LAS VEGAS -- Of all the players in this week’s Shriners Hospitals for Children Open, Woody Austin’s journey might be the most surprising.
The 49-year-old Austin is a four-time PGA TOUR champion but had lost exempt status. In fact, Austin had appeared in just three PGA TOUR events in 2013 and missed every cut.
All that changed at the Sanderson Farms Championship this summer where he posted rounds of 69-65-67-67 and won the tournament in a playoff.
Austin is back on TOUR with a two-year exemption. He was looking for a bridge to the Champions Tour and now has options.
Austin has always been a memorable player on the PGA TOUR. Fans will recall his emotional frustration at Hilton Head in 1997 when he repeatedly banged his head with a putter in frustration.
You might recall The Presidents Cup at Royal Montreal in 2007, when he tried to hit a ball out of a greenside lake and fell face first into the water. On Sunday, during singles competition, Austin put on goggles and fins as the gallery cheered his impersonation of Aquaman, the fictional comic superhero.
The thing about Austin is he doesn’t look for, or manufacture excuses. He owns up to his mistakes. At this year’s PGA Championship he discovered an extra club in his bag during the second round, which amounted to a four-shot penalty and a missed cut. He could have blamed caddie Dave Lawson, but Austin said it was his responsibility.
The Aquaman, the putter episode and the four-shot penalty were all very public displays for Austin but I saw another one that stuck with me much longer than the other three.
Austin could have -- maybe should have -- won the Buick Open in 2008 but putted poorly. A possible victory turned into a crushing defeat. He was obviously distraught as he exited the scoring trailer but a line of fans had formed asking for an autograph.
Austin manufactured a smile, answered questions, engaged in chitchat with strangers and signed autographs until every fan had left.
I stuck around to compliment Austin on his graciousness and he gave me a quizzical look, then told me it was his fault he lost the tournament. The fans were there to support him and he was going to show his appreciation.
I sometimes think of Austin’s behavior on that summer afternoon and wonder if I would have been so understanding and accommodating.
It’s often said golf doesn’t necessarily build character but it always reveals it.
Austin is a character who’s good for the game.
Go low: You always have to shoot a good number to win at TPC Summerlin. Last year, Ryan Moore was a record-low 24 under. The course was built with generous fairways and greens that measure an accommodating 7,500 square feet. It was built to play in high desert winds, but when the gusts do not blow, the course gives up lots of red numbers. Greens speeds are also held down because they are watered in the desert heat. Large greens and receptive putting surfaces always lead to low numbers.
Field: If one intent of the wraparound season is to increase the quality of the fields, I would say mission accomplished. The Shriners Hospitals for Children Open was a nice tournament before, filled with players trying to keep their playing privileges. With the event now giving full FedExCup points and a Masters exemption, it has enticed many more accomplished players to enter. Zach Johnson, Webb Simpson and Hideki Matsuyama will compete this week in addition to local players such as Nick Watney, Kevin Na and Scott Piercy. It is a quality field.
Finish: TPC Summerlin is a good golf course that provides a great finish. Starting at the 13th hole, the layout provides plenty of drama. There’s an eagle possibility on par 5s at 13 and 16. The 15th is a drivable 304-yard par 4. Disaster lurks at the 17th hole, a par 3 with water on the left. Then there’s the 18th hole. It has elements of Charles B. Macdonald’s “Cape Hole” modeled after the 14th at National Golf Links on Long Island. There is a diagonal hazard on the left and players have to decide just how much of the arroyo they want to carry. There are also a series of mounds on the right-hand side reminiscent of the 15th hole at St. Andrews.
Winner, winner: With the addition of some high profile names, it’s a difficult tournament to handicap this year but I am going with history. The last couple winners at the Shriners Hospitals For Children Open have been Las Vegas residents. Scott Piercy would seem to fall right in line with champions like Kevin Na and Ryan Moore. Piercy finished T10 and T6 the last two seasons and is obviously comfortable at TPC Summerlin.
Fred Albers is a course reporter for SiriusXM PGA TOUR Radio. For more information, click here