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Masters of Disaster Final-round gaffes proved that even winners can look silly

May 19, 2003
May 19, 2003

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May 19, 2003

Sports Ilustrated Bonus Section
Inside The NBA

Masters of Disaster Final-round gaffes proved that even winners can look silly

It was fitting that Sunday was Mother's Day, because a pair of
prominent players produced victories that only a mother could
love. At the inaugural Wachovia Championship in Charlotte, David
Toms played textbook golf for 71 holes, building a six-stroke
lead that he nearly frittered away on the last hole. Toms blew
his drive 50 yards right into the trees, chipped out into a
hazard, took two more whacks to reach the green and then
four-putted for an absurd quadruple-bogey 8 that perversely ended
a 19-month victory drought. That Van de Veldian nuttiness was
topped by Hale Irwin at the Kinko's Classic in Austin. Irwin made
a double bogey on the third hole playing lefthanded out of a
hazard, but that was just the warm-up act. On 6 he whiffed a
one-inch putt and then, on the second try, barely nudged the
ball, which somehow stayed out of the hole. Somehow Irwin shook
off this calamitous triple bogey, and on the 18th he clanged a
sand shot off the flagstick that, had it dropped, would have won
the tournament outright. He barely survived the ensuing playoff's
first hole, in which Tom Watson doinked a shot sideways off a
tree and then lipped out a bunker shot that would've ended the
whole affair. Irwin leaked in an eight-footer for birdie on the
next hole for his first victory of the season.

This is an article from the May 19, 2003 issue

"That was one of the most bizarre days in my entire career," he
said. "If somebody can explain how I did what I did and still
won, I'd really appreciate it."

As an alibi Irwin offered the oldest cliche in the book--"That's
golf"--but it seemed somehow revelatory. In a game that's equal
parts physics and voodoo, sometimes there simply is no
explanation.

Asked to account for his final-hole implosion, Toms said, "My
plan was to make a birdie and finish off in style." Right.

For Toms, 36, the last couple of seasons have been paradoxical:
During his winless streak he has become a better player. The
low-key Louisianan had a breakthrough year in 2001, winning three
times, including the PGA Championship. Last year his game reached
a higher level, as he rang up 12 top 10s, finished second in the
Tour's all-around statistic and starred in the Ryder Cup. Yet he
was so haunted by not winning, Toms says, "My attitude has not
been the most positive in the world the last six months." His
secret this week? "I felt at peace."

Maybe too much so. Toms said he "wasn't even nervous" playing the
72nd hole. To his playing partner Kirk Triplett it looked like he
might have been too relaxed. "I wanted to take his pulse,"
Triplett says. "I've seen a finish like that to lose, but never
to win."

Irwin, meanwhile, can now say he's won and lost with "air balls,"
his term for those itsy-bitsy putts he has a flair for missing.
The 6th hole on Sunday was deja vu of the 1983 British Open, in
which he whiffed a similar putt in the final round and finished a
stroke behind the victorious Watson. "That's embarrassing,"
Watson said of Irwin's most recent hiccup. "But that shows you
how good Hale is. He can whiff it twice and still win the
tournament. I guess he got me back today."

Irwin was in no mood to gloat. He knows that winning is a
fragile, mysterious process. It's also usually the ultimate
bottom line, but Sunday's results exploded another golf
cliche--"It's not how, it's how many"--as both Toms and Irwin
were forced to reconcile inglorious ends to momentous
achievements. Toms told reporters after his eighth career
victory, "I know all you guys want to talk about [is 18], but I
want to talk about how I dominated the tournament for 71 holes."

Irwin sounded even more desperate to enjoy his winning moment. "I
want to concentrate on the thrill of victory," he said, "not the
agony of the whiff."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY RICK HAVNER/AP [INSIDE COVER] Weird... Even a Crazy 8 Can't Derail David TomsTWO COLOR PHOTOS: COURTESY OF THE GOLF CHANNEL (6) [INSIDE COVER INSET] ...and WeirderHale IrwinThree-Putts from an Inch--and Wins G21Whiffs casual backhand...TWO COLOR PHOTOS: COURTESY OF THE GOLF CHANNEL (6) [INSIDE COVER INSET] [See caption above] and misses brain-locked stab...TWO COLOR PHOTOS: COURTESY OF THE GOLF CHANNEL (6) [INSIDE COVER INSET] [See caption above] ...chagrined, he finally taps inCOLOR PHOTO: RALPH BARRERA/AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN (IRWIN) PIN BALL Irwin was dismayed when his sand shot on the final holeclanged off the flagstick, but he rallied to beat Watson in aplayoff.