Scott McCarron was on his way to a five-stroke victory over poor old Tom Watson in the Freeport McDermott Classic. It was an amazing sight. There was Watson unraveling under the back-nine pressure while McCarron coolly hit all the shots, as if he were the one who had won 37 times. It was unbelievable.
"Unbelievable? Is that what you said when I was doing it last week?" asked Paul Goydos.
Well, sure, of course we did. It did seem unbelievable that an unknown, untested player like Goydos could play a bogey-free weekend and win at Bay Hill. Still, by last week we should have known better. After two months of comfortably satisfying winners like Greg Norman, Phil Mickelson and Davis Love III, McCarron's win was simply a part of the new trend on Tour: first-time winners. It was started by rookie Tim Herron and his wire-to-wire dominance at the Honda Classic. Then came Goydos, and now McCarron, who picked up $216,000 with his win at English Turn, outside New Orleans. Three in a row. "The baton passes," said Watson. "Which one of these guys who won over the last three weeks is going to be a real star? That's the question."
It is difficult to say. All three won as convincingly as they did unexpectedly. Herron had a fine amateur career, but the Honda was just his eighth start on Tour. McCarron and Goydos both struggled last year, having their best performances in the last two tournaments of the season, earning just enough to squeak in among the top 130 players who qualified for exemptions. McCarron finished 128th on the money list and Goydos 129th, positions that, had five non-Tour members not been among the group, could have stripped them of their exemptions and sent them back to Q school.
"And what does that tell you?" asked Goydos, pausing expectantly like the schoolteacher he once was, eyebrows raised. He answered himself: "Depth, depth—there are too many good players. And the Tour wants to lower the exempt number to the top 115 or top 100 or less!"
The three consecutive wins came at the time of year when the Tour traditionally has its strongest competition. The field in New Orleans, however, was not as muscular as those at Bay Hill and Honda. After years of being positioned in that perfect vacation week between the Florida swing and the Masters, the New Orleans tournament hoped that by inserting itself into the Florida schedule it would draw more top American players. Instead, many took the week off. And because it was no longer a tune-up for Augusta, some of the international headliners who had played in the past decided to stay home. More troubling, some of those who did turn up, both foreign and domestic, didn't stay for long. Before the tournament started, players dropped out at the rate of about five a day, causing organizers to go through alternates faster than the O.J. jury. In the end they couldn't till the field, and only 136 players turned in scores on Friday. The odds of having another first-time winner were high. Seventy-seven nonwinners teed it up on Thursday, and 37 made it to the weekend.
Such a weak field, and the fact that Herron and Goydos had shown that it could be done, started McCarron thinking that he needed to take a more aggressive approach. "Two weeks ago I was home watching Tim Herron win," he said, "and then last week at Bay Hill, I saw what Paul Goydos did. I thought, Maybe it's time to start playing to win."
Herron and Goydos were not only inspirational, they also prompted a key equipment change. "I saw Tim and Paul hitting the Great Big Bertha driver," said McCarron after his win, "and the one thing I needed to do was hit more fairways. When I got here Monday one of my goals was to find another driver. The Great Big Bertha made this course play a whole lot easier." The other club that McCarron was willing to invest with partial credit for his victory was his long putter. It's a Troyline, the same kind Bruce Lietzke uses, not the homemade model McCarron cobbled together four years ago from an old putter, a driver, a wad of gum and a few grains of sand. "It rattled and was an eyesore," he said, "but I putted with it for a year and a half and nearly won the U.S. Mid-Amateur."
McCarron, 30, got the idea of going to the long putter in 1991, just as his Tour ambitions were undergoing a renaissance. For four years golf had been just one of a dozen recreational sports McCarron had actively pursued. Although he had played nearly all his life and attended UCLA on a golf scholarship—completing his degree in history—McCarron didn't believe that his game was good enough to make it in pro golf, so he lived vicariously through the careers of friends Brandt Jobe and Brad Bell, both of whom have since dropped off the Tour. In the back of his mind, McCarron always wondered if he should have taken a crack at the Tour. "That burning desire to be on Tour was always there," he admitted. And after observing older players use the long-shafted putter with much success when the Senior tour would stop in Southern California for the Raley's Gold Rush, he picked up the broom handle and never looked back. "I would not be where I am now without the long putter," McCarron said after Sunday's win.
One of the benefits of the long putter, McCarron says, is that it enables him to keep the ball from jumping after making contact. His ball stays on the ground with less initial backspin, thereby rolling more accurately and consistently. "You basically line it up and go," he says. "No thinking about what you've got to do—you just go. The less you think out there, the better."