the courage to hit
approach shots close to the pin during the closing holes of a
tournament. Rather than punch out, Paulson attempted to hook a
recovery around a clump of branches. He caught the shot heavy,
leaving his ball in the trees. He then slashed his third shot
short of the green. It is mental toughness that makes it
possible to get up and down from deep rough when a match is on
the line. Paulson chunked the ensuing chip and then stabbed his
next shot 10 feet from the hole. It is a complete absence of
fear when faced with three-foot sidehillers during the critical
round. Paulson missed the putt. Triple bogey. He plummeted from
the leader board.

The Monday sports pages were filled with accounts of Leonard's
victory--career number 6 for the 29-year-old star of the 1999
Ryder Cup--and the exploits of the charismatic Kuchar, 23, whose
tie for second clinched his 2002 Tour card in the eighth
tournament of his rookie year. However, this dynamic duo was an
anomaly in San Antonio. This time of year usually belongs to the
lurkers--guys like Paulson--and they've assumed an even more
prominent place given the cancellation of the season's marquee
event, the Ryder Cup, which was to have been played opposite the
Texas Open. By now most of the game's glitterati have all but
called it a season, more interested in fly-fishing or
reupholstering the Gulfstream than golf. (Even the Tour's
flag-waving Tribute to America held in San Antonio two days
before the start of the Texas Open failed to interrupt almost
anyone's vacation.) The grinders who live on the fringe of the
Tour were more than happy to fill the void.

"Anytime Tiger, Duval, Mickelson, Vijay--guys like that--tee it
up you know they're going to be at the top of the leader board,"
said Tripp Isenhour, a 33-year-old rookie who came to Texas
158th on the money list. "Maybe on a week like this there's room
for some of us in the top 10."

"This is the land of opportunity," said Jaxon Brigman, who
prevailed in a four-for-one playoff to make the tournament field
as a Monday qualifier. The Texas Open was only the third PGA
Tour start of his eight-year pro career. "It's the chance to do
something heroic."

Brigman, 30, almost produced the kind of redemptive comeback
found in Marvel Comics. Perhaps you recall his woeful tale: At
the 1999 Q school Brigman, a Texan who played at Oklahoma State,
shot a final-round 65, a superhuman effort that would have
earned him his Tour card by a lone stroke. Unfortunately, he
erroneously signed for a 66, which became his official score,
dooming him to the Buy.com tour for 2000. Brigman never
recovered, losing his status on the Buy.com last year and then
washing out in the second stage of last fall's Q school. This
year he has been consigned to mini-tours in Texas and the
Southeast.

A 5'9", 145-pound noodle, Brigman prospered at LaCantera, a
twisty, hilly layout that demands precision more that power.
(Good thing, too, because on the par-5 14th last Saturday his
playing partner, Carlos Franco, outdrove him by 100 yards.) It
was midway through that third round that Brigman looked at a
scoreboard, something he rarely does. "Big mistake," he said.
"All I could think was, What the heck is my name doing up there?"

With rounds of 67-71-67 he was too far back to win the
tournament, but heading into Sunday he set his sights on a
different sort of victory--a top 10 finish that would earn a
spot in this week's Michelob Championship. Two under for his
final round despite a trio of three-putts on the back nine, he
arrived at the 18th tee knowing he needed a birdie to crack the
top 10. After a good drive Brigman hit his approach dead on the
flag, which was perched atop the second tier of the green.
Brigman's ball skipped on the first level, then inched up the
hump toward the hole and birdie range. The ball, and Brigman,
never made it. The former trickled back to the first tier,
leaving an all but impossible 30-footer, which Brigman missed.
With a par he finished 11th, a shot out of a three-way tie for
eighth.

These little turns of events don't show up in the agate type,
but they're staples of the grinders' fall finish, a weekly
melodrama that's heavy on heartache and long on characters--guys
like Isenhour, who's less than five years removed from cutting
Christmas trees on North Carolina's Grandfather Mountain; Jay
Williamson, a former college hockey player; or Marco Dawson, a
burly, bearded vet with a gentle manner. All flashed across the
leader board last week, only to disappear.

