On the Monday after the Nelson, I teed it up at the Open qualifier. I opened with 72 and then dropped a 64 on the boys to earn my way into a playoff for the last spot. Then I birdied the first extra hole to punch my ticket to Congressional. Afterward I went straight to my son Harrison's baseball game, and I was so dehydrated my whole body was cramping. I told my caddie, Marc Lebas, that I was thinking of skipping that week's FedEx St. Jude Classic. He told me I was crazy, saying, "If you hit it half as good as you have the last five days, you can win Memphis." Allison tried to persuade me not to go because it's always a sauna there, but Marc was right, I was swinging too well to stay home. The family was going to join me in Memphis, but we feared Ford was coming down with pneumonia. He turned out to be O.K. Allison and the kids stayed in Dallas, and we made plans for them to meet me the next week in Washington, D.C., for the Open. That was to be my 11th start. No one really said it, but we were all preparing for that to be the last start of my PGA Tour career.
Once I arrived in Memphis, I was determined to recoup some energy. On Tuesday I only played nine holes, and on Wednesday all I did was chip and putt. To stay out of the heat I decided to see a movie that afternoon. I went to Cowboys and Aliens, and then over the phone my boys somehow talked me into seeing Kung Fu Panda 2. I walked outside and bought another ticket. Going to a kids' movie without any kids is a strange experience; I probably looked like a creep. But the movie was actually kind of fun, and hearing the laughter all around me lightened my heart.
During the first round, I double-bogeyed my third hole and bogeyed the fourth from the middle of the fairway. I wasn't the same guy I had been at the Nelson or the Open qualifier. I was worried about the results, the money, life after golf, all of it. On the fifth hole I turned off my brain. I told my caddie not to give me too much information—I didn't want to hear about the humidity or the grain of the grass, the carry over a bunker or the tide of the Mississippi. Just give me a number to the flag. A few times I didn't even wait for that, I just looked at the shot and said, "This feels like a seven-iron." Suddenly I had no anxiety, no pressure, no fear. I entered a childlike state of mind in which I was simply hitting shots, free of consequences. I salvaged a one-over 71 and then shot a bogey-free 65 on Friday. In the third round I shot a 64 to move into second place, one behind Robert Karlsson, with whom I'd be playing in the final pairing.
Allison and the boys wanted to fly in for the final round, but it was expensive to change their plane tickets. More than that, I was in such a good place mentally, she and I decided not to mess with it. But I wasn't alone on that Sunday. After I arrived at the course for the final round, I sat in the car and said, "O.K., God, here we are again. I have no idea what you have planned for me. I'm willing to go with it, but don't tease me because my heart can't handle it." I wanted to win or shoot 100, because either way that would provide some clarity.
When I stepped onto the 1st tee I felt such peace, and somehow I kept that feeling the entire day. I birdied four of the first 11 holes to tie Karlsson for the lead, but I wasn't worried about that. I didn't look at a leader board until the 14th hole—everyone else had fallen away and I was like, Holy crap, it's just the two of us. We were still tied on the 17th hole, where I smashed maybe the best tee shot of my life. Robert changed clubs and then hit a bad drive and I thought, I got to him. Sure enough, he made bogey, giving me a one-stroke lead heading to the 18th hole, a 453-yard dogleg left with water all down the left side. After another strong tee shot, I had 165 yards to a pin tucked on the left edge of the green, only a few paces from the hazard. The safe play would have been well right of the hole, but just thinking about a defensive shot was where things began to go wrong. For the first time all week I was worried about the consequences instead of focusing on executing the swing. I tried to clear my head, but the damage was done. I knew the second the ball left the clubface that it was wet. But before it even trickled down the slope and into the water, I was focused on finding a way to get up and down for bogey, which I did. Robert had an eight-footer for par to force a playoff. He's a world-class player; I was certain he would make it, and he did.
Before the playoff began it occurred to me that no matter what happened I was guaranteed to make enough money to satisfy my medical exemption. But I quickly put that out of my mind because at that moment all I wanted was the crystal. Robert hadn't won on Tour either, and I figured the playoff would come down to one of us making a mistake. On the third extra hole I hit a great three-wood off the tee, while Robert popped up his drive. He had 180 yards left, I had less than 100. I made a tap-in par and then watched while he grinded on a tough 10-footer to extend the playoff. Again, I was convinced Robert would make the putt. This time he didn't, and finally, after all the heartbreak and doubt and uncertainty, only a week away from what could have been my final tournament, I was a PGA Tour winner. (It took only 355 tries.) I went numb. I wanted to say something profound to Robert but couldn't get it out. CBS analyst Peter Kostis corralled me for an interview, but I was in such a deer-in-the-headlights state that my friends still give me grief about it. I did the trophy ceremony in a daze. I can't even remember what I said in the champion's press conference. I do recall that when it was over I checked my phone and there were already more than 200 texts, 100 e-mails and dozens of voice mails, including a few from a semihysterical Allison (box, right).
Not long after the win, Sean O'Hair congratulated me and said, "You know, things like this don't happen by accident." He had no idea how right he was. This victory wasn't because I suddenly became a better golfer. It was the culmination of a spiritual journey that had begun a year earlier, when Allison and I changed churches. I instantly connected with our new minister, Paul Rasmussen. He's my age, has young children like me and has a background in high-level sports. For the first time in my life I was excited about attending church, and I began listening to all his sermons on iTunes. I've never liked to mix sports and religion because I know it makes a lot of fans uncomfortable. And I think it's dangerous to discuss religion and faith only when good things happen. But all of this is vital to my story.
In the month I was home before the Nelson, Paul delivered a series of sermons that affected me deeply. The first offered the message that God does not expect you to be perfect. When it came to golf I had always tried to be too perfect. It was a relief to be reminded that, in a larger context, perfection is not attainable.
We also heard the story of the Prodigal Son, of how his older brother became consumed with envy. For all these years I could not grasp why I had not been given the one thing I craved—a victory—while so many others had, even players I smugly felt were less deserving. I had a lot of hurt in my heart that I needed to let go of. I needed to be thankful for the many blessings in my life and be happy for the successes of others. Paul Azinger was right: I had become a negative, empty person. The day of that sermon I watched on TV as David Toms won at Colonial, and I could not have been more thrilled for him. That was the first step toward letting go of all the jealousy that had held me back.
The last of these sermons drew from the Gospel of John, telling the story of the invalid who sat for 40 years on a mat. Every day this man waited for someone to care for him, always making excuses why he did nothing to better himself. Jesus healed him, but still the man would not get up, prompting Jesus to order the man to pick up his mat and walk, which he finally did. This story resonated with me because I had to trust that God had a plan for me but needed me to walk that path for myself. A lot of people had a hand in my victory: Allison, with her constant encouragement; the physical therapists who healed my back and hip; Randy Smith, who made just the right tweaks to my swing; the NFL agent, whose job offer did so much for my self-image; my caddie, Marc, who encouraged me to ditch the belly putter and make the trip to Memphis. But really what it all came down to was that I had to pick up my mat and walk on my own.