In his 1998 book, Rookie on Tour, Carl Paulson asks, So what is the difference between the guys who finish in the top 10 year after year and the guys who never earn their card? The mournful mystery of what separates Paulson, who has struggled to remain on Tour his entire career, from the game's elite hangs over the book like a black shroud. In a weird bit of life imitating art, Paulson answered his own question at last week's Texas Open.
Rookie on Tour is subtitled The Education of a PGA Golfer, and on Sunday at LaCantera Golf Club in San Antonio, Paulson, a 30-year-old from Quantico, Va., endured yet another bitter lesson. He found himself in unfamiliar surroundings—playing in the final group with glamour boys Justin Leonard and Matt Kuchar. Yet Paulson was in an all-too-familiar position: 130th on the money list and fighting for his livelihood. In 10 years as a pro, he has endured self-doubt, bouts of yippy putting and countless Podunk towns so small they don't even have a Shoney's, to lift one of the memorable descriptions from Rookie on Tour. Through it all Paulson has kept clawing, with an iron will forged by his father, a colonel in the U.S. Marines, and an unshakable faith that comes from his grandfather, the pastor of a Greek Orthodox church in Virginia Beach. On the eve of the final round in San Antonio, Paulson reflected on his journey. "I've learned a lot about myself," he said. "I've learned that I've got what it takes to bring it home, given the chance."
Beginning Sunday three strokes back of Leonard, the third-round leader, Paulson got off to an encouraging start, making solid fairways-and-greens pars on the first four holes. Number 5 at LaCantera is a steeply downhill par-4 of 494 yards that doglegs to the right. Paulson has one of the Tour's most reliable long games—he ranks 12th in total driving—but on this tee shot he took a conservative line down the left side. His ball skittered through the dogleg and into a dense grove of the trees.
Back to the book: The elusive "something" that separates the winners from the strugglers is a mental toughness. It is a deep-seated desire to win that gives one the courage to hit approach shots close to the pin during the closing holes of a tournament. Rather than punch out, Paulson attempted to hook a recovery around a clump of branches. He caught the shot heavy, leaving his ball in the trees. He then slashed his third shot short of the green. It is mental toughness that makes it possible to get up and down from deep rough when a match is on the line. Paulson chunked the ensuing chip and then stabbed his next shot 10 feet from the hole. It is a complete absence of fear when faced with three-foot side-hillers during the critical round. Paulson missed the putt. Triple bogey. He plummeted from the leader board.
The Monday sports pages were filled with accounts of Leonard's victory—career number 6 for the 29-year-old star of the 1999 Ryder Cup—and the exploits of the charismatic Kuchar, 23, whose tie for second clinched his 2002 Tour card in the eighth tournament of his rookie year. However, this dynamic duo was an anomaly in San Antonio. This time of year usually belongs to the lurkers—guys like Paulson—and they've assumed an even more prominent place given the cancellation of the season's marquee event, the Ryder Cup, which was to have been played opposite the Texas Open. By now most of the game's glitterati have all but called it a season, more interested in fly-fishing or reupholstering the Gulfstream than golf. (Even the Tour's flag-waving Tribute to America held in San Antonio two days before the start of the Texas Open failed to interrupt almost anyone's vacation.) The grinders who live on the fringe of the Tour were more than happy to fill the void.
"Anytime Tiger, Duval, Mickelson, Vijay—guys like that—tee it up you know they're going to be at the top of the leader board," said Tripp Isenhour, a 33-year-old rookie who came to Texas 158th on the money list. "Maybe on a week like this there's room for some of us in the top 10."
"This is the land of opportunity," said Jaxon Brigman, who prevailed in a four-for-one playoff to make the tournament field as a Monday qualifier. The Texas Open was only the third PGA Tour start of his eight-year pro career. "It's the chance to do something heroic."
Brigman, 30, almost produced the kind of redemptive comeback found in Marvel Comics. Perhaps you recall his woeful tale: At the 1999 Q school Brigman, a Texan who played at Oklahoma State, shot a final-round 65, a superhuman effort that would have earned him his Tour card by a lone stroke. Unfortunately, he erroneously signed for a 66, which became his official score, dooming him to the Buy.com tour for 2000. Brigman never recovered, losing his status on the Buy.com last year and then washing out in the second stage of last fall's Q school. This year he has been consigned to mini-tours in Texas and the Southeast.
A 5'9", 145-pound noodle, Brigman prospered at LaCantera, a twisty, hilly layout that demands precision more that power. (Good thing, too, because on the par-5 14th last Saturday his playing partner, Carlos Franco, outdrove him by 100 yards.) It was midway through that third round that Brigman looked at a scoreboard, something he rarely does. "Big mistake," he said. "All I could think was, What the heck is my name doing up there?"
With rounds of 67-71-67 he was too far back to win the tournament, but heading into Sunday he set his sights on a different sort of victory—a top 10 finish that would earn a spot in this week's Michelob Championship. Two under for his final round despite a trio of three-putts on the back nine, he arrived at the 18th tee knowing he needed a birdie to crack the top 10. After a good drive Brigman hit his approach dead on the flag, which was perched atop the second tier of the green. Brigman's ball skipped on the first level, then inched up the hump toward the hole and birdie range. The ball, and Brigman, never made it. The former trickled back to the first tier, leaving an all but impossible 30-footer, which Brigman missed. With a par he finished 11th, a shot out of a three-way tie for eighth.