Very few weeks during the course of the year so clearly illustrate the vagaries of the golf profession that were so clearly illuminated at the aptly named Transitions Championship. The facts seem simple enough: Statistically, the best player in the world, Luke Donald, won a golf tournament. The fact that he overtook Rory McIlroy for No. 1 while McIlroy was absent hardly seems to be a significant transition.
However, that’s only a small part of what unfolded outside Tampa.
Interestingly, all four players in the playoff – Donald, Jim Furyk, Sang-Moon Bae and Robert Garrigus –already were in the field at Augusta, while all four players who missed the playoff by a shot – Scott Piercy (62), Jeff Overton, Ken Duke and Ernie Els – are not. This is not a coincidence or an anomaly. This is an illustration of just how narrow the gap between the top of the game and the rest really is. Those who missed the playoff by a single shot were well compensated for their effort, each making nearly $200,000. However Donald made nearly $800,000 more by playing just a single shot better over 72 holes.
During the course of the week there were more than a dozen different players who put their name on the top of the Transitions Championship leaderboard – until the end, Luke Donald wasn’t one of them. Donald’s name only emerged after Els’ tumultuous bogey-bogey finish. Few tournaments witnessed as many slammed trunks on Sunday evening as the Transitions Championship did. There were a great many good and even formerly great players who had to feel like they let one slip away. So in the end, why did Donald emerge? The simple answer is because he was the best player in the field, maybe in the world. The rest of the answer is more complicated, and far harder to answer.
A PGA Tour career is about achieving levels of success and then feeling comfortable at that level. Sang-Moon Bae might well become the next good young player to feel comfortable in his own shoes on a Sunday when pitted against the best. Furyk and Els may well feel comfortable there again, but sadly those odds seem long. Garrigus is one of those players who seems poised to take the next step. However, you don’t see the greats in the game miss putts like the 7-footer that he missed in the playoff. Not when they are at their best.
Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson made the putts they had to make, and now Donald and McIlroy make the ones they have to make. They pull off the shots that they have to pull off to win because winning is the only thing that concerns them on Sunday. Donald’s second shot into 18 from the right rough in the playoff was the perfect illustration of that. It was completely absent any evidence of nerves. It was about delivering your best at the most important time.
What we saw this week is that each career is in constant transition. As each career evolves there are the inevitable ebbs and flows. Furyk, Els and Harrington may have seen the best days of their careers already. They’ve had fine careers with great achievements. Donald and Bae are two players who may have their best days in front of them. For those others, players such as Ken Duke and Jeff Overton, their careers and lives would be altered immeasurably by improving a single shot over 72 holes. And so the quest continues in earnest while they hope that the next transition in their career is the one that everyone will remember.