Notes: Billy Harmon rides roller coaster at Riviera
He has known John Merrick for 10 months. He has known Bill Haas since the kid was in diapers. But Billy Harmon has known golf a lot longer, which is why he could watch Sunday’s final round of the Northern Trust Open without a knot in his stomach.
“Once they tee it up, there’s nothing much I can do,” Harmon said. “It’s just part of the journey.”
That Haas, who has worked with Harmon for years, failed to convert his three-stroke lead through 54 holes into victory, and that Merrick, who has worked with Harmon for a handful of sessions, finally broke through for his first win in his 169th PGA Tour start? Well, each situation validated what Harmon understands about this game.
“Nothing surprises me about golf.”
Arguably one of the sport’s better instructors and indisputably as wise a mind that has ever graced the landscape, Harmon would not be human if he didn’t have some emotions as he watched on television the final round from famed Riviera. Bill Haas is like a son; Jay Haas, Bill’s father, is like a brother. But for as long as he’s been involved in the game – and his father, the late and great Claude Harmon, put a club in his hand when he was 4 – Billy Harmon has believed this:
“I’ve learned there have been only two sure things: Jack Nicklaus with the lead and pre-scandal Tiger Woods with the lead.”
So, no, Harmon wasn’t putting this one into the win column Saturday night, nor was he doing so after just three holes when Haas pushed to 13 under. His pupil, attempting to successfully defend his Northern Trust title, jammed it into reverse. By the 13th hole he was 4 over on his round and instead it was another Harmon student, Merrick, who got into position to win.
Now for the sake of accuracy, Harmon only recently started working with Merrick, who, like Bill Haas, is represented by Lynn Roach’s Players Group Inc. It was someone in that group who introduced Merrick to Harmon last March.
Harmon doesn’t pretend to have re-invented the wheel with Merrick, 30, a polished veteran who simply had gone into a bit of a funk. Harmon knows Merrick has worked with Jamie Mulligan at Virginia CC in Long Beach, Calif., for years, and still does. “What my role is, I don’t know, but I’ve met with him four or five times,” Harmon said.
He doesn’t see it as unusual; Harmon said stuff like this happens all the time. “Fresh ideas, is what it is. Sometimes when you work with the same teacher for years, you get tired of listening to the same thing he has to say and the teacher gets tired of saying the same thing.”
Changes were made to the swing, yes, but there was one thing that didn’t have to change: Merrick’s character.
“He’s a great young man, a solid guy,” Harmon said.
Though much was made of the storybook finish with Merrick winning his first-ever PGA Tour tournament in what amounts to a hometown tournament, Harmon believes it’s the young man’s second-best achievement. The first? Losing full exempt status after the 2010 season, but showing the grit and fortitude to earn it back without a word of complaining.
“I texted him after the win and told him that,” Harmon said. “I knew what he had done (a few years ago). I knew what it took. I’ve only spent 10 hours with him, but that’s enough time to know he’s a pro.”
So, too, is the guy who has worked with Harmon for perhaps 10,000 hours – Haas. Having put himself in prime position for a rare title defense, the 30-year-old lost the lead, but Harmon is huge on perspective. He has an abundance of it and uses it wisely.
“I’m disappointed for Bill, but I’m not disappointed in Bill,” he said. “He really proved something to me and to himself. He could have shot 78, but he hung in there and fought hard.”
With a birdie-birdie finish, Haas shot 73 to finish T-3, just one stroke out of the playoff.
Like many at the PGA Tour level, Bill Haas is notoriously tough on himself, and Bill Harmon knows about that gene. He’s been friend and swing coach to Jay Haas for decades and recalled a conversation from earlier this year. “I told Jay that in my opinion, missing the (Tour Championship) last year really bothered Billy. Jay said, ‘It would me.’ “
Harmon laughed, but added: “And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that.”
Losing a 54-hole lead is one of the oldest stories in golf. It happens. But it's how you handle yourself in the process of final-round trouble that distinguishes your character, and that’s why Bill Harmon in the aftermath of Sunday’s final round at Riviera came away with a better appreciation of Haas.
“He told me later he just didn’t have it, but he hung in there.”
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IN SEARCH OF CLARITY: You don’t need a Ph.D. from MIT to understand the all-exempt PGA Tour priority rankings.
But it would certainly help.
Especially with 2013 being the first go-round with the shortened season (the schedule ends in August, followed by four playoff events, and the fall series tournaments are going to be part of the 2014 schedule) it’s more confounding than ever, so much so that players in those fringe categories concede they aren’t up to speed. Take those playing out of Category 32, for instance: past champions. Several players were asked about the re-shuffle, and they said their category wasn’t one of those that had a re-shuffle.
According to the PGA Tour media guide, that’s wrong. As part of the shortened season, a one-time change has been applied to the past-champions category, and the first re-shuffle will take place the Monday of Masters week.
Not that any of those in the past-champions category – and it’s a whopping 59 players, folks – are on top of the new guidelines. In fact, Ryuji Imada offered his 2013 strategy with a hearty laugh.
“I’m going to enter everything, then wait for them to call me. If I don’t get in, I’ll sleep late and play golf at 2,” said the 2008 winner of the AT&T Classic.
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THE GANG’S ALL THERE: Clear evidence that the PGA Tour landscape is the ultimate crowded shop – too many players, not enough spots – can be confirmed with a scan of the entry list for the season-opening Web.com Tour event in Panama.
