By John Schwarb, PGATOUR.COM
SAVANNAH, Ga. – To say that a U.S. Open broke out on Sunday at the Liberty Mutual Insurance Legends of Golf would be a little overdramatic, but it would be in the ballpark.
In the Champions Tour’s annual two-man better-ball competition, every round is expected to be a pedal-to-the-floor birdiefest. The conversation for what constitutes a good score usually starts at 10 under.
So how to explain Brad Faxon and Jeff Sluman winning at The Club at Savannah Harbor with a final-round 7-under 65 and 23-under total, the highest figures seen in years?
“I don’t know, I’m not so good at addition, but I’ve been here enough to know that this is a very strange wind,” said Sluman of the breezes that blew around Hutchinson Island. “Today it shifted again from a little bit of a different direction and the pin placements were tough and the greens were very firm.
“It was just a little more of an edge to the golf course this year than in previous years – and more rough, frankly.”
Down the stretch, when a run of red numbers would be required to seal the deal, Faxon and Sluman parred the final four holes while the chasers failed to rally.
“I don’t think anyone would have thought four pars would have won the tournament coming in like that,” Faxon said.
The 23 under winning score was the highest by four shots since the event returned to a team better-ball format in 2008, after six years as an individual competition. In the last four years, the winning team shot 62 or better in the final round.
So while Faxon celebrated post-round by smashing a plate of whipped cream in Sluman’s face on the practice green (payback for two years ago when Sluman nabbed Faxon after his win at the Insperity Championship), a slew of other teams that came ready to go low just left scratching their heads.
“Just disappointing, to see what the finishing score is to win,” said Tom Lehman, who alongside Bernhard Langer finished tied for 12th. “I hate playing lousy and seeing all the shots you’ve wasted.”
Langer and Lehman, the 2009 Liberty Mutual champs, arrived as the team to beat on paper, by virtue of Langer’s two wins on the year and Lehman’s two-time Schwab Cup champion status. On Sunday they started one shot back, but made the turn at even par and shot 69 with two bogeys.
They bogeyed the par-4 18th, not an uncommon occurrence on Sunday as the hole yielded eight bogeys and zero birdies. Craig Stadler and Kirk Triplett sat one shot off the lead for the last half-hour but couldn’t coax one more birdie in the closing holes and bogeyed the last to slip into an eight-way tie for fourth.
“We really had a chance to win this thing and we played like guys who haven’t been in contention very much,” Triplett said.
Then there were fan favorites Fred Couples and Jay Haas, captain and assistant of Presidents Cups who haven’t put it all together yet in Savannah. They made four birdies in six holes to open the back nine, then finished par-par-bogey.
“We had a chance,” Haas said. “Everybody can look at some holes where they gave some strokes away. We didn’t birdie 10, had a makeable putt, didn’t birdie 14, a short hole, then bogeyed 18. You just can’t do those things and expect to win, and guys aren’t going to back up.”
The second-round leaders, Jay Don Blake and Roger Chapman, shot the third round’s highest score, a 71, and plummeted to a tie for 16th.
Perhaps the only teams outside the winners that didn’t leave town grimacing were Savannah’s Gene Sauers and Kenny Perry and Fred Funk/Mike Goodes, who tied for second after final rounds of 62 and 63. Both teams were far enough off the pace that they teed off on No. 10, yet vaulted over every team but one with the day’s lowest rounds.
Sluman knows the feeling of less-pleasant seconds at Liberty Mutual, losing in a playoff while paired with Craig Stadler in 2009 (Langer/Lehman’s win). Sluman and Stadler also finished second to Andy North and Tom Watson in 2008.
Two years ago, on the day Faxon turned 50, Sluman called and asked if Faxon would like to team up at Liberty Mutual.
The two have been friends since 1983, when Faxon joined Sluman on the PGA TOUR.
“We’ve had a lot of laughs, we’ve probably had some powerful type of conversations when our games were in the dumps,” Sluman said.
The two led after the first round with a 62, fell one shot back after a Saturday 66, then on Sunday started in the antepenultimate group.
“I looked at Brad and he looked at me and said ‘you know, let’s go out and do it and let’s play well and let’s just let it happen,” Sluman said. “So it’s a dream come true to win with Brad, for me.”
In a final round no one could have dreamed of.