The 54th Byron Nelson Championship began as a spectacle of star power and ended in personal triumph for a pair of relative unknowns. To be honest, it was a little more satisfying that way. For only the third time in 2005 the top five players in the World Ranking showed up at the same tournament, but the only headlines generated by Tiger, Vijay, Ernie, Phil and Retief were for the wrong reasons. So the Sunday stage belonged exclusively to a pair of underdogs who have minuscule Q ratings but were exceedingly easy to root for: Ted Purdy, who endured an eight-year exile on the Asian and Nationwide tours and finally last year, at age 30, earned a place on the PGA Tour, only to be haunted by a pair of tournaments that he let slip away; and 22-year-old Sean O'Hair, whose boyish smile and gentle manner belie the brutal treatment he had to endure from a father obsessed with driving his son to success.
Purdy enjoyed a career breakthrough on Sunday by closing the deal with a bogeyless 65 that is likely to be one of the most impressive rounds of the year. He hit 17 greens in regulation (and wound up on the fringe of the one he missed), and he turned the tide on the front nine with a pair of 30-foot bombs. O'Hair came up one shot short, but he showed a ton of heart. Twelve tournaments into his rookie year, the second-youngest player on Tour has the unmistakable look of a star in the making.
But as sensationally as Purdy and O'Hair played, this Nelson is destined to be remembered not for what happened but for what didn't. Tiger Woods did not make a PGA Tour cut for the first time since 1998, snapping his record streak at 142. Woods's unexpected weekend off made the front page of Saturday's Dallas Morning News as well as the top of the front page of the sports section, in which co-leaders O'Hair and Brett Wetterich were buried on page 14. The weekend leader board belonged exclusively to the grinders, yet even in his absence Woods loomed large.
"It's gratifying to beat Tiger," Purdy said on Sunday evening at his champion's press conference. "I'm not sure that I've ever beaten Tiger in a professional event."
When they were amateurs, Purdy dusted Woods a couple of times, including a match-play victory at the 1992 Western Junior Amateur. (Purdy was 18, Woods 16.) As an undergrad at Arizona, Purdy also won the 1996 Ping Arizona Intercollegiate, finishing six shots ahead of Stanford's Woods. Of course, Purdy is quick to add, "he beat me pretty good every other time."
After graduating from Arizona in 1996 with a degree in finance, Purdy flunked out of the Tour's Q school, so he headed for Asia. A victory at the 1997 Indian Masters helped him land that tour's rookie of the year award. Purdy played in Asia in '98 and 2000. In between he earned his card and played on the PGA Tour. During Purdy's first year in the big leagues he made only eight of 27 cuts to earn $46,600 and finish an abysmal 230th on the money list. One of the few voices of encouragement was that of Purdy's old rival. "Tiger's always been a big supporter," says Purdy. "He would tell me, 'You've got the greatest swing out here. Why aren't you contending every week?'"
One clue can be found in the Tour media guide, in which Purdy lists Jimmy Buffett as his hero. "I filled out that press package at a different time in my life," Purdy says, drolly. "When I was on Tour in '99, I had a young South African kid [as a caddie], and he knew how to meet the women but he didn't know how to win a golf tournament."
"He had his priorities straight," someone said. ¬†"Yeah, at the time he did," replied Purdy, whose caddie at the Nelson was Paul Jungman, a mainstay of the Champions tour. "Now I'm married and have a kid, so I need to learn how to win more often."
Returning to the Nationwide tour, Purdy got a taste of victory at the 2003 First Tee Arkansas Classic, a win that helped him finish 15th on the money list, which got him back on the PGA Tour. Last year he earned $1,636,876, but his season was defined by two bitter disappointments. At Hilton Head he blew a four-stroke lead on Sunday and lost a grueling five-hole playoff to Stewart Cink. Most golf fans remember the event because on the deciding hole Cink received a controversial ruling allowing him to sweep away loose impediments in a waste bunker. (A day after losing, Purdy said of the ruling, "I bet the founders of golf in Scotland are rolling over in their graves.") A few months later, at the B.C. Open, Purdy gagged a three-foot putt on the 72nd hole that would have forced a playoff with Jonathan Byrd. Purdy admits that he didn't sleep a wink the night before either final round and that he was so consumed with winning, the pressure got to him.
The Nelson was a different story. Purdy decided to let Jungman pull all the clubs and dictate strategy, which seemed to free the golfer's mind. "He really steered me around," says Purdy, who claims to have slept like a log on Saturday night, when he was two strokes behind O'Hair. "He would say, 'Aim at the middle of the green [or] hit a cut shot to that pin.' I did kind of whatever he told me to do."