Imada is one of 13 former PGA Tour winners in the field, which also includes two past major winners: Rich Beem and Todd Hamilton.
It’s Imada’s first Web.com Tour tournament since 2004. Vaughn Taylor is also signed on, and he last played on this circuit in 2004. Hamilton’s playing in his first since 1991, when it was called The Ben Hogan Tour.
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TEEING IT UP: Standing on the first tee, wind at the back, dew on the ground, and an outward nine of thoughts and observations:
• Here’s a guess that Raymond Floyd will not be presenting Fred Couples at the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in May.
• Pretty sure, though, that Colin Montgomerie has agreed on his presenter to be the one person who knows him and understands him best: Himself.
• Drug-testing comes to the U.S. Amateur? If you get wrapped up in this story, remind yourself: The Tour de France had state-of-the-art, 24/7 drug-testing for years – and how’d that turn out so far as setting your mind at ease?
• News alert on tigerwoods.com: Tiger Woods has committed to play in the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, the Honda Classic, and the WGC-Cadillac Championship. Wow. Knock me over with a feather. Well, let me be the first to break this story: He has committed to teeing it up at the U.S. Open, Open Championship and PGA Championship.
• Wonder if President Barack Obama’s trip to play golf with Tiger Woods was as eventful as then-President Bill Clinton’s trip to that same area to play golf with Greg Norman years ago?
• How about Charlie Beljan put a muzzle on it before they put a windmill on Riviera’s 10th?
• Some reports have stated that the meteor that hit Russia’s Urals region was the first since the Tunguska episode in Siberia in 1908. Not sure why they have forgotten the black Escalade crashing into the Isleworth hydrant in 2009. That ignited quite a meteor crash.
• Graeme McDowell draws Padraig Harrington in Round 1 of the Accenture and Rory McIlroy gets Shane Lowry? Sounds like a joke – four Irishmen meet at Dove Mountain . . .
• Just think, if Lydia Ko, 15, played tennis, she’d be thinking retirement.
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HISTORY SAYS NO: If you’ve got Hunter Mahan in your Accenture Match Play Championship bracket, good luck. The odds are against him.
Of the 13 winners of this tournament before him, only one – Tiger Woods (and gee, what a surprise: Woods doing something no one else has done?) in 2004 successfully defended his title.
It’s more common for the defending champ to bow out early. That has happened four times in 13 editions, including each of the last two winners, Luke Donald in 2012 and Ian Poulter in 2011. The defending champ has bowed out in the second round three more times, meaning the defending champ has failed to make it past the second round seven of 13 times.
In 13 tournaments, the defending champ has made it past Round 3 just three times.
How fickle are the world rankings? Consider that since the Accenture moved to Dove Mountain 2007, 10 players have made it to the championship and three of them – Geoff Ogilvy (75th), Paul Casey (122nd) and Stewart Cink (306th) are not eligible for this year’s championship.
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THE GOOD: Freddie Jacobson is 24 under for his 10 rounds thus far in 2013, having recorded back-to-back top-10s (T-3 at Northern Trust, T-7 at Pebble) for the first time since 2010. . . . When you’ve been struggling mightily as Angel Cabrera has, small steps are always welcomed. He missed the cut in 11 of his first 16 tournaments in 2012 but since late last year has made it into the weekend in six of seven.
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THE BAD: Dustin Johnson has missed back-to-back cuts (AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am and Northern Trust Open) for the first time since 2009, when he withdrew after the first round of the Travelers Championship, then went to the Open Championship and missed the cut. . . . Fred Couples shot over par (73-73) on a Riviera weekend for the first time since 1998. . . . Aaron Oberholser, playing for the first time this year and just the third time since 2009, missed the cut.
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AND THE UGLY: Robert Allenby shot 76-74 to miss the cut at Riviera, a place where perhaps he scripted his greatest PGA Tour moment, the playoff win in 2001. He has not made a cut in four starts this year and has cashed just three checks in 17 tournaments dating to last summer. . . . D.A. Points has missed four consecutive cuts and seven of his last nine stretching into 2012. . . . Chris Stroud has missed the cut in 9 of 12 starts going back to last year. . . . Rory Sabbatini missed the cut at the Northern Trust. He has failed to qualify for weekend play in 11 of his last 14 tournaments, dating to 2012. . . . Sean O’Hair matched a career-worst score by shooting 83 at Riviera, then withdrawing. That other 83 came way back in his seventh round as a PGA Tour member, 2005, Round 1 at TPC Scottsdale.
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TOP-10 MACHINE IN THE MAKING? Sure, it’s a little premature, but suddenly Josh Teater is getting accustomed to the top of the leaderboard. He was T-6 at the Northern Trust and now has six top-10s in 15 tournaments dating to the True South Classic last July. Teater earned $870,934 in six West Coast tournaments, which dwarfs what he piled up last year ($145,582) in those same events. The unheralded 33-year-old from Kentucky is likely to crack $1 million for the third time in four seasons.
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PARTING SHOT: Hunter Mahan is often the picture of composure, a seemingly in-control sort who keeps his emotions in check. It might have helped him win last year’s Accenture Match Play Championship, but he has left this tournament in the first round once and the second round twice, so he is qualified to tell you what that ride back to the clubhouse feels like.
“It’s a weird feeling,” he said. “You just want to get out of there. The van can’t move fast enough. People can’t get out of the way fast enough. Everything bothers you.
“This is where I would like to talk to Pat Perez, because he probably does all the things I think about.”