PGA Tour officials balk at the notion that its pairing system used for opening rounds is anything but random. Four groups of players, lumped into three categories, are pumped into a computer which spits out entirely capricious pairings.
Perhaps, but if that’s the case the world hasn’t seen a computer this quirky since college football got into the ranking business.
How else could one explain peculiar groupings such as Craig Parry – who, according to NBC analyst Johnny Miller, has the swing of a 15-handicapper – and John Daly, who has been known to act like a 15-year-old. To be fair, the Daly of late is something of a 15-year-old in his dad’s Buick barreling down Magnolia Lane after yet another solid week at the Bay Hill Invitational pushed him closer to a return to the Masters. And what of the international pairing of India’s Arjun Atwal, Australia’s Nick Flanagan and Patrick Damron, a homegrown Bay Hill product who hit it all over the globe in the opening round?
The week’s most intriguing pairing, however, was that of Arnold Palmer, the King, and Chad Campbell, who began and ended his week with a pair of princely 66s.
His second 6-under salvo was enough to bypass a sputtering Stuart Appleby and secure the Texan’s second PGA Tour title. It also solidified his status among the game’s elite. Yet even with a posh new Bay Hill blazer hanging from his broad shoulders – a surprisingly well-fitting garb that doubled his jacket options (“He has a blue and black jacket, but never wears the black one,” said Campbell’s wife, Amy) – there was nothing royal about Campbell.
Keep the Perrier. This prince will take Pabst Blue Ribbon.
There are no bright lights in Campbell’s universe. His world is about plain hamburgers and open plains. Raised in west Texas with a swing honed on a steady diet of wind and dust, nothing seems to phase the 29-year-old. Not another trophy. Not a growing reputation as a player to beat. Not even a dream pairing with a childhood idol.
“As soon as I saw the pairing (with Palmer), I was so excited,” Campbell said in his signature Southern drawl.
Excited, maybe, but not even 36 holes in what may be Palmer’s final regular Tour event could upset Campbell’s cool cart.
“He doesn’t get too excited – it’s just the way he is,” friend Chris Berry said. “Watching Campbell play you could never tell if he’s shooting 80 or 60.”
Berry should know. He was a teammate of Campbell’s at UNLV before the two broke out onto the NGA/Hooters Tour in the mid-1990s. But back then he wasn’t Chad Campbell, “world beater.” Back then he was just another struggling pro with a solid swing and a sack full of doubt.
Looking back, Berry concedes he always knew there was something special about his friend and longtime roommate, but when you’re playing for little more than meal money, dreams tend to take a back seat to survival.
“We did a lot of sitting in crappy hotels playing PlayStation,” Berry said from his home in Nevada late Sunday as he watched his friend march down Bay Hill’s sun-splashed 18th fairway on his way to another payday approaching seven figures.
Campbell’s bank account has gotten fatter, but not much else has changed. He still depends on the same high draw and projects the same aloof manner. In years past, just as he did Sunday, other than his almost effortless play, Campbell did little to draw attention to himself.
Bill Lunde, the third member of the Hooters Tour/UNLV triad, said his first meeting with Chad was quintessential Campbell: “I asked him what his father did, and he said, ‘Erl (as in oil) business.’ I’m like, what is this guy saying?”
Lunde remembers Campbell being king of PlayStation hockey. Campbell also was the perennial favorite of a regular lag drill, a chipping and putting exercise they picked up at UNLV and turned into a weekly money game.
“(Campbell) wouldn’t miss very many greens, and when he did he was always a lock,” said Berry. “From 5, 6 feet he’s money.”
Those lag drills and the five years Campbell spent toiling in golf’s minor leagues seemed a lifetime ago as he accepted his winning spoils from Palmer.
“I had to be very patient through those times,” said Campbell, who’d faded miserably twice before on Sunday at Bay Hill (shooting 80 in 2002 when he trailed Tiger Woods by two and 79 last year). “I felt I deserved to be at a different level. I was just trying to do the best I could at where I was at.”
At the time they were all in the same leaky boat: Struggling to pay the bills, failing at Q-School (Campbell failed to advance through second stage five times) and convincing themselves they were one tournament away from the big time.
Things started to change quickly for Campbell.
In 2000, he won eight of 16 Hooters Tour events and finally finished high enough at Q-School to earn a Nationwide Tour card. The next year, he won three times on the Nationwide circuit and earned a “battlefield promotion” to the PGA Tour. He has never looked back.
“I’ve played a lot of golf with a lot of different players and he’s the best ball-striker I’ve ever seen,” said Lunde. “He just kept on improving. You could see it each week.”
With each start on the Hooters and Nationwide tours he gained the confidence he needed to reach the PGA Tour. With each week on the PGA Tour he justifies a player poll last year that dubbed Campbell the PGA Tour’s “next big thing.”
Just like last year at Champions in Houston when he became the first player to make the Tour Championship his breakthrough victory, Campbell was as relaxed starting the final round four strokes behind Appleby as he used to appear behind those PlayStation controls.
“I think I’ve earned a lot of respect from my peers,” he said. “I definitely feel like I’m ready to be in that role.”
That’s what passes for bragging in Chad Campbell’s world. Maybe his utter lack of pretense is a byproduct of growing up in a place like Andrews, Texas (population: 10,000). Maybe it’s all the lean times that humble a man with enough talent to match the week’s best round, twice, on a course generally regarded as one of the Tour’s toughest.
“He was always kind of plain,” Berry said. “Always so simple.”
Simple? Yes, simply perfect.