Bill Haas played alongside Phil Mickelson in what seemed like a one-sided affair outside the ropes, where chants of “Phil” chased after them in the cool air of the Pacific Ocean.
This was a year ago at Torrey Pines.
2012 NORTHERN TRUST OPEN
This year's edition of the Northern Trust Open is the 48th PGA Tour event that Riviera has hosted since it opened in 1926.
Among those in the gallery that day was Billy Harmon, the swing coach for Haas. The more famous Harmon is his older brother, Butch, though the family often jokes that’s only because Butch has better clients.
There was no friendly wager among them, though Billy Harmon said his brother told him, “I have more horses in the race.”
Along with Mickelson, Dustin Johnson was in the hunt that day and Nick Watney put together a late rally. Ultimately, Bubba Watson won the tournament.
A year later, Haas is starting to show he belongs in the stable of top American golfers.
Up the California coast, on a Riviera course that played the toughest of any PGA Tour event this year, Haas steadied himself after consecutive bogeys on the back nine with a 3-wood into the par-5 17th that set up a birdie and a par save from the front of the 18th green that gave him a 2-under 69.
Haas kept his wits even after hearing the ground-shaking roar of Mickelson’s birdie on the 18th from just off the green, followed by another big cheer when Keegan Bradley made his birdie putt to force a three-man playoff.
The last cheer was for Haas, who rolled in a 45-foot birdie putt across the 10th green to win the Northern Trust Open.
“To beat a guy like Keegan and also Phil -- guys of their caliber -- in a playoff is amazing, something I’ll never forget,” Haas said.
Even as he was walking into the media center late Sunday afternoon, a reporter asked him about his father, Jay Haas, a nine-time winner and Ryder Cup player.
Haas rarely gets through an interview without someone asking about his father, which he doesn’t mind, although the 29-year-old clearly is starting to come into his own.
“He’s starting to establish himself as a very, very good player,” said Billy Harmon, who doesn’t throw out compliments easily. “More than anything, he’s starting to believe. You don’t have to change anything with Bill. He just has to learn from experience, and he’s getting that now. He’s been in the hunt more often. He’s failed in the hunt, he’s succeeded in the hunt.”
What impressed Harmon about Riviera is that Haas, who fought his swing, came through with his short game. While the 45-foot birdie putt will get the attention, it was made possible by an 80-foot chip from just short of the 18th on the first playoff hole to about 3 feet. It’s one of the hardest shots to get to the hole.
“He won with his short game,” Harmon said. “And he usually wins with his long game.”
It took Haas longer than he expected to get going, but the numbers are starting to add up. It was the third straight year Haas has won on the PGA Tour, one of the best gauges of a player moving up. He advanced to No. 12 in the world, a ranking difficult to dispute.
And it was his fourth career win, a number that could be even higher if not for playoff losses a year ago in the Bob Hope Classic and the Greenbrier Classic.
Of the Americans still in their 20s, only Johnson with five has more. Johnson is generally regarded as the best young American in golf, a winner of two FedExCup playoff events (BMW Championship in 2010, The Barclays last year) who already has played in the final group at three majors.
There is a simplicity to Haas’ swing that would suggest he’s in this for the long haul. He doesn’t make constant trips to Palm Springs to see Harmon. They talk every now and then on the phone. Haas tells him what he’s feeling in the swing, Harmon might make a suggestion, or sometimes says nothing more than, “Keep it up.”
“Bill does it with an effortless -- almost like Fred Couples -- swing,” Harmon said. “It’s a swing that is not marred by thought. He’s an under-instructed player. His father was smart enough not to give him too much instruction, and I was lucky to have Claude Harmon as a father who said, ‘You can’t teach talent, but you can screw it up.’ It would take a golfing moron to try to change Bill Haas’ swing.”
Riviera was only the latest big win for Haas.
Five months ago, he won the Tour Championship and the $10 million prize for capturing the FedExCup. He closed with a 68 at East Lake, despite two bogeys in his last three holes, and beat Hunter Mahan in a playoff made famous by one shot. With his ball partially submerged in the lake to the left of the 17th green, Haas splashed out to 3 feet to save par and extend the playoff.
Some misunderstood Haas last year at Quail Hollow, where he opened with a 64 and said he was striving to have a season like the one by Matt Kuchar, who consistently placed in the top 10. It made it sound as though Haas was happy to cash a big check, but his point was that the more chances he gives himself, the better the odds of winning.
This was his first chance to win this year, and he cashed in.
Even with his name recognition, and memories of his improbable water shot that led to a $10 million payoff last year, Haas felt as if he were the forgotten player in a three-man playoff.
“Everybody is cheering for Phil. He just won last week. He’s the man. And if I’m at home, I’m cheering for Phil,” Haas said. “Keegan has a big fan base. I think they were easily more popular than I was in that group. I’m not saying the fans did anything wrong. I just was somewhat under the radar, I guess.”
He might not have that luxury much longer.