Of the approximately 20 PGA Tour members for the 2016-17 season who either live or were born in Georgia, the only one to qualify for the year-opening Tournament of Champions wasn’t even a full-time player on the tour at the time of his victory.
Augusta native Vaughn Taylor scored perhaps the most unexpected win on the PGA Tour last year, coming from six shots back after 54 holes to edge out Phil Mickelson at Pebble Beach to revive a once-promising but long dormant career.
Taylor won twice in his first two seasons on the PGA Tour (2005 and ’06) and his consistently successful play those two years earned him a spot on the 2006 U.S. Ryder Cup team.
For the next four years, Taylor made at least one or two strong runs annually at victory, coming close at Bay Hill and the Heritage Classic in 2007, finishing one shot out of playoff in ’08 and losing playoffs to Matt Kuchar at Turning Stone Resort in ’09 and to Anthony Kim in Houston in ’10, one week prior to the Masters.
Thanks to a tie for fifth in the FedExCup Playoffs opener later in 2010, Taylor nearly qualified for the Tour Championship for the first time, but it turned out to be the last time his name appeared near the top of a leader board at the end of a tournament for some time.
After placing 35th in the FedExCup standings in 2010, Taylor fell to 116th in 2011, failing to record a single top-10 finish. He slipped to 136 the next year, again without a top 10, and after dropping farther down the points standings in 2013, made just three starts in 2014, spending most of the year on the Web.com Tour.
Taylor played respectably that year on the Web.com Tour, and split his 2015 season almost evenly between the two tours, making a combined 20 starts with 11 finishes in the top-25. He twice tied for 10th on the PGA Tour, one more than the previous four seasons combined, with one of those coming at Pebble Beach.
Playing off his past champions status on the PGA Tour, Taylor got into two events at the start of the 2015-16 season and tied for 20th in the second tier event in Mississippi. But he began 2016 on the Web.com Tour in Panama, missing the cut there before withdrawing the next week in Colombia with apparent food poisoning.
Instead of flying home to Augusta, Taylor headed for the West Coast, where he was the first alternate for the Pebble Beach Pro-Am. He got into the field a few days prior to the tournament, and for the first three rounds, continued his excellent play from the previous year at the three courses used for tournament play.
Taylor opened with a 70 at Pebble Beach, followed with a 68 highlighted by eight birdies on the difficult Spyglass Hill Course, and overcame some problems midway through the third round at Monterrey Peninsula for a 67. Taylor was 4-under after four holes that day after opening his round with an eagle, and closed with three birdies on his final six holes to finish the day tied for eighth.
Thanks to three birdies on his first four holes to start the final round at Pebble Beach, Taylor moved into contention, but was still a few shots behind Mickelson. Taylor turned in 2-under 34 despite spending much of the opening nine in the sand, resulting in a pair of bogeys against four birdies, one of which came after driving into a fairway bunker on the par-4 fourth hole.
Still several shots back of the leader with nine holes to play, Taylor made his move with birdies at 10 and 13, hitting his approach shots from the same yardage (139) to inside 10 feet on the 10th and inside five feet on the 13th. A precise wedge to the difficult par-5 14th led to another birdie, and he got a nice break at the 15th when his second shot deflected off his playing partner’s ball and wound up two feet from the hole for a third straight birdie.
With Mickelson hovering around par most of the day, Taylor surged to the front with a fourth straight birdie at the 16th, rolling in a putt from just under 30 feet. He had excellent birdie opportunities at 17 and 18 but narrowly missed both, finishing the day with a 65 to put him in the clubhouse at 17-under, two ahead of Mickelson, who had three holes to play.
With a clutch par-saving putt at 16 and a birdie at 17, Mickelson gave himself a chance to force a playoff after hitting his second shot just short of the green on the par-5 18th. He left himself a 5-footer for birdie but lipped out the putt, giving Taylor the victory without having to go extra holes.
“Just absolutely amazing,” Taylor said in his media interview after his win. “I can’t believe I’m actually sitting here right now. Didn’t know it would ever happen again, to be honest. Just lost a lot of confidence, lost a good bit of my game. I just kept working, kept grinding, and kept at it.”
