The RSM Classic would like to have a leader board with as many Georgians near the top as was the case this past week in Mexico.
The final threesome in the last two rounds of the Mayakoba Classic consisted of three Georgia residents, all of whom played their college golf in the state.
Former Georgia Bulldogs Brendon Todd and Harris English battled over 32-plus-holes Saturday and another 3-and-a-fraction early Monday morning with Augusta’s Vaughn Taylor, who stayed in his hometown to play collegiately.
Todd, who won the previous PGA Tour stop in Bermuda two weeks prior, made it back-to-back victories outside the U.S., edging Taylor, Carlos Ortiz and Adam Long by one shot. English, who was only one out of the lead when play was suspended late Sunday afternoon, wound up fifth after catching a bad break in a greenside bunker on the 16thhole of the final round.
With his victory, Todd continued the remarkable turnaround in his game after making just five cuts in 45 starts on the PGA Tour over the course of three seasons from 2016 through ’18. During that time, Todd considered leaving his career in golf and buying in to a pizza franchise based in Athens.
With some help from a new swing instructor and a mental game coach (see the story on Todd’s victory in Bermuda and his rollercoaster PGA Tour history elsewhere on the web site), Todd’s comeback began in the 2018 RSM Classic, where he shot 61 in a Monday qualifier at Brunswick CC and followed with four rounds in the 60s at Sea Island GC.
After a limited but respectable showing on the PGA Tour the remainder of the 2019 season, Todd was able to regain his full playing privileges in the Korn Ferry Finals a few months ago, tying for second in Columbus, Oh., in the first of three Finals events to ensure his status.
Todd’s return to the PGA Tour did not begin in a particularly auspicious manner, as he missed four straight cuts to start the 2019-20 season before an up-and-down T28 finish in Houston.
A brilliant final round that included seven consecutive birdies enabled Todd to run away from the field in Bermuda, but he had to battle to the final putt to emerge with a second straight victory in Mexico.
“The confidence that gave me, winning in Bermuda and putting up four rounds in the 60s, it’s natural to take that confidence to the next event,” Todd said after his victory Monday morning. “I was able to do that and I’m real happy about it.
“The whole final round was much more nerve-wracking than Bermuda. I had to really dig deep. This one’s really special.”
Todd followed up his final round 62 in Bermuda with a 63 in the rain-delayed first round Friday in the Mayakoba Classic, his third score of 63 or better in his last four competitive rounds. That put him one shot out of the lead and he fell two back of English after a second round 68.
The two ex-Bulldogs were paired in the final group in Sunday’s third round with Taylor, who was second at 130. Golf Channel elected not to broadcast any of the third round, and golf fans missed an interesting back-and-forth between the trio.
Todd took the lead at 17-under 196 after a 65 that included birdies on the final four par 4s on the front nine after a bogey on the par-4 opener. He added three more birdies on the back to finish the day one ahead of both Taylor (67) and English (68).
A trio of birdies on the front nine in the afternoon enabled Todd to maintain his lead over his playing partners, with a nice birdie putt at the ninth matching one by Taylor and keeping him two shots in front.
Another birdie at the difficult 12thkept Todd two clear of Taylor, but when he failed to birdie the easy par-5 13thand bogeyed the 14thafter a slightly errant approach and a weak pitch, he and Taylor were tied, with English and local favorite Ortiz only one back.
That’s how things stood at the end of play Sunday, but it didn’t take long for Todd to assume control early Monday morning. He rolled in a birdie putt of some 20 feet on 15 and moved two ahead when Taylor bogeyed the 16th.
With a 2-shot lead and two holes to play, Todd missed as short par putt at 17 after a beautiful bunker shot, but preserved his lead with an up-and-down par at the 18th, holing his short par attempt for the win after a deft pitch shot.
Todd’s final round 68 gave him a 20-under 264 total, with his closing par preventing what would have been a 4-way playoff.
With his victory, Todd moved into the lead in the FedExCup standings and earned an invitation to the 2020 Masters (his win in the opposite field event in Bermuda did not merit an invite). He also advanced to 83 in the World Golf Rankings after beginning 2019 outside the top 2000.