By contrast, O'Hair's arrival has come not by letting go but by breaking away. Largely at the direction of his father, Marc, O'Hair turned pro while still in high school. Among Marc's training methods were making his son work out every morning at five and having him run a mile for every stroke he finished over par. He has also admitted to physically abusing Sean (SI, Jan. 31). Sean cut ties with his father two years ago, and he has created a tight support group with his wife of two years, Jackie, who played golf for Florida Atlantic, and her father, Steve, who works as Sean's caddie. Three months ago the O'Hairs had a daughter, Molly. "I'm really happy with my life," Sean said on Sunday after collecting $669,600 to bring his earnings to $946,494, virtually securing his card for 2006. "I have great friends. I have a great wife and a beautiful baby, and whenever you have great people behind you, it's kind of hard not to succeed, even if it's not on the golf course. I mean, I'm going to be a happy person even if I'm not playing well, and that's the key."
Although he hasn't spoken to his father in two years, O'Hair did say on Sunday evening, "I love my dad, and I, you know, I hope he's doing well. That's all I have to say about that."
O'Hair's performance last week might allow him to move beyond his painful past and be recognized solely for his immense talent. At the Nelson he led in driving accuracy while placing fifth in distance at 306.8 yards a pop, an especially potent combination given his touch around the greens. "I think he's going to be rivaling Tiger's cut streak," said Purdy, perhaps a tad giddy from his victory. "I think he's on seven in a row now. He's going to keep making cuts."
The Tour leader for consecutive cuts is now Ernie Els, with 20, which puts Woods's incredible run into perspective. Tiger was in 42nd place after the first round of the Nelson thanks to a one-under 69 that featured golf both spectacular and confounding, a now-familiar mix. On the par-5 7th hole Woods pounded a 358-yard drive to set up an easy eagle, but for the day he hit only six fairways and needed 32 putts.
The portents for the second round were ominous. It was Friday the 13th at the tournament honoring the man who had held the previous record for consecutive cuts (113), and Woods was playing in the hometown of Hank Haney, the instructor who has helped him remake his swing, a move that continues to be second-guessed despite Woods's stirring victory at last month's Masters. The cut streak began to slip away with a three-putt from 18 feet on the 13th hole, which left Woods at even par for the tournament. That was the projected cut line, something Woods knew from studying the on-course leader boards. A bogey from a greenside bunker at 15 was followed by a birdie at 16, but even that represented a missed opportunity, as Woods had whiffed his 20-foot eagle putt. So he was still even par going to the 439-yard par-4 18th. A conservative play off the tee with a two-iron left him 176 yards away, but a seven-iron at the flag rode the wind into a greenside bunker on the short side. Woods blasted out to 15 feet, setting up the kind of do-or-die putt he seemingly never misses.
In the locker room a handful of players crowded around a television. Woods played too much break on his par putt and missed by an inch on the high side. Jesper Parnevik, one of the locker room spectators, said, "I would have bet $1,000 he would have made that putt. But, of course, betting out here is illegal."
Afterward, Woods was gracious, enduring a 20-minute inquisition by the media. He expressed pride in the streak, mainly because of what it said about his competitive spirit. "I fight all the way in; that's how I am," Woods said. "Days when you just don't have it, you don't mail it in, you don't pack it in, you give it everything you've got. You grind it out. I don't care what kind of game you have, you somehow try to find a way to get it done."
After signing a few autographs, Woods stomped to his room on the sixth floor of the adjoining Four Seasons resort, and that was where he finally vented, whipping off his sweat-soaked shirt and throwing it to the floor, where it remained as a souvenir for the maid. Woods slammed the door on the way out, then went directly to the airport and home to Orlando, standing up Haney and Mark O'Meara, who had floor seats for that night's Dallas Mavericks playoff game.
Woods's missed cut was only part of the Big Five's fizzle. Goosen also shot 141 to exit stage right on Friday. The remaining three fifths earned nice paychecks but were never factors in the outcome. Following his victory Purdy was suitably humble, saying, "I think I lucked out this week. If Tiger makes the cut on the number, he can shoot 15 under on the weekend. I lucked out by Retief missing the cut. Phil had a bad stretch yesterday, thank God, because he tends to get on good streaks as well...."
From the sound of it, Purdy has more heroes than just Jimmy Buffett. In fact, after being congratulated by the tournament host, Purdy said that his new idol is the 93-year-old Nelson. He means it too. Purdy and his wife, Arlene, are expecting a second child, and the dad-to-be says if it's a boy, he'll be named Byron.