There were a lot of storylines up in the air going into the final round of the 2016 AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. Phil Mickelson, sleeping on his first 54-hole lead since the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion, was going for a record-tying fifth win on the hallowed ground of the Pebble Beach Golf Links; a pair of Swedes, Freddie Jacobson (2011 Travelers) and Jonas Blixt (2012 Frys, 2013 Greenbrier), were going for their second and third PGA Tour wins, respectively; a Japanese player, Hiroshi Iwata, who is virtually unknown to American golf audiences, was trying to make a move and record his first PGA Tour win.
But the story that came through was one that nobody expected. It involved Vaughn Taylor, a longtime journeyman pro who has been laboring on the Web.com Tour in recent years. Ranked 447th in the world coming into this week, he is 11 years removed from the second of only two PGA Tour wins, in back-to-back years (2004, 2005) at the second-tier Reno-Tahoe Open (now the Barracuda Championship), a glorified celebrity outing with Stableford scoring.
Tied for eighth place at 10-under at the start of the final round, six strokes behind the leader – Mickelson – Taylor birdied the first two holes, eventually closing out the front nine in 2-under 34 after two more birdies and two bogeys. Opening his back nine with another birdie, the 39-year-old Augusta, Georgia, native went on a birdie tear in the middle of the back nine, putting up four in a row, on holes 13 through 16, to go to 17-under, two strokes ahead, with two holes to play.
While Taylor was in his birdie coma, Phil Mickelson was trying to find the scrambling magic and the touch with the putter that had led to Saturday’s 6-under 66 at Pebble, because once again, wayward drives were the story of the day for the San Diego southpaw. Driver off the tee at the par-four 11th resulted in a hard pull to the rough right of the fairway, leaving him with a bad angle to the left-to-right angled green, no real shot at the flag, and an eventual bogey.
Shying away from driver or even a fairway club at the sixteenth hole, an iron off the tee left Mickelson with 155 yards to the flag, but his approach shot only went 138. The chip shot was not up to Phil’s usual standards, leaving him 11 feet, downhill left to right, for par. He made the tricky putt, but he was two back with only two holes remaining, so sixteen has to go down as a missed opportunity.
At this point the next-nearest contenders, Jonas Blixt, Hiroshi Iwata, and Freddie Jacobson, weren’t looking like they were making a move. Blixt had bogied 13 to drop to 15-under and never recovered. Iwata bogied 16 to fall two back, and Jacobson had fallen away early in the back nine.
Up ahead of Mickelson, Iwata, et al, Vaughn Taylor finished par-par. He made a routine three on #17, and on #18 carved a swooping highlight-reel of a hook from behind the tree on the outside right of the fairway for his second shot. He was now lying three in the fairway, 67 yards from the flag. Chipping on to 11 feet above the flag, Taylor left a game-clinching birdie putt eight inches short, tapping in for par – and leaving the door ajar for Mickelson, just four holes back.
While Taylor waited nervously to find out whether he was starring in a Cinderella story or a tragedy, Mickelson revived hopes of a playoff at the 17th hole, taking on the traditional back-left Sunday flag with a hanging 188-yard shot that finished 12 feet left of the flag. With one of the better putts that he made in the final round (but one which would have been routine on Saturday), Mickelson made birdie, moving a stroke closer to Taylor, and went to the 18th needing birdie to force a playoff.
The stats flashed across TV screens and computer screens everywhere – Phil has birdied the 18th at Pebble 35% of the time over the years; and Phil has birdied 17 and 18 in the final round once – in 2007, for the third of his four wins.
Driving 268 yards to the right fairway, Phil’s tee shot landed just ahead of the lone tree which guards the center-right position in the fairway. With 257 to the flag and a slight headwind, Mickelson pulled a hybrid and laced a 237-yard approach shot to the narrow throat just short of the green. Sixty-two feet to the flag. A chip-in will win, a chip and a putt will force a playoff.
The next shot that Phil made will not go into the “Phil the Thrill” Hall of Fame. A tricky little chip, to be sure, but it lands a little short, releases a little too little, and pulls up a little too soon, leaving an uphill putt of 5′ 1″. Another stat flashes out across the ether – Phil is 23 for 23 on putts inside 7 feet at Pebble this week (that is, yesterday and today.)
For all the rounds that Phil Mickelson has played on this course, for all the experience he has on these greens, he flat misread that 5-foot putt. He hit a solid stroke at the right edge of the cup, and it was just too bad that the line was one cup right. The tying putt scared the left edge of the cup and stayed up.
No playoff, no fifth win, no joy in Phil-ville.