Building a knowledge bank key to conquering Colonial

May 23, 2012
Mike McAllister, PGATOUR.COM Managing Editor

FORT WORTH, Texas -- It took 21 attempts by Tom Watson. Nine attempts by Jack Nicklaus. Eight attempts by Arnold Palmer.

Last year, David Toms finally broke through on his 14th attempt, the victory not just the result of four days of excellence but 14 years of acquired knowledge.


"I probably have been on just about every spot on this golf course that you can be over the years," Toms said Wednesday on the eve of his title defense.

That's usually how Colonial Country Club decides its champions. There is no Cliffs Notes version of this course, which has hosted a PGA TOUR event since 1946. No shortcuts. Players can't simply show up and expect immediate success.

Instead, it's a course you grow into, uncovering its nuances and secrets with each passing year, until it decides you're ready to win.

"There are so many little idiosyncrasies with this golf course that you just have to know through experience," said Zach Johnson, who won the 2010 Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial.

Johnson was one of the fortunate who learned quickly. He won in just his fifth start, his style of play perfectly suited to this ball-striker's course.

Of the last 10 champions here, Johnson had the fewest number of starts. Meanwhile, six of those champions had at least 10 starts at Colonial.

Going back even longer, of the last 20 Crowne Plaza champions, the average amount of Colonial experience is just over 10 starts. Only one player in that span has won in his first look at Colonial -- Sergio Garcia in 2001.

To be fair, some of those champions of the past 20 years were repeat winners with prior Colonial success. Corey Pavin won on his 13th start in 1996, but had also won in just his second look in 1985. Bruce Lietzke, the 1992 winner in his 18th start, had also won in his fifth start in 1980.

But the point is, you have to pay your dues here. Watson's last career PGA TOUR win came here in 1998. In his 20 previous starts at Colonial, he had finished in the top 10 nine times.

Nicklaus had five top-10s in his first eight starts before winning in 1982. That was the 71st of his 73 career wins; the only two after that came at his own tournament at Muirfield Village in 1984 and the Masters in 1986.

Vets seeking first Colonial win
If experiences does indeed matter at Colonial, keep an eye on these veterans who have yet to win here.
Jim Furyk: In 16 previous appearances, he has six top-10s. Came closest to winning in 2007 when he tied for second.
J.J. Henry: Local favorite thanks to Texas Christian University ties. Track record in 10 previous starts not good, but perhaps can ride last week's momentum.
Justin Leonard: In 18 previous starts, the native Texan has five top-10 finishes, including a second in 2003. But has missed the cut the last two years.
Davis Love III: Making his 23rd start this week, the Ryder Cup Captain has been a runner-up twice (1987, 2000).
Billy Mayfair: Of the top 50 all-time money winners in Colonial history, no one has as many pro starts (23) without a win. Also played here twice as an amateur.
Vijay Singh: Making his 10th start here and comes off a good showing in Dallas. Tied for sixth in 2009.
-Mike McAllister

Palmer's win came at the height of his powers, during the 1962 season when he won eight times, including two majors.

"If you look back at guys who won here, it took them a little time," Toms said. "Even the great players. I think you've just got to learn the golf course and all of the different type of wind conditions that you see, and some of the pin placements that you can attack. You can get in trouble pretty quick if you attack some of the pins and don't hit the shots.

"It's just an old golf course that I think guys really like to play."

Like many courses in Texas, dealing with the wind is critical to success. The crosswinds can play tricks on players, especially if those winds are going counter to the doglegs.

"You've got to know what the wind is doing," Johnson said. "There are so many crisscross holes. You compound that with pretty small targets, more so off the tee.

"Fairways are a premium everywhere, but here, I think it's even more so."

Jason Dufner, the TOUR's hottest player at the moment with two wins in his last three starts, is making his fourth start here. Even though he fits the profile of a Colonial champ -- accuracy off the tee and from the fairways -- he has missed two cuts and finished tied for 59th in his only weekend appearance.

His learning curve has been steep.

"There are a lot of doglegs on this golf course," Dufner said. "There are a lot of angles to be played into certain hole locations, certain sides of fairways you need to be on when hole locations are on certain sides of the green.

"There is a good bit of experience probably needed on this golf course."

Hunter Mahan, like Dufner a two-time winner on TOUR this year, is making his ninth start here. He noted the subtle undulations as well as the course angles as two of the biggest challenges that can be better managed with experience.

"There are all kinds of little things out here," he said.

Perhaps Toms put it the best way in regards to the young players who come to Colonial.

"Maybe some guys don't quite give it enough respect," the defending champ said. "Just like yesterday, guys had played the golf course maybe for the first time, pretty benign conditions. They probably made a lot of birdies or had a lot of opportunities. And then you get the wind blowing like it is today and tomorrow and you have to respect the golf course and know when to back off.

"Maybe you need some good rounds, some good finishes in order to feel like you can play the golf course well for 72 holes."

Experience needed
Here's a look at the last 20 champions of the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial
Year Champion Colonial start Year Champion Colonial start
2011 David Toms 14th 2001 Sergio Garcia 1st
2010 Zach Johnson 5th 2000 Phil Mickelson 7th
2009 Steve Stricker 7th 1999 Olin Browne 2nd
2008 Phil Mickelson 13th 1998 Tom Watson 21st
2007 Rory Sabbatini 8th 1997 David Frost 13th
2006 Tim Herron 10th 1996 Corey Pavin 13th
2005 Kenny Perry 16th 1995 Tom Lehman 4th
2004 Steve Flesch 7th 1994 Nick Price 11th
2003 Kenny Perry 14th 1993 Fulton Allem 5th
2002 Nick Price 16th 1992 Bruce Lietzke 18th

It took Toms 14 years to figure out how to get his name on the Wall of Champions along the first tee. It was worth the wait.