By Rex Hoggard
The only memories David Branshaw had of the Senator Course were painful. The monstrous layout that has hosted the Nationwide Tour Championship since 2001 is long, the wind almost always blows and it was here, just up the hill from the Alabama River with the Montgomery skyline to the south, where he learned his best friend was about to lose his battle with cancer.
So when Branshaw arrived in the Heart of Dixie last week 29th on the Nationwide Tour money list and some $39,000 on the wrong side of the PGA Tour bubble, his expectations were somewhat humble. The plan was simple: Don’t hurt yourself in the thigh-high rough and stay inside the top 36 on the money list in order to receive an exemption into the final stage of Q-School.
The wind blew as expected, the 7,661-yard layout took its normal share of casualties and the 36-year-old Branshaw was overrun with memories of his late friend, Jace Bugg, who died shortly after the 2003 Tour Championship. It was hard not to be, what with Bugg’s parents, Jim and Patti, in his gallery all week.
But along the way, the soft-spoken journeyman with the self-deprecating style also made some of the best swings of his life. The 5-iron into the par-5 17th on Sunday that set up a tap-in eagle. The two-putt from Mobile on the next hole to seal a one-stroke victory Oct. 30 over Eric Axley and secure his 2006 PGA Tour card. It all added up to one of the most emotional victories in Nationwide Tour history.
“I made them (Bugg’s parents) happy today. But win or lose, they would have been happy for me,” said Branshaw, who finished with rounds of 71-65-69-71 for a 12-under 276 total.
During the first round of the 2003 Tour Championship, Branshaw learned that Bugg – who was diagnosed with AML 3 leukemia shortly after tying for 30th at the ’02 Nationwide finale – had suffered a relapse after undergoing a bone marrow transplant. Bugg died later that year while Branshaw was at Q-School in Florida.
For Branshaw, every corner of the links-like layout held memories of his friend.
“This is where we played our last round together,” Branshaw said. “It was the second round (in 2002) and he just lit my ass up. He shot 5 or 6 under in the cold and the rain.” (Bugg actually shot 4-under 68.)
Branshaw seemed to take a page out of Bugg’s book for at least three rounds last week. His first 54 holes were nearly flawless, and he was one of only two players, along with Steven Bowditch, to post three scores below par. His four-stroke lead Saturday tied the largest in tournament history.
That’s when things got emotional. He woke at 4 a.m. Sunday, the combination of nerves and memories of his friend overwhelming him.
“I finally got back to bed about 6 (a.m.),” Branshaw said. “I did a lot of deep breathing and talked myself down.”
The uncertainty seemed to return on the back nine when he three-putted three of four holes starting at No. 12 and, combined with three consecutive birdies by Axley, slipped into a tie for the lead.
“I was lucky I didn’t four-putt any of those holes, to be honest,” said Branshaw, who finished 169th in earnings in his only other season on the PGA Tour (2004).
He also was lucky Axley ran out of holes.
After a kick-the-bag 77 in Round 1, Axley switched putters and hats – going with a regular lid worn backward, rally-cap style – and played his final 54 holes in 15 under.
“It was an 18-hole match today,” said Axley, who switched from a heavier mallet-headed putter after Round 1 back to his normal SeeMore putter. “This makes me realize I can trust my swing when I’m under that kind of pressure.”
It was an impressive finish for a little-known newcomer who began the year without any status on the Nationwide Tour and won the Rex Hospital Open in May to secure a place to play.
Like Branshaw, Axley began the week outside the top 21 on the money list and needed to finish first or second to earn a Tour card. Bill Haas and Tom Scherrer were not as fortunate.
Haas was on the bubble at No. 21 when the week began, managed just five birdies on the weekend and declined to talk with the media after another disappointing turn to his Tour card saga. Last year at Q-School, the son of Champions Tour player Jay Haas finished with rounds of 73-71 to miss earning his card by two shots.
Scherrer also came up short again. He needed a solid finish at last year’s Nationwide finale but was forced to withdraw because of back trouble.
“I’m disappointed with my play here more so than missing out on the top 20,” said Scherrer, whose only round in the 60s came Sunday (69). “But I ended on a good note and that gets me ready for Q-School.”
With each round, Q-School seemed to become more of a reality for Bubba Watson.
The left-hander’s aggressive game helped him work his way to 18th on the money list, but at Capitol Hill bad bounces and bad decisions nearly cost him a Tour card.
Watson’s third-round 79 was his worst score of the year. It left him 57th and in danger of being bumped out of the top 21. A closing 69 gave him hope and he spent the rest of the afternoon bouncing between the scoring computer in the locker room and the players’ dining room.
“At one point I was $205 out (of the top 21),” said Watson, who secured the final card at No. 21 in earnings ($202,437). “I knew if I played good this week there would be no problem, but this course was going to be tough for me because of my driving.”
Peter Tomasulo, David Morland IV and Kevin Durkin all had chances to overtake Watson.
Durkin and Morland led after Round 1 but struggled the rest of the way, and Tomasulo’s fourth-place finish pushed him into the top 36 in winnings and earned him a “get out of Q-School second stage free” card.
But only Branshaw and Axley were left to collect Cinderella honors on what, according to tour officials, likely will be the final Tour Championship played on the Senator Course.
The event is reportedly headed to Houston next year, but it’s safe to assume Branshaw will return to Capitol Hill someday. Memories like his are hard to leave behind.