These little turns of events don't show up in the agate type, but they're staples of the grinders' fall finish, a weekly melodrama that's heavy on heartache and long on characters—guys like Isenhour, who's less than five years removed from cutting Christmas trees on North Carolina's Grandfather Mountain; Jay Williamson, a former college hockey player; or Marco Dawson, a burly, bearded vet with a gentle manner. All flashed across the leader board last week, only to disappear.
Isenhour was fun while he was around. Following a second-round 65 that put him in fourth place, this self-described "food whore" was more interested in talking about his cooking than his golf. His pet dessert is a banana flamb� with cinnamon ice cream that he serves in a cinnamon-crusted tortilla shell. On Saturday, Isenhour looked as if he had been marinated in Grand Marnier, going up in flames and out of contention with a 72. With a 70 on Sunday he wound up 17th. "I let a great opportunity slip away," he said.
No one, though—not Isenhour, not even Paulson—self-immolated more spectacularly than Dawson, who carries the scars of a reconstructed back and 15 years of struggle at every level of pro golf. Still recovering from the surgery he underwent in May 2000, Dawson entered the tournament 173rd on the money list, but he stormed to the first-round lead with a 64. By the back nine on Saturday he was on the verge of falling out of contention when he slam-dunked an ace on the 13th hole, the kind of omen Dawson has been awaiting his entire career. "This could be the start of something special," he said on Saturday evening.
Dawson was tied for fourth at the outset of the final round, but his rally was dashed with a double bogey on the 1st hole. He made a triple at the 12th and limped in with a 78, plummeting to 51st and standing pat on the money list. "This morning I was really looking forward to the next five weeks," he said, leaning against his courtesy car for support. "Right now I couldn't care less if I ever played again."
Dawson would be wise to refer to page 4 of Rookie on Tour. What's the difference between the guys who finish in the top 10 year after year and the guys who never earn their card? It is a refusal to give up when having an off day. After his disaster on the 5th hole, Paulson didn't quit, stubbornly making one stellar shot after another. He hit 12 of the last 13 greens (for the week Paulson led the tournament in greens in regulation, with 88%), and he could have made a respectable number had he not blown three putts of four feet or less. "It was the worst putting round I've ever seen in my life," said Paulson as he violently emptied his locker after his 74.
Others saw something else. "A lot of players—veteran players—would have had an easy time giving up after what happened," said Leonard, who became the first player to win back-to-back Texas Opens since Arnold Palmer in the early 1960s. In Leonard's last eight rounds at LaCantera, he has shot 65 or better five times, and his worst score is a 69. "Carl showed a lot of heart. I'm very impressed with his game. I don't understand why he hasn't won."
Paulson has excuses. This year he has been slowed by strained ligaments in his back and distracted by the birth of his second son, Hank, the source of much merriment in his tightly knit Greek-American family. (In Orlando, Paulson, who's unrelated to his blustery namesake on Tour, Dennis, not only is neighbors with his brother, George, but also shares a backyard with him.) Despite Sunday's setback Paulson is making progress. Last year he rode a hot streak at season's end to rank 64th on the money list. With his tie for 11th in the Texas Open he jumped to 118th in earnings and left more motivated than ever. "Maybe when I look back on this, I'll remember the good play of the first three days," he said. "Right now I'm sorely disappointed."
These kinds of learning experiences are part of the education of a Tour pro. What Paulson wrote three years ago remains true: I have made steady progress with my game, and I am a much better golfer now than I was.... I am only a hair away from being where I want to be, and there is no doubt in my mind that I will get there soon. Keep an eye out for me.