2006: ‘What a stupid thing to do’

By Jeff Babineau

Orlando, Fla.

Greg Owen should have known it was going to be a strange week.

After being introduced on the first tee at Tour events this season as being from Windermere, Fla., the lanky Englishman finally played a home game five minutes down the road from his adopted hometown. Then he ambled onto the first tee at Bay Hill and was introduced from Mansfield, England.

The preamble didn’t seem to generate much in terms of fan support, especially after he heard scores of Brits cheering for countryman Lee Westwood competing alongside him in the third round.

“They obviously don’t like me anywhere,” the affable Owen joked.

Perhaps. But it’s a pretty safe bet golf fans everywhere at least feel for him after he handed away the tournament at Arnie’s Place.

Owen, blazing along at 6 under par through 16 holes in the final round, stood over a 3-footer for par at the 17th, a putt that would have delivered a two-shot lead heading to the final tee. Victory was pretty much his. He pushed the putt. It happens. He then rushed the comebacker from 18 inches, tapping it hastily, and his ball horseshoed out.

That quickly – the sequence took all of seven seconds – and he was walking across the plank to 18 tied for the lead with Rod Pampling.

If golf ever goes on trial for being a cruel game, the 2006 Bay Hill Invitational is sure to be called to the witness stand. One more putt by Owen at 18 that also peeked into the hole and spun out – this one for par from 13 feet – left Pampling in the champion’s blue blazer and Owen just feeling blue.

“I played so good,” a shocked Owen said as he stood off the green at 18, “and to throw it away like that. . . . You don’t get many chances to win a PGA Tour event, and I’ve just thrown one away. I can’t believe it.

“What a stupid thing to do.”

Pampling, 36, who shot 72 Sunday to finish at 14-under 274, showed as much grace in victory as Owen in defeat. He looked like a man who had found a winning lottery ticket beneath the visor of his rental car. He had played brilliantly for three days and relatively solidly but for a couple of loose swings in his last round, and there were many positives to take away as his wheels hit the road toward The Players Championship.

But Pampling knew this title would be remembered for how someone else put the trophy in his pocket. Arnold Palmer, the sage tournament host who next year will have his name on the event (the Arnold Palmer Invitational), has had some terrific interchanges with his champions as they’ve exited the 18th green through the years, but none quite like this one.

“He looked at me and just sort of went, ‘Wow,’ ” Pampling said, “and that was exactly what I said back to him. It’s one of those deals. You don’t know what to say at the end there after seeing that.”

What do you say when you pass a car wreck?

Victory would have assured Owen a trip to his first Masters, though as he cradled his 3-year-old daughter in his arms and walked alongside his wife, Jacqui, toward the players’ parking lot, that was too much information to compute.

“I don’t want to bring that into thought,” he said. “That will only make it harder.”

Speaking of difficult, Palmer made sure the Tour lads had their hands full with his beloved Bay Hill course. The rough was thick and sticky and topped off at nearly 4 inches, and it was grown uniformly dense, even well off the fairways. Wayward shots were penalized heavily. Miss the fairway and pay a price – hmmm, what a novel concept.

“The course is playing nicely, and it’s allowing all different types of golfers to run up the leaderboard,” said short-hitting Corey Pavin, who ranked dead last in driving distance (252.9 yards) but entered Sunday only three shots out of second place.

“There is some merit in setting up golf courses differently, certainly. The golf courses are so long now. Granted, guys are hitting it longer, but it’s nice to have a mix of courses and a mix of setups, and it’s nice to play a course like this where the rough is so long. It really does equalize the field a little.”

This was no bomber’s paradise. Only one player who finished in the tournament’s top 10 (Robert Allenby) ranked inside the top 20 for the week in driving distance.

“I think the setup has been fantastic,” said Pampling, who ranks 120th on Tour in driving distance (285.4 yards). “It’s there for everyone. It’s great to get here and have a course set up in a manner that everyone could win.”

By Sunday, the leading men had been pared to two – Pampling and the hard-charging Owen – with Darren Clarke (70–276) trying to hang somewhere in the picture. Pampling was rolling along comfortably, making pars, before slicing a 3-wood wildly at the innocuous 13th hole, his ball finishing out of bounds in a resident’s backyard. He reloaded, and in essence, by the time he reached his second ball in the fairway, he and Owen were all square.

Owen took the lead at the par-3 14th with a birdie; Pampling answered at 15; and Owen made his sixth birdie of the day with a slick bunker shot to 2 feet at 16. It was a nice display of fireworks. And then on 17 came the big blowout that nobody was expecting, least of all Owen.

The victory was Pampling’s second on Tour to go with the 2004 International. His longtime coach, Gary Edwin, terms Pampling’s ascension “a gradual progression” and has worked with him to create a higher ball flight that allows him to compete at such places as Augusta National. Pampling comes across as a quiet, low-key fellow, but underneath beats the heart of a fierce competitor.

“Believe me,” said Edwin, “he wants to beat your brains in when he plays you.”

As hard as he was trying to win Sunday, Pampling never wanted things to end the way they did. In the solitude of the scoring trailer, as Owen appeared distraught and tried his best to understand what had just happened, Pampling looked at him and said, “I don’t know what to say, but I’m sorry.”

Between two players who had just witnessed firsthand how cold this game can be, what else was there to say?

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