Haas quietly stands tall on unbelievable Sunday

February 19, 2012
Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM Chief of Correspondents

PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. -- Bill Haas could have been at a buddy's wedding on Sunday. He wanted to go. He really did.

But Haas loves playing in the Northern Trust Open, too. So he ended up sending his regrets to Jon Hopson, a former Wake Forest golfer like himself, and his soon-to-be new bride.Helen_Column.jpg

With any luck, though, there was a television set at the reception because Haas put on quite a show in the final round at Riviera -- coming from two strokes back to force a playoff with Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley that he won with a 45-foot putt on the second extra hole.

"I think (Jon) understands," Haas said with a shy smile as he sat next to that gleaming silver loving cup of a trophy. "I'm sure I'll talk to him later and hopefully his day is even better than mine. It's pretty sweet for both of us today."

The victory, the fourth of Haas' career, capped a day of drama on a course that Mickelson said was "very U.S. Open-esque." Indeed, for the better part of four hours, the leaders were just trying to hang on before Haas, Mickelson and Bradley came up "clutch," pun intended, in the final 60 minutes as NBA Hall of Famer Jerry West, who lived the phrase, looked on.

Haas, as you might have expected, was the one flying under the radar on Sunday, just as he had five months ago when he got up-and-down from the water on the penultimate hole of a playoff at the TOUR Championship by Coca-Cola to win both the tournament and the FedExCup. After all, the wildly popular Mickelson was in the final group, bidding for his second straight win, along with the enthusiastic and endearing Keegan Bradley, who won the PGA Championship as a rookie last year.

But Haas was unfazed by the partisan crowd that at times included his Presidents Cup captain Fred Couples, as well as a pair of NFL quarterbacks in Denver's Tim Tebow and Phillip Rivers of San Diego and a potential No. 1 draft pick in Stanford's Andrew Luck.

"Honestly 'Phil' sounds really similar to 'Bill,' so you just kind of pretend that maybe they're for you," the grinning Haas joked with a shrug of his shoulders. He even went so far as to admit, "If I'm at home, I'm cheering for Phil," too.

So the 29-year-old garnered moderate applause as he seized the lead on the 17th hole with a two-putt birdie from 16 feet. A solid par save at the 18th sent Haas up the steps to the scoring area to sign for a 69, then he trudged back down the hill to the range to await the final shots from Mickelson and Bradley and see if the birdies they needed would materialize.

Mickelson left his 21-footer for birdie at the par-5 17th one tantalizing revolution shy of the hole. Bradley didn't take advantage, either, so both faced a must-make situation at the 18th, which had relinquished just six birdies all day. Meanwhile, Haas was going through the motions on the practice tee -- just in case -- and calming himself down by talking to his older brother, Jay Jr., who caddies for him these days.

"I said, no matter what happens from here on, while they were playing 18, this is pretty cool, we're on the range warming up to maybe go into a playoff," Haas recalled. "We're doing a lot of good things just to be in this situation. So I think maybe I had that attitude. I've done a lot of good to be in this position on this good of a golf course, and I felt like I had a good frame of mind."

Haas needed that focus when the amphitheater around the 18th hole positively erupted -- not once, but twice -- as Mickelson, then Bradley poured in their birdie putts from 27 and 14 feet, respectively. Bradley said he was prepared for the inevitable: "Phil is too much of a gamer not to make that putt." After they exchanged fist-pumps Mickelson said, "Join me," and that's exactly what Bradley did.

A trio of pars on the first playoff hole sent Haas, Mickelson and Bradley to the decisive 10th, a 312-yard par 4 that is both tempting and treacherous. Mickelson's tee shot settled in the rough below the right greenside bunker that later captured Bradley's drive. Then Haas' tee shot went over and left of the green, setting up a most challenging second.

Haas would later say the par save from the water on the 17th hole at East Lake last fall was the more difficult of the two career-defining up-and-downs -- although the ensuing 3-foot putt was certainly the easier of the two. Haas couldn't go at the pin on Sunday, though, so he played to the right, found the putting surface and was essentially hoping for the two-putt par to extend the festivities.

"I've got 40 feet thinking, don't screw this up and three-putt," Haas said candidly. "I'm trying to grind on what I have to do, and after Keegan hit a nice shot, I remember thinking, he can easily make this to win, let's just make 4 and make him beat me."

So with Mickelson in the left greenside bunker in two and Bradley on the back fringe some 14 feet away, Haas took aim around a ball mark and drew his putter back. The ball tracked toward the hole and dropped in, just a "tremendous" putt, Mickelson said in tribute on a what he called a very "defensive" hole. When Lefty's bunker shot stopped 9 feet away and Bradley's birdie attempt scared the hole, Haas had the hard-fought victory.

"You're looking at speed, you're looking at break," he said. "It was kind of in the shadows. If I hit 30 putts, I maybe make five of them. I hit it just like I wanted. I hit the line. ...

"God, there's so many thoughts running through your mind. But to beat a guy like Keegan and also Phil, guys of their caliber, in a playoff is amazing, something I'll never forget."