By Steve Eubanks, PGA.com Contributor
It was David v. Goliath story 10 years ago, only in this version Goliath was an autograph-signing good guy with a beautiful family and a fan base that was solidly behind him all the way.
Going into the final round of the 2001 PGA Championship, the giant in the room was Phil Mickelson, who, at the time, was the undisputed king of the Can’t Win a Major club. From the 1999 U.S. Open where Payne Stewart gets up and down from short of the final green to beat him to the buzz saw that was Tiger Woods in 2000 and 2001, Phil came into the season’s final major of 2001 with the “best player never to win a major” monkey perched firmly on his back.
David was an average-looking player from Louisiana named David Toms.
Things were different then. September 11 was still a month away. The final touches were being put on the Belfry for the Ryder Cup, and U.S. Captain Curtis Strange could be found trudging around Atlanta Athletic Club with reams of papers under his arms. Security was little more than a smile and a nod, Osama Bin Laden was an $800 answer on Jeopardy, and David Toms was a patrician middle-of-the-pack player with good, not great, credentials.
Now, as the PGA Championships returns to Atlanta Athletic Club, both the players from that epic final-round battle in 2001 are looking to catch lightning in a bottle one more time. Mickelson, who lost that tournament 10 years ago despite shooting the second-lowest total in PGA Championship history, now has four major titles and a second-place finish at this year’s Open Championship under his belt, while Toms was a two-footer away from winning the Players Championship earlier this spring, but did win the following week at The Colonial.
Neither of them comes to Atlanta as a favorite, or even the biggest story of the week (that moniker goes, once again, to Tiger Woods, who will attempt another comeback after missing the last two majors with a bum knee). But neither of them can be counted out, especially given how the newly redesigned Highlands Course is going to play.
“Don’t count David Toms out this year,” said course superintendent Ken Magnum, who knows better than anyone the type of game that can win. “You have to play for the fairway to have a chance at winning, and David is among the leaders on tour right now in driving accuracy and greens in regulation. That’s not a bad combination coming to a golf course like this.”
Mickelson doesn’t come close in the driving accuracy category, but that has never been his game. He is a streaky player who feeds off positive energy and good momentum, and he should have both after his best-ever finish in the Open Championship last month.
But there are bad signs as well. Mickelson missed the cut at the Greenbrier Classic with a sloppy 73 on Friday, his first failed attempt at weekend play all season, while Toms missed all of July with a bum hip and played his first 72 holes in more than a month in Akron at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.
“I haven't played golf and walked,” Toms said. “I had a push cart with Carter (his son) in his tournaments. All the golf I’ve played I took a cart, so we'll see how it holds up.”
It held up fine the Monday prior to PGA Championship Week, when Toms made his first trip back to Atlanta Athletic Club since that historic win. He walked past the spot on the par-4 18th where he laid up in 2001, hitting pitching wedge from the rough to 88 yards and then skipping his sand wedge 10 feet past the hole. “I should get up and down from 88 yards nine times out of 10,” he said at the time. That is exactly what he did, draining the 10-footer for the win.
“The first thing that went through my head was ’99 at Pinehurst,” Mickelson said of that moment. “Payne (Stewart) chipped up to 15 feet and drained it to beat me by one. I had that same feeling as though David’s putt was going to go in, without a doubt.”
They can both look back on that moment fondly now, especially given how their lives and careers have turned out. Toms also strolled past a plaque with his name on it, embedded on the side of the 15th tee where he made a hole-in-one with a 5-wood on Saturday in 2001 to enter the final round with a two-shot lead.
It wasn’t the first time a hole-in-one decided a major. Young Tom Morris made one in the 1868 Open Championship and Jamie Anderson made another in 1878. Toms’ is, however, the most recent ace by the winner of a major. Dustin Johnson had a chance to break that record at Royal St. George’s last month after acing the 16th early in the week, but he couldn’t hold on to win.
“We have David to thank for two of the most famous shots in recent PGA Championship history,” Mangum said. “Every time he’s in contention, they show that layup on 18 and the hole-in-one on 15. Who knows, maybe he can do it again.”
“(The 5-wood) is in a glass case in my game room,” Toms said. “My wife gave it to me in that case for Christmas one year about five years ago. I was telling someone earlier that it looks like it would be like a hickory club or something, but it’s a bi-matrix shaft, half graphite, half steel, and it looks kind of funny in the case. But it’s in a good spot.”
The same can also be said for the 44-year-old returning champion, who comes into the event ranked 26th in the world and looking for one final run at a major. Hip or no hip, Toms is in a good spot.
“Don’t count him out,” Mangum said. “You have to hit driver out here because of the length, but you better hit it straight. Nobody does that better right now than David Toms.”