Corey Pavin was so far down the money list the past decade, you couldn’t spot him with a rangefinder. His swing was messed up, his spirits down, his drives too close to the tee. He was a fallen star, from U.S. Open champion and Ryder Cup star to a short-hitting afterthought.
Given that he finished 148th or worse in earnings five times from 1997-03, many probably thought he was done.
“He’s been through the golf hell,” said longtime friend Jay Delsing, fellow veteran professional.
So it was that Delsing waited around a couple of hours to watch from behind the 18th green. He saw Pavin, his pal from UCLA, the Gritty Little Bruin, put the finishing touches on a two-stroke victory in the U.S. Bank Championship and a comeback from the scrap heap.
This was a victory for perseverance and shotmaking. Shortest stood tallest, a golf rarity. Pavin not only entered the week last on the PGA Tour in driving distance, he was last among those who made the cut at Brown Deer Park, at 263.6 yards on average.
Not that it mattered. Not when you sprint ahead with a Tour-record 26 on the first nine holes, an eight-birdie spree that included holed putts of 39, 38 and 29 feet.
“That’s an average of less than 3 a hole,” Delsing marveled. “That boggles the mind.”
Not when you hole a 6-iron from 175 yards for eagle on the eighth hole of the final round.
Not when you lead the field in putting average and tie for second in total putts. Not when you, the shortest hitter, are playing the shortest course on Tour, at 6,759 yards, one with several layups off the tee, one that requires maneuvering shots left and right, one that Pavin admits really suits him. And not when you consider the tenacity in that 5-foot-9, 155-pound body. “He’s so gritty and has so much heart,” Delsing said. “It’s great to watch him play.”
Talent and putting shoot 61, as Pavin did in Round 1. But mental toughness helps someone follow that up with 64 for 125, matching the low 36 holes in Tour history.
“You know how hard it is after you do something like that (26 and 61)?” said Frank Lickliter II, who tied for fourth. “The second day was a better round. It’s harder to back it up.”
So Pavin is back on top, a winner for the first time in a decade, a winner in Milwaukee for the first time in two decades, a winner on Tour in three different decades. Owner of a delayed 15th Tour title, Pavin feels rewarded for fighting back and proud of overcoming. The process has included instruction from Butch Harmon and a swing that is wider and once again effective.
“Considering those last 10 years, this journey means everything to me,” said Pavin, the Tour’s third wire-to-wire winner in 2006. “It built character. I never gave up on myself.”
Not that there weren’t doubts. There were plenty.
“There have been a lot of low points,” Pavin said. “That’s what makes this win so emotional and satisfying.”
He recalled one at the Buick Classic in Westchester, N.Y., a few years ago. He made a late blunder in the second round and just missed the cut.
“I was just shattered,” he recalled. “I was really down for a while. That was just one instance. You don’t go through six or seven lean years and not have some doubts.”
Prior to his decline, Pavin had finished among the top 26 money winners 11 times, including No. 1 in 1991.
He was high on anyone’s list of elite shotmakers. His was a Hall of Fame career in the making that got derailed as Tiger Woods ushered in golf’s power era. As it happened, Pavin would play 241 Tour events between victories.
This time, Pavin woke up on the lead Sunday morning and called his mental coach, Dr. Richard Coop. They decided he would focus on a slow, deliberate backswing.
“I felt so comfortable,” Pavin said of the final round. “I surprised myself with how calm and even I felt.”
His “huge” holeout from 175 yards Sunday not only helped him win but was reminiscent of his former brilliance. Back during his peak in the early 1990s, Pavin had a penchant for dunking shots from the fairway – 8-irons at the Masters and Honda Classic, a 9-iron at the Ryder Cup.
“There was a stretch when I kept holing shots,” he said, smiling. “It was fun. Things like that happen when you win tournaments.”