Todd suffered through a similar lengthy stretch of dismal play early in his pro career before winning the 2014 Byron Nelson Classic and qualifying for the Tour Championship that year.
Taylor made a huge leap up the standings, advancing from 169 to 36, but he could have moved up even higher had he not missed a pair of vital putts over the final three holes. His par attempt on 16 was inches wide of the cup, and he left his birdie try on the 18tha similar distance short of the hole dead in the middle.
Scores of 64 and 66 the first two days kept Taylor within close proximity of the lead, and he went to the front Sunday morning with four birdies on his first five holes. He played even par golf the rest of the way to begin the final round one behind Todd, and the two players were never separated by more than two strokes in the afternoon.
Taylor hit a succession of superb iron shots in the final round, but was unable to convert enough of them into birdies to grab the lead. He pulled even with Todd when play was suspended for the day, but fell two back when Todd birdied 15 and got up-and-down on 16 while Taylor made bogey from the same bunker. It was Taylor’s only bogey in a final round of 68.
Leaving his putt to force a playoff just short elicited a pained reaction from the 43-year-old Taylor, who has qualified for the Masters just once since 2008 after contending on Sunday in ’07.
“I usually come up short when I’m nervous and I was a little nervous,” Taylor said of his birdie try on 18.
Taylor, who won tournaments in each of his first two seasons on the PGA Tour, has just one victory since 2005, that coming at Pebble Beach in 2016, when he rallied in the final round to take down Phil Mickelson. Prior to that victory, Taylor had finished outside the top 125 in the FedExCup standings each of the previous four seasons.
English has had a similar run of sub-standard play the last three years, falling out of the top 125 after the 2018-29 season. But his fifth place finish in Mexico was the fourth time he has placed sixth or better in five 2019-20 starts, and he has already earned enough points to regain his exempt status for the 2020-21 season.
Despite playing the par 5s in 1-over in the first round, English opened with a 65, and took the 36-hole lead following a 64, notching birdies on four of his first six holes. He had a wild third round, beginning with back-to-back bogeys and consecutive birdies before an eagle on the par-5 fifth. A pair of bogeys left him at even par on the front nine, but he carded four more birdies in a 6-hole stretch on the back for a 68 to begin the final round one behind Todd.
English added a pair of birdies on the front nine Sunday afternoon, but made bogey on the fifth after pulling his tee shot into a hazard. He reached the par-5 13thin two for a birdie, and closed within one of Todd’s lead when he birdied the 14thafter a superb approach.
But his second shot to the tough 16thburied in a greenside bunker, leading to a double bogey and eliminating any chance English had. He settled for a final round 70 and a 17-under 267 total. English is 64-under in his five starts this season and stands 13thon the points list with his four top-6 finishes.
Matt Kuchar, like English a St. Simons island resident, headed home after a final round 62 highlighted by a hole-in-one on the eighth hole shortly after Brian Gay also aced the eighth. Kuchar, the defending Mayakoba Classic champion, tied for 14that 272.
Augusta’s Charles Howell, the defending RSM Classic champion, shot 67-66 in the third and fourth rounds Sunday and tied for 20that 274.
Former Georgia Bulldogs Chris Kirk and Hudson Swafford, both returning to the PGA Tour after absences of six and five months respectively, made the cut and played 36 holes Sunday. Kirk tied for 33rdat 277, while Swafford shot under par each of the first three rounds before a 75 dropped him to T66 at 283.
Macon’s Russell Henley, Swafford’s teammate at UGA, fell victim to one of golf’s many silly rules, and missed the cut after being penalized eight strokes for inadvertently violating the obscure one-ball rule. Henley discovered after the second round that he had used a similar but not identical brand of ball for part of his round and self-reported his indiscretion. He was assessed two-stroke penalties for each hole he used the insignificantly different ball, turning a 69 into a 77.
Before he was docked eight shots, Henley was among the 36-hole leaders at 135.