JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — No club received more attention on the West Coast Swing than the wedge.
And not just because of the size and shapes of the grooves.
Four players in three tournaments were either tied for the lead or one shot behind on the back nine of the final round, all of them trying to win for the first time on the PGA Tour. Instead of going for the green on a par 5, they decided to rely on a wedge to set up birdie.
They all made par. They all finished second.
The latest example, and perhaps the most perplexing, was Rickie Fowler on the 15th hole at the Phoenix Open.
He was tied with Hunter Mahan, who was playing ahead of him and already had failed to birdie the last par 5 at the TPC Scottsdale. Fowler had 230 yards to the flag, a front hole location, and was between a “smooth” 4-iron and a hybrid 3-iron. The 21-year-old who shows no fear in his game or his attire opted to lay up.
It looked like a peculiar decision considering two guys in his group had longer shots and reached the green.
It made sense to Fowler.
“I kind of told myself that I didn’t really want to go for it unless I had about a 5-iron in, which I would feel more comfortable hitting to that pin,” Fowler said. “Missing the green right or left, the up-and-down wasn’t very easy. So I felt giving myself that wedge from the middle of the fairway was my best chance at making an easy birdie.”
He hit a poor wedge and had to scramble for par, then failed to convert birdie chances on the last three holes — including a daredevil pitch on the 17th — and finished one shot behind Mahan.
Was it a mistake? Only in hindsight.
It’s easy to confuse poor decisions with poor execution, and ultimately it was the latter that cost Fowler.
“I hate questioning a player when it’s a judgment call,” Curtis Strange said Tuesday. “My question is, he can put the tournament away if he makes 3. He knew if he missed it right or left it would be a tough 4. But hey, you’re trying to win a golf tournament.”
Strange speaks from experience, and not a pleasant one at that. He had a three-shot lead with six holes to play in the 1985 Masters when he chose to hit 4-wood to the par-5 13th green, a decision that still gnaws at him. He put it in the water and made bogey, did the same on the par-5 15th with a 4-iron and finished two shots behind Bernhard Langer.
Why go for the green?
“I had been playing exceptionally well since opening with an 80,” Strange said. “I just thought the back side of Augusta, you have to make birdies. It was a simple 4-wood. I thought it was the right play. I never thought I would leak it to the right. In hindsight, I should have laid up. But if I hit the green and two-putt, the tournament is over.”
But in golf, it doesn’t matter what could have happened. Only what did.
Here’s what did happen at the Bob Hope Classic. Bubba Watson was one shot out of the lead playing the par-5 14th and had 242 yards to the hole, and one of golf’s longest hitters chose to lay up. He hit an indifferent wedge, made par, and wound up with a runner-up finish.
Both those cases — Watson at the Hope, Fowler in Phoenix — occurred with at least four holes still to play. Fowler figured he had birdie opportunities ahead of him, even though he had played those holes in only 1 under for the week.
Closer inspection goes to Tim Clark and Michael Sim, whose par-5 decisions came on the final hole.
Sim was one shot behind at Torrey Pines and had 246 yards to the pin, tucked behind a pond. That was the maximum he can hit 3-wood, only the Australian didn’t feel as though he was swinging that well. It was a long shot. Sim figured his best chance at birdie was with a wedge from 80 yards, and it nearly worked out perfectly except that it spun off the green and onto the collar.
Clark had 225 yards to the par-5 18th at the Bob Hope and chose to lay up. That was the prudent play in his situation — tied for the lead — for no other reason than the wind was at his back, the pin was to the front and he doesn’t hit the ball high enough from that distance to stay on the green, assuming he reaches the green.
He hit wedge to 7 feet. The only problem was he missed the putt.
“I did what I needed to give myself a best look at birdie,” Clark said.
So did Bill Haas, although with his length, going for the green was his best play. Haas hit a 3-iron from 205 yards onto the green, and he two-putted for birdie and his first career victory.
Ultimately, it’s more about execution than club selection.
David Toms could have reached the 18th green at Atlanta Athletic Club, but figured he was better off laying up on the par 4. He made a 12-foot putt to win the 2001 PGA Championship. If he doesn’t make that putt, his decision would be debated to this day.
Watching on television, Strange thought Fowler should have gone for the green in Phoenix. Even so, he has been there enough times to realize that golf looks a little different when the club is in someone else’s hands.
“If you make it you’re a hero, and if you don’t you’re a goat,” Strange said. “We’ve all been both.”