After a long detour through golf’s wilderness, Augusta’s Vaughn Taylor found his way home in the unlikeliest of his circumstances, far from his home town.
After more than a decade without a victory and lacking exempt status on the PGA Tour since 2012, Taylor pulled off a dramatic comeback victory in the Pebble Beach Pro-Am, rallying from six back after 54 holes to edge out four-time tournament champion Phil Mickelson by one shot.
Taylor, just a month shy of his 40th birthday, enjoyed early success on the PGA Tour, winning in each of his first two seasons in 2004 and ’05, and earning a spot on the U.S. Ryder Cup team in 2006. Taylor recorded runner-up finishes in 2008, ’09 and ’10, twice losing in playoffs, but his level of play dropped off after the 2010 season and never fully returned for more than five years.
Without exempt status, Taylor played limited PGA Tour schedules in 2013 and ’15, and made it into just three tournaments in 2014. He spent most of his time in ’14 on the Web.com Tour, where he had not played full time since 2003, playing respectably, but not well enough to regain his PGA Tour playing privileges.
Taylor divided his time between the two tours last year, playing consistent golf on both. But a poor finish in the final round in Greensboro dropped him just outside the top 150 on the final FedExCup points list, costing him conditional status on the PGA Tour.
Playing off his past champion’s status, Taylor made two starts last Fall, recording a top-20 finish in the opposite field event in Mississippi, but began 2016 on the Web.com Tour. He missed the cut in the season opener in Panama and withdrew with apparent food poisoning in Colombia.
As the first alternate to get into the field at Pebble Beach, Taylor elected to fly from Colombia to the California Bay Area, and made it into the field early in the week. Taylor, who tied for 10th in the tournament last year, opened with a 70 at Pebble Beach, turning in a strong performance tee to green but struggling with his putter.
Taylor followed with an excellent round at Spyglass, usually the most difficult of the three courses used for the tournament, carding eight birdies in a 4-under 68, including four in a row beginning at the 17th. He started his round the next day at Monterrey Peninsula with an eagle on his first hole and was 4-under after four holes before encountering some problems midway through the round. Three birdies on his last six holes gave Taylor a 67 on the day, moving him into a tie 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.
Taylor birdied the opening hole after an approach to four feet, hit a beautiful second shot to the par-5 second but missed his 12-footer for eagle, and holed a putt from 18 feet at the fourth after a bunker-to-bunker bogey at the third. Taylor failed to get up-and-down from a greenside bunker at the par-5 sixth, settling for par, but birdied the short seventh before missing from inside five feet at the eighth after another visit to the sand.
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 after an indifferent chip and 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.
Beginning with getting to skip the Monday qualifier in LA the following day, Taylor’s victory came with several perks. He is exempt on the PGA Tour through the 2017-18 season and earned invitations to two of the four majors in 2016 and next year’s Tournament of Champions in Hawaii.
One of those two majors happens to be in his hometown and is just two months away.
“This opens so many doors for me,” Taylor said. “Playing in the Masters is obviously my Super Bowl. I didn’t know if I would ever get back, and I can’t believe I’m going to be there in a couple of months. It’s surreal.”
Taylor played in the Masters three times from 2006 to 2008, and was a serious contender in ’07, finishing in a tie for 10th. He was one shot out of the lead after both the second and third rounds, and was paired the final day with eventual champion Zach Johnson.
That was the last time Taylor made a cut in a major championship, with his last appearance in a Grand Slam event coming in the 2010 PGA, the other major he has earned a spot in this year.
With his victory, Taylor vaulted from 183 to 15 in the FedExCup standings and from 447 to 100 in the World Rankings. It also ended a lengthy struggle for Taylor, which included a harrowing experience in a boating accident at Lake Thurmond in Augusta in 2014.
Taylor was fishing from his boat when it flipped over in a strong current, but he emerged from the accident unscathed, and even managed to finish fifth in the Web.com Tour tournament later that week.
“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 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 as a junior and was an honorable All-America as a senior, but was largely overshadowed in his home town by fellow current 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 then 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 the Nationwide 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 finished the year 36th in earnings, and followed with a string of top finishes in ’06 to 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 could not return to the winner’s circle before dropping off the PGA Tour in 2014.
After playing consistent golf last year but failing to earn any status on the PGA Tour, Taylor was admittedly frustrated.
“That was a tough year to swallow. I played really well and I 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.”