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"Oh, he said that I was a great player and that I could win this week," Taylor said, blushing. "It puts a smile on my face to hear him say those things."
It was obvious, though, that this was not going to be a smiley-face Masters. A cold wind blew up on Saturday, freezing the facial muscles and chilling the competitive heart. Taylor briefly held the lead at one over after a birdie on 15, but he bogeyed in to shoot 77 and finished the day in a tie for fourth, two behind third-round leader Stuart Appleby. Howell, who had made the cut on the number, shot a third-round 75 and stood 34th.
Augustans who know both players joked that if Taylor won on Sunday, Howell, a more confident speaker with a flair for fashion, should sub for him at the green jacket ceremony. "Vaughn's a pretty quiet guy," Jack Taylor conceded. "He has a different fan appeal than Jason Gore or John Daly."
"Vaughn never talked much," added his sister, Anne Rachels. "I was a social butterfly, but he just played sports and did his homework. We shared a car for a while, and I had it pretty much to myself. He wasn't going anywhere." That didn't turn out to be true, but Taylor remains rooted and single; he lives near Augusta in Evans, Ga., and he continues to play and practice at Goshen Plantation.
Predictably--because what are the odds?--neither of the Augustans got to slip on the green jacket this time. Howell shot a final-round 74 and finished 30th, while Taylor bogeyed the last two holes for a 75 and a tie for 10th--"disappointing," he said, but good enough for an automatic invitation to the 2008 Masters. "I didn't handle my emotions well at all," the quiet man added, "but I haven't contended in a major before. I definitely improved over last year. Maybe next year will be the year."
Taylor's earnestness was appealing. So was his willingness to linger outside the clubhouse and reminisce about his friend Johnson and their hardscrabble days on the Nationwide tour. "We stayed in Super 8s and tried to save money as best we could. We played golf courses that were sometimes downright pathetic. It wasn't fun at times. The entry fees were $800 a tournament, and we'd spend something between $1,200 and $1,800 a week. You finished top 10, you might not even make that back."
He looked out at the 18th green, where a sun-dappled, eerily quiet gallery waited for the final group, Appleby and Woods, to mop up. "Me and Zach, we never knew we'd be playing here together--him winning and me playing well."
Johnson, for his part, credited Taylor with an assist on his victory, saying, "Having a buddy next to you certainly doesn't hurt. I was actually aching for him at times because I thought he played better than what he shot." And then came the hyperbole: "So you know, we'll be friends forever. He's a great guy, and I think at some point he'll be in this position. You're not going to forget Vaughn Taylor, for sure!"
Or was it understatement?