|Kite's crash landing - McNulty's surge on back nine secures - Schwab Cup Title - 10/25/2004|
By: Brian Murphy, San Francisco Chronicle
It is golf's Newtonian law, that for every action on a Sunday back nine, there is a reaction; that for every come-from-behind winner, there is a come-from-ahead loser. And so it was that Mark McNulty stood tall in the final hours Sunday in the final round of the Charles Schwab Cup Championship at Sonoma Golf Club, just when Tom Kite began to fade.
Like that, in a snap-quick turn of fate, McNulty, a reed-thin and soft- spoken Zimbabwean who turns 51 today, felt a warm glow of positive energy and pieced together a final-round 66 -- including a 31 on his back nine -- to surge from five shots back and topple Kite, whose third-round lead turned into a runner-up finish when he shot even-par 72.
McNulty, at 11-under overall, won $440,000 and won for the third time in his Champions Tour rookie year. Kite, at 10-under overall, had another flameout in a year that he will remember for same, first at the U.S. Senior Open, when he blew a two-shot lead with four holes to play, and now at the Tour's season-ending event, when glory proved fleeting again.
"It hurts like hell," said Kite, who had to rally hard to make it a race after going out in 40, turning a two-shot, third-round lead into a free-for- all. "I had the tournament won, and I gave it away."
There was McNulty, to scoop up the pieces.
On the 9th hole, he looked at the leaderboard and saw Kite had fallen from 10-under to 7-under. McNulty, at 6-under, made the turn with his instincts honed. He called that leaderboard glance his "momentum swing," and suddenly scooped emotional water from a deep personal reservoir of 57 worldwide victories, nourishing his will to win.
"The action is to get yourself in position on the back nine, and if you like to win, you smell something," said McNulty, who did not win on the PGA Tour but amassed years of positive vibes on the European Tour. "That's what happened. Your brain goes into automatic overdrive. You can't explain it. It just happens."
Here's what happened: McNulty began to float through the back nine, playing a game with himself where he remembered a glorious putt from one of his 55 wins in his pre-Champions Tour life, or from one of his two Champions Tour wins, including last week at the SBC Championship in San Antonio.
He looked at a 45-foot putt on the par-4 11th, "and just saw the line, like daylight." Bam, birdie putt. On the 12th, he hit a 4-iron to two feet for birdie. On the par-5 13th, he was short in two, chipped to 2 feet and made birdie. And on the par-3 14th, he fired a 5-iron to 10 feet, and poured it home.
McNulty, suddenly, was leading the Schwab Cup, and tested himself to hold firm.
"If I can get to the back nine, it becomes who wants to win more," said McNulty, a proven player who once was ranked No. 7 in the world, and played on two Presidents Cup teams in the 1990s.
Two groups behind him, Kite was wondering why it wasn't him.
His day started miserably, with a drive into the rough on the 1st, and a bogey. He three-putted the 2nd, his first three-whip of the week, then made it a pair with a three-jack on the 4th. He couldn't believe it, because he'd been putting well all week, the perfect antidote to his sometimes erratic ball- striking.
"I wasn't even a really good 23-handicapper on the front nine," said Kite, in a post-round explanation that did not belie any of his frustration. "All I had to do was play decent golf, and I didn't. Not at least until the final six or seven holes."
By then, the emotional pendulum had swung McNulty's way. Kite is too good to shoot 80 in the final round of anything, so it seemed only right that he would find something in his swing to fix, and he did, on the 12th hole, feeling better about his move. He then made eagle on the par-5 13th, and poured a birdie putt from 5 feet on the par-3 14th, surging back to 9-under.
Ahead of him, McNulty knew he needed another birdie. He didn't cash in on the par-5 16th, and challenged himself, played that game with himself to remember something positive from one of his many wins. On the 17th, he thought of a key putt he made to beat Ray Floyd and win the Million Dollar Challenge in the 1980s. Emboldened, the 12-footer he faced at Sonoma's 17th became an easier task, something he'd done before, in his own mind. He made it, and pumped his fist, a rare display of emotion from a quiet man.
"You use all the mental pictures you can," McNulty said. "You draw on the positive energy from your past."
By finishing at 11-under, McNulty knew Kite would have to make two more birdies, and was comfortable with that role. If Kite did, and they went to a playoff, well, fine, so be it, he thought. And when Kite did make birdie on 16, and hinted perhaps that he would make that back nine something for Kite's own memory bank, it came down to the 18th hole, a hole Kite had birdied three consecutive days.
But a 6-iron from 171 yards never caught a left-to-right wind, as Kite guessed it might, and it missed the pin left, in the rough, short-sided. Kite would not chip in. McNulty would win his 58th worldwide event, and do so by smelling it, tasting it, and wanting it.
"Obviously, I'm sad for Tom, and obviously, it was a tournament for Tom to win or lose," he said. "But there's always a winner and there's always a loser."