2006: It’s Campbell in a breeze

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By Rex Hoggard

Palm Desert, Calif.

It’s called golf in the dome. An atmospheric blanket stretches across the Coachella Valley this time of year and ordinarily brings calm, clear skies and chamber-of-commerce views.

“From early November through January we normally get maybe two, three really windy days. That’s it,” said Bob Hope Chrysler Classic tournament director Mike Milthorpe.

To Milthorpe and the 128 Hope players’ chagrin, two of those wind-whipped days just happened to blow into town last week, turning a tournament normally won by the last birdie machine standing into an unfamiliar battle against the elements on an unforgiving new layout.

“I’ve heard players say as long as they keep playing over there (at the first-year Classic Club, which was hit particularly hard by the high winds), they are not coming back,” Bob Estes said. “We already have the Sony Open.”

Winds that howled to 30 mph Thursday and again during the final round turned the Desert Classic into a Waialae wannabe. Even the leaderboard had an aloha look to it.

Chad Campbell, who was outdueled by David Toms seven days earlier in Hawaii, was back in the pole position entering the final 18 holes at the Hope. This time it was Scott Verplank in pursuit, one shot back after 72 holes.

“It’s going to be breezy Sunday,” warned John Senden on the eve of the final round. “It will be a test of who can get the low ball going out there.”

It’s becoming increasingly clear that nobody lowballs like Campbell. If he had his way, the Tour would play all its events in the heartland’s tornado alley.

At the Sony Open, Campbell managed just one birdie over his final 18 holes. Sunday at the Hope, he quickly improved on that mark with

a birdie-eagle finish to his front nine that gave him a four-stroke breather.

However, it was a pair of poor tee shots, two penalty strokes and a blind 6-iron from a fairway bunker to 6 feet that swung the tournament, and maybe the entire season, in Campbell’s favor.

“Just the ability for me to go out there and grind it out and mentally stay in the game is what’s important,” said Campbell, who finished at 25-under 335 for a three-stroke victory over Verplank (73) and Jesper Parnevik (67). “Even hitting those bad shots (wayward tee balls at Nos. 10 and 13 that ended up in water hazards). The 13th, that was such a crucial hole to be able to hit that shot (and make bogey).”

Compared with his previous victories (2003 Tour Championship and 2004 Bay Hill Invitational), the Hope crystal may lack some cachet, but the Texan’s $900,000 payday may someday prove to have been a kick-start to a stalled career.

Nearly 21 months removed from his last Tour victory and fresh from his Sony letdown, the man his peers once dubbed the next big thing seemed to have hit a wall – at least as far as the winner’s circle was concerned.

There was reason to be optimistic heading into 2006.

After a yearlong search for an endorsement contract, Campbell finally inked a deal with Nike. He had been playing the company’s irons since last May and added the swoosh’s new SasQuatch Driver to his bag in Hawaii.

Campbell hit his stride late last year. He finished runner-up in Tampa to earn a spot in the Tour Championship and whatever his near-miss in Hawaii may have done to his psyche, it did prove his game was where he wanted it to be.

“Anytime you don’t win it’s disappointing,” Campbell said when asked about 2005. “I was able to kind of salvage the year with a couple of good finishes at the end.”

Campbell is soft-spoken and unassuming, not so much highlight reel as he is homebody. But something about the desert brings out his adventurous spirit. Normally content dining on plain hamburgers, Campbell scratched his culinary itch at Morton’s Steakhouse one night and also stopped in at the legendary Beer Hunter, the area’s well-known sports bar.

“I like it here, it’s relaxing,” Campbell said.

That all but one of his 15 rounds at the Hope had been below par also fueled Campbell’s confidence. And the fact that the winds that wreaked havoc in Round 2 – resulting in the event’s highest single-round scoring average on a course since 1989 (73.375) – returned Sunday was almost unfair for anyone not from Texas.

Campbell’s caddie, Judd Burkett, knew those trying to catch the leader had their hands full when Sunday’s winds kicked up.

“He hits it so solid,” Burkett said. “It really hurts their chances when it blows.”

Fortunately for Campbell, on Sunday the lid came off the dome – and the winner’s circle.

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