NORTON, Mass. – For years, the Champions Tour widely has been regarded as the greatest mulligan in golf, but it may have met its match in the PGA Tour playoffs.
It is here in the FedEx Cup postseason, the second leg of which is being contested this week near Boston, when poor seasons can be erased in a matter of days, and when lean financial campaigns suddenly can make giant leaps in prosperity.
Jeff Overton cannot sugarcoat the season he has endured. It has been at various times dismal, trying, exasperating, tedious, disheartening and downright frustrating. He arrived at the Deutsche Bank ranked 83rd in the FedEx Cup standings, fighting and clawing for his playoff life, as only the top 70 will move on to next week.
It’s not as if Overton hasn’t worked on his game, but the putter at times has felt like a jackhammer in his hands this year, with every 5-footer representing a new thrill ride at Six Flags. He says the last three months have been the worst putting months of his life. On Friday, lo and behold, he got a few putts to drop, and with that, all of New England could sense the relief in his tall, lanky frame. Eight birdies and a lone bogey, a fairly easy 64, and Overton was atop the early-afternoon leaderboard at TPC Boston alongside a certain “T. Woods.”
Funny, but the putt that shifted Overton’s round into something that he could take low was yet another short putt he thought he’d missed – a little 4-footer at No. 12 that he pulled, leaving himself in temporary agony, muttering, “Oh, gosh – missed it again.” Somehow, the ball managed to hang in there and sneak into the side of the hole, and soon he was off and running. It was the first of five consecutive birdies en route to 30 on the back nine.
The game appeared fun again. You’d have thought these were the old days.
It wasn’t all that long ago that a Ryder Cup was looming, as one is now, and Overton was in the thick of the mix. In fact, he played on the U.S. team that withstood a tough extra-day loss in Wales two years ago. He went 2-2, and having had a taste of that event, it’s something he’ll miss in a few weeks at Medinah in Chicago. Having played his way into the top 50 in the world and seemingly a young man on the rise two years ago, Overton, now 29, has taken a step backward, slipping to No. 103 in the world. This season, he has but two top 10s in 24 starts, the last top 10 coming on April 1 – five months ago.
Overton has hit the ball just fine, but the inability to convert with the putter has left him walking off many a golf course frustrated in the last season-plus. He says his poor performance on the greens has turned rounds that should be 5 under into 1 under, and rounds that should be in red numbers into over-par efforts. At Bethpage Black last week at The Barclays, an exacting ballstrikers’ layout, Overton hit the ball great, missing only three greens in two rounds, yet still missed the cut.
“I mean, how do you miss the cut when you do that?” he asked incredulously.
To try to fix the putting, he’s basically sought advice from a handful of instructors, the latest being James Sieckmann, who works with Barclays winner Nick Watney on his short game and has helped out Overton this week.
“I hate to give his secrets out,” said Overton, “but he basically said whenever you make the putt and you’re picking it out of the hole, tell yourself how good you are. That was great – just keep reminding yourself of that.”
It’s a tough game, and there’s a whole lot of guys on this Tour who’d do better not to be so hard on themselves. For a day, all parts of his game ran smoothly, and Overton hopes the momentum can stick around for a few days, for a worthwhile reason. Playing well enough to advance to next week’s BMW Championship next week at Crooked Stick in Carmel, Ind., would give Overton the rare opportunity to play near home.
Overton lives in Bloomington, a little more than an hour away, and played at Indiana, where he still attends many athletic contests. He’s a diehard Hoosier, through and through. If he thought he had a hard time getting tickets for friends at the Ryder Cup in Wales two years ago – nearly 70 friends and family from Indiana made the trip across the pond – he may need to open his own box office next week.
Tom Alter, the Tour’s FedEx Cup numbers guru, estimates that Overton will need to finish 37th or better this week to get to the BMW, and Overton certainly put himself in good stead to do that. If only he can get that putter to cooperate a few more days. If nothing else, he’s been faithful through all the bad putting, never straying from the old center-shafted Odyssey Two-Ball model he has wielded since his sophomore year of college.
On Friday, Overton needed the putter only 26 times, the last one being to nudge in a 6-inch putt at the final green after he nearly holed a terrific flop shot. That one was no problem, though he was admittedly shaky over a few others. His 64 in the books, he was asked if he’d ever considered trying the magic elixir otherwise known as the long putter.
“That’s next, maybe,” Overton said with a smile. “But no, it’s not the putter that’s the problem. It’s all between my ears.”