Isenhour was fun while he was around. Following a second-round
65 that put him in fourth place, this self-described "food
whore" was more interested in talking about his cooking than his
golf. His pet dessert is a banana flambe with cinnamon ice cream
that he serves in a cinnamon-crusted tortilla shell. On
Saturday, Isenhour looked as if he had been marinated in Grand
Marnier, going up in flames and out of contention with a 72.
With a 70 on Sunday he wound up 17th. "I let a great opportunity
slip away," he said.

No one, though--not Isenhour, not even Paulson--self-immolated
more spectacularly than Dawson, who carries the scars of a
reconstructed back and 15 years of struggle at every level of
pro golf. Still recovering from the surgery he underwent in May
2000, Dawson entered the tournament 173rd on the money list, but
he stormed to the first-round lead with a 64. By the back nine
on Saturday he was on the verge of falling out of contention
when he slam-dunked an ace on the 13th hole, the kind of omen
Dawson has been awaiting his entire career. "This could be the
start of something special," he said on Saturday evening.

Dawson was tied for fourth at the outset of the final round, but
his rally was dashed with a double bogey on the 1st hole. He
made a triple at the 12th and limped in with a 78, plummeting to
51st and standing pat on the money list. "This morning I was
really looking forward to the next five weeks," he said, leaning
against his courtesy car for support. "Right now I couldn't care
less if I ever played again."

Dawson would be wise to refer to page 4 of Rookie on Tour.
What's the difference between the guys who finish in the top 10
year after year and the guys who never earn their card? It is a
refusal to give up when having an off day. After his disaster on
the 5th hole, Paulson didn't quit, stubbornly making one stellar
shot after another. He hit 12 of the last 13 greens (for the
week Paulson led the tournament in greens in regulation, with
88%), and he could have made a respectable number had he not
blown three putts of four feet or less. "It was the worst
putting round I've ever seen in my life," said Paulson as he
violently emptied his locker after his 74.

Others saw something else. "A lot of players--veteran
players--would have had an easy time giving up after what
happened," said Leonard, who became the first player to win
back-to-back Texas Opens since Arnold Palmer in the early 1960s.
In Leonard's last eight rounds at LaCantera, he has shot 65 or
better five times, and his worst score is a 69. "Carl showed a
lot of heart. I'm very impressed with his game. I don't
understand why he hasn't won."

Paulson has excuses. This year he has been slowed by strained
ligaments in his back and distracted by the birth of his second
son, Hank, the source of much merriment in his tightly knit
Greek-American family. (In Orlando, Paulson, who's unrelated to
his blustery namesake on Tour, Dennis, not only is neighbors
with his brother, George, but also shares a backyard with him.)
Despite Sunday's setback Paulson is making progress. Last year
he rode a hot streak at season's end to rank 64th on the money
list. With his tie for 11th in the Texas Open he jumped to 118th
in earnings and left more motivated than ever. "Maybe when I
look back on this, I'll remember the good play of the first
three days," he said. "Right now I'm sorely disappointed."

These kinds of learning experiences are part of the education of
a Tour pro. What Paulson wrote three years ago remains true: I
have made steady progress with my game, and I am a much better
golfer now than I was.... I am only a hair away from being where
I want to be, and there is no doubt in my mind that I will get
there soon. Keep an eye out for me.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DARREN CARROLL Fall guy Paulson, 11th in San Antonio, was Mr. October a year ago, making more than half his season's earnings that month. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DARREN CARROLL Up and down Dawson was determined on Saturday, when his ace put him back in the race, and despondent on Sunday after a 78. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DARREN CARROLL Texas two-step During consecutive wins in San Antonio, Leonard had five rounds of 65 or better and was never higher than 69.

On Saturday, Brigman finally looked at a scoreboard. "Big
mistake," he said. "All I could think was, What's my name doing
up there?"

"This morning I was really looking forward to the next five
weeks," said Dawson. "Right now I couldn't care less if I ever
played again."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)