HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. – No matter which of the routes you take, your view is of country roads as you wind your way from Augusta, Ga., to this golf mecca at the edge of the mighty Atlantic. As scenic rides go, it’s not likely to get nominated for one of AAA’s best driving experiences, but the trip was one 37 PGA Tour members gladly took on in recent days.
Correction, make that 38. The thing is, Vaughn Taylor, unlike the other 37, had been at his home in Augusta and not competing in the Masters.
We say that with proper respect, because Taylor would be lying if he said it still didn’t sting a little bit to be at home during the Masters, knowing how much he’d love to be in the field. But he counts three Masters starts and a share of 10th place in 2007 among his career highlights, and besides, to dwell on the disappointment of missing the hometown major is to overshadow the appreciation he has been given: A sponsor’s exemption into the RBC Heritage.
“It was very nice of them. When I got the call Monday morning, I was thrilled,” Taylor said as he worked at the practice green Wednesday. “I can’t thank Steve (Wilmont, tournament director) enough.”
When his drive of two-plus hours ended Monday afternoon, Taylor found himself at a PGA Tour registration table for just the second time this year. Having played in just 16 tournaments a year ago and finished 155th in the FedEx Cup standings, Taylor is on the Web.Com Tour this season. The request for a sponsor’s exemption was one of more than 100, so Taylor appreciates how long odds were against him; now he’s hoping to work against the odds and get himself back on the PGA Tour for 2014-15.
“I’ve been playing all right,” Taylor said. “I haven’t missed a cut and the game’s been OK.”
The drive from Augusta to Hilton Head Island is nothing when compared to the odyssey his season has been thus far, what with Web.com Tour stops in Colombia, Brazil, Panama and Louisiana, plus one PGA Tour tournament in Puerto Rico. But Taylor, 38, has no complaints. He’s known PGA Tour success, from a win in Reno-Tahoe in 2004 and a successful title defense in 2005 to a Ryder Cup berth in 2006 to five straight seasons of being fully exempt.
The spot in the RBC Heritage field offers him a small step toward regaining some of that stature, but Taylor isn’t alone in that regard here at Harbour Town Golf Links. When he looked across the putting green, Taylor saw Steve Marino, who could be excused if he felt he had to re-introduce himself. After all, Marino hasn’t played since November when he missed the cut at both Mayakoba and the McGladrey.
A few weeks later, he did something he said he’s done “a million times,” he jumped out of his boat onto a sandbar. Only this time Marino said he fractured the fibula in his left leg and tore ligaments in the left ankle. Sidelined for several weeks, he said he’s been playing golf at home, “but no way I could have walked 18 holes.” So he stayed out until he felt he was ready and the RBC Heritage is where he’ll give it a go.
“I feel really good, I think I’m ready,” Marino said.
Having just celebrated his 34th birthday, Marino is trying to reposition himself to where he was accustomed; for five season (2007-11) he ranked between 30th and 63rd in the FedEx Cup standings and earned in the neighborhood of $9 million. But since 2012, he’s been plagued by a knee injury that didn’t heal correctly and had to be surgically repaired again, so there have been just 27 starts and seven cuts made.
Marino will fall into the major medical exemption category and if he needs testimony to how that can sometimes play out positively, he needn’t go any further to another colleague in the RBC Heritage field, Shawn Stefani.
Coming into 2013-14, Stefani, 32, was in the most precarious of predicaments. He had two tournaments in which to earn $84,084 and that tough task became even more difficult when he missed the cut at the Farmers Insurance Open. But in an effort that can only be motivation for Taylor, Stefani made brilliant use of a sponsor’s exemption from officials at the Shell Houston Open, finishing fifth to earn $256,000, easily the best check of his 25 PGA Tour tournaments.
While that prize wasn’t enough to do anything about the next week’s tournament, the Masters, Stefani is now able to plan a schedule. It begins with this week’s RBC Heritage and will include his first Players Championship in a few weeks, a nice little perk for which he knows he owes thanks to the folks of the Shell Houston Open, who based their exemption on the fact that Stefani was a local kid who had played in the Houston Golf Association junior program.
And consider it a mixed bag for each of the three, some good, but not enough to crack the top of the leaderboard.
Taylor did come home in level-par 71, but he bogeyed two of his final three holes. Marino, meanwhile, had it 2 under through 14 holes, but he bogeyed three times coming home to shoot 72, while Stefani did birdie the demanding par-3 17th, but a round of 74 leaves him well off the lead.
You could say their backs will be against the wall to make the cut come Friday, but that’s pretty much a situation they are accustomed to nowadays.