Commentary

Odd man out Bill Haas rolls at Riviera

Updated: February 20, 2012, 5:33 AM ET
By Farrell Evans | ESPN.com

PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. -- Bill Haas, the 2011 FedEx Cup Champion and Tour Championship winner, is not an underdog or an overachiever or any of those other adjectives used to describe people who win when they aren't supposed to. He's not like Jeremy Lin, the current poster boy of overachieving athletes. No coach overlooked Haas as he was coming up through the ranks of junior golf and at Wake Forest.

As a son of Jay Haas, a nine-time PGA Tour winner, he was supposed to make it. But on Sunday at the Northern Trust Open, he must have felt like the odd man out in the three-way playoff with Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley. It was Phil's tournament to win and if he didn't win then everybody wanted his protégé, Bradley, to walk away with the trophy.

Starting the day only two shots back of Mickelson and Bradley, Haas was clearly in contention, but before he took the outright lead for the first time at the 17th hole, his name had barely been mentioned as the possible winner of the tournament.

[+] EnlargeBill Haas
Chris Condon/PGA TOUR/Getty ImagesBill Haas clinched his fourth PGA Tour victory Sunday at the Northern Trust Open. Of American players in their 20s, only Dustin Johnson with five owns more wins.

That he got into a playoff by only shooting a 2-under 69 to get to 7-under par proves that all you have to do on a tough golf course is hang around par. Haas didn't really do anything spectacular on Sunday until he made a 43-foot putt on the second playoff hole to beat Mickelson and Bradley. For most of the day, he struggled with his driving. But as he showed at the Tour