Taylor admitted his goal coming into the final round was to finish in the top 10, which would earn him a spot in the field in Los Angeles and keep him from having to play in a qualifier the next day to get into the tournament.
“I wasn’t even thinking about winning,” he said, discounting the possibility of making up six shots on the second best player of Taylor’s generation.
Taylor’s surprise victory earned him an invitation the Masters in his hometown of Augusta, his first appearance there since 2008. Taylor was a serious contender during the frigid Masters of 2007, tying for 10th after beginning the final round just one shot off the lead.
The next time Taylor made the cut in a major was last year’s PGA Championship, with his 2016 Masters appearance his first start in a major since 2010.
Taylor’s victory came a little over six months after he suffered a harrowing experience in a boating accident on Lake Thurmond in Augusta in 2014.
Taylor was fishing from his boat when it flipped over in a strong current. He emerged from the accident unscathed, and even managed to finish fifth in the Web.com Tour tournament later that week in Knoxville.
“It was pretty scary,” Taylor recalled. “I really thought for a minute that this could be it. Once the panic kind of wore off and I realized, OK, let’s get yourself together, then I kind of calmed down and I knew I was going to be OK.”
Taylor has lived in Augusta almost his entire life, moving there with his family as an infant. He grew up playing out of Goshen Plantation in south Augusta and attended Augusta State at a time when the team consisted largely of players from Europe. Taylor qualified for the U.S. Open his junior season and was an honorable mention All-America selection as a senior, but was largely overshadowed in his home town by fellow PGA Tour player Charles Howell and a few other locals who went to play for higher profile college programs.
After graduating from Augusta State in 1999, Taylor spent his early years as a pro playing on regional mini-tours and what is now the Web.com Tour. He qualified for the Nationwide Tour in his first attempt and played respectably as a rookie, but did not get enough starts to retain his status. He returned to that tour in 2002, and again was unable to get enough starts to stay exempt.
Taylor enjoyed his early success as a pro on the Hooters Tour, winning four times. The last of those victories came in 2003, which turned out to be a pivotal year in Taylor’s career. After winning an early season Hooters event, Taylor played his way into a Nationwide Tour event in Virginia and finished second. He tied for second the next week in North Carolina, and after two more strong showings, shot 64 in the final round in Knoxville to get into a playoff and won, ending the year 11th on the money list to earn a spot in the 2004 PGA Tour.
The highlight of Taylor’s rookie season was a win in the Reno-Tahoe Open, held opposite the WGC event at Firestone CC. Taylor survived a final round played in difficult scoring conditions, notching a birdie on the 72nd hole to get into a four-way playoff, which he won with a birdie on the first extra hole.
Taylor repeated his Reno-Tahoe title in 2005, this time winning easily after building a six-shot lead after 54 holes. He followed with a string of top finishes in ’06 to finish 36th in earnings and earn a spot on the Ryder Cup team. He played only two matches in the U.S. loss, and remained a solid player for the next few years, but did not return to the winner’s circle until 2016.
After playing consistent golf in 2015 but failing to earn any status on the PGA Tour, Taylor was admittedly frustrated.
“That was a tough year to swallow,” he said of 2015 after his win at Pebble Beach. “I played really well and put myself in position a lot of times to get my card, and I didn’t get it done, over and over. And it was driving me crazy. I tried not to let it bother me, so I probably hid it pretty well, but it really started to bother me.
“And the last couple of weeks, the way they were going, I was thinking ‘what’s going on’. I don’t have anything at this moment. I was really worried about my career. And now look at it. I don’t know. It’s unbelievable.”
Taylor did not play especially well after his victory, with his best finish a tie for 24th in the Playoffs event in Boston. He ended the year 62nd in the FedExCup standings and began the 2016-17 season with a tie for 15th in the opening event in Napa, Calif.
Like most of the PGA Tour’s other winners in 2016, Taylor will open 2017 in Hawaii in the Tournament of Champions along with fellow former Augusta State Jaguar Patrick Reed and ex-UGA golfer Bubba Watson.