Arnold Palmer awards Chad Campbell blue blazer at Bay Hill
Chad Campbell is frequently characterized as soft-spoken, but that’s only when he doesn’t have a golf club in his hands. On a golf course, he can speak very, very loudly. We’re talking Dick Vitale, shrill from the lungs, “CAN YOU BELIEVE THAT, BABY!” decibels.
Campbell, 29, has played in every Podunk minor league imaginable and has excelled at every level, and now this quiet star on the rise is beginning to turn up the volume on the PGA Tour. On March 21, two days after he played alongside tournament host Arnold Palmer at the Bay Hill Invitational, the pair met up again, this time as the King slipped the traditional champion’s blue blazer over Campbell’s broad shoulders on the 18th green.
Campbell, a young man of simple means from west Texas, appears far more comfortable in blue jeans than in a blazer. “This is probably the longest I’ve ever had one on in my life,” he joked, tugging at the lapels less than an hour into his coronation.
For so long Sunday, Bay Hill didn’t seem Campbell’s for the taking, but he stepped up and seized it anyway, firing boldly at most every flagstick to turn a four-shot deficit into a six-shot romp in the span of 11 holes at the King’s place. It was Campbell’s second victory in 10 starts, and his closing 6-under 66 – the four greens he missed he was on the fringe – was reminiscent of the pinpoint ballstriking displayed one Saturday last November at Champions in Houston, when a third-round 61 all but delivered the Tour Championship.
At Bay Hill, Campbell combined his usual solid long game with a putting touch that, well, hasn’t been so usual. Entering the week ranked a paltry 170th in putts per round (30.22), he shaved off nearly five putts a day in shooting 18-under 270, tying the lowest tournament total (Tiger Woods, 2000) since 1992.
“It was one of the best putting tournaments I’ve ever seen him have,” said Campbell’s longtime caddie and friend, Judd Burkett. “He putted exceptional. If he putted like this every week . . . it wouldn’t take long to get to the next level.”
Bay Hill week began with the guy who defines that next level, Woods, vying for his fifth consecutive title, and Tuesday rains that softened greens that have been tabletop firm the past two years. By the time Sunday rolled around, Woods, who had opened with 67, was far, far from the chase after back-to-back 74s. But at least the title seemed bound to return to Woods’ neighborhood – nearby Isleworth – in the grasp of Stuart Appleby. On a windswept Saturday when only six players broke 70, the Australian stepped to the fore with a stellar 66 that left him four ahead of Campbell and six ahead of Adam Scott.
A racing aficionado who would have spent his weekend at the Twelve Hours of Sebring had he missed the cut, Appleby wisely knew his race was not finished Saturday night. “It’s three-quarters of the way,” he said prophetically. “You can go around a race for 11 of the 12 hours and still be ahead, and all of a sudden, a wheel falls off and you’re stuck on the side of the track and everyone is passing you by.”
Or, in this case, one hot golfer can speed on past.
“He just outplayed me, no two ways about it,” said Appleby, who now has two victories and three runner-up finishes in his last 11 starts. “Playing with Chad for two days, looking back, I can’t even remember a poor shot he hit.”
Appleby, who had been under par every nine he’d played the first three days, made only two birdies Sunday and shot 40 on his closing nine. He has a new canary-yellow Lamborghini that goes from zero to 60 mph in a blink, and in about that time, Appleby watched his seemingly commanding lead evaporate. Walking down the eighth fairway, he led by four, but after Campbell birdied 8 and tacked on another birdie from the left trees at 9 – where Appleby made bogey from a bunker – the lead was one. Game on.
When Appleby missed a short par putt at 14, the lead belonged to Campbell, who stretched it with birdies at his next two holes, all but placing his hands on the winner’s Highland Claymore sword and $900,000 check.
The question became who would finish place and show. Appleby (76) made a terrific save at 18 after hitting his drive into a hedge and his approach into the Devil’s Bathtub to salvage double-bogey 6 and edge a pair of Scotts – Verplank (68) and Adam (71) – for second.
Campbell’s season, which had started so poorly (no top 10s in his first six starts) now is humming along at a time when top players are trying to peak. Campbell, whose victory moved him to No. 10 in the Official World Ranking (and No. 9 in the Golfweek/Sagarin Performance Index), hasn’t finished out of the top 10 his last three starts, and now The Players and Masters lurk on his schedule.
“You know, I definitely think I can compete,” Campbell said of his chances at this year’s majors. “I kind of showed that at the PGA (where he was runner-up to Shaun Micheel). I came up a little bit short there, but I’m definitely looking forward to getting to Augusta.”
Rumor has it they give out a nice blazer, too.