Monday, July 09, 2012

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Banner finish not in cards this year

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. - When fans took the shuttle buses out of The Greenbrier on Sunday afternoon, they could see reminders of what this year's tournament was supposed to be.

Prominently situated in front of the luxury hotel was a flag emblazoned with the smiling face of Tiger Woods, who made his first appearance in this tournament to much fanfare.

Nearby, a similar pennant depicted Stuart Appleby, the guy who shot 59 here two years ago to win the inaugural event.

Neither one of them made the cut this time. Nor did Phil Mickelson nor Jim Furyk nor Lucas Glover nor Rocco Mediate.

Hey, you sell what you can sell. In the case of resort owner Jim Justice, you buy what you can buy - golf columnist Steve Elling reported enticements totaling roughly $2.5 million to lure Tiger and Phil - and then you plaster it everywhere. You set it all up for greatness, for drama, for roaring galleries and massive TV ratings.

Then you tee it up - and you're at the mercy of competition.

The conclusion of the third edition of The Greenbrier Classic was nothing like anyone could have envisioned it. No huge names. No high-profile showdowns. And, if viewing trends are any indication, no big television numbers.

That doesn't mean it was a bust for those who came or watched. The event produced another fun finish, with Ted Potter Jr. outlasting fellow Nationwide Tour (now Tour) graduate Troy Kelly on the third playoff hole to win his first PGA Tour event.

In so many ways, that's the coolest thing that can happen. It's a joy listening to Potter and Kelly - who've never been anywhere close to this position before - talking about making hasty travel arrangements to the British Open. Both qualified for that major in two weeks because of their performances here.

It's cool hearing Potter talk about qualifying to play in The Masters - always the top dream of his.

It's fun imagining what these guys will do with the money they won here, money that means so much more to these guys than it would to the big-timers. Potter reaped more than $1 million. Even though he didn't win, Kelly will cash a check for more than $650,000 - roughly eight times what he'd made for his 14 previous starts this season combined.

Golf is hard. If we were reminded of nothing else this week, it's that. Pegging a favorite for a golf tournament is like predicting a number on the roulette wheel. Sometimes you'll hit, but it'll be more luck than anything.

Woods was the 7-to-2 choice to win this thing. He struggled badly with his putting and couldn't make it past Friday.

Mickelson was the second favorite. He never was a factor.

Then, after three rounds, Webb Simpson looked like a lock to cruise to victory. The reigning U.S. Open champion had a two-shot lead heading into the final round. Nobody near him on the leaderboard had his kind of pedigree, his experience in big moments. He would draw upon that and run away from these guys, most figured.

Only he didn't. Instead, he blew up. Simpson shot a 4-over 40 on the back 9 - including three straight bogeys - to squander the Sunday lead here for the second straight year.

"All week, everything had been going right," Simpson said. "And in nine holes, everything couldn't have gone worse."

That blew the door wide open for two guys who admittedly had their share of nerves entering the final round. But they were the two who made the shots.

"I just think everybody's getting better," Kelly said. "I think it's harder to win. The guy's that are coming off the Nationwide are more experienced. That's all I had to think about - my experience from there."

Now he has a new memory, a new experience. A better one. And perhaps next year, he and Potter will find their photos on banners flying at this resort, advertising the tournament.

Or perhaps not. Perhaps next year, Greenbrier officials should just decorate those promotional flags with a giant question mark.

Because golf is hard. And you just never know.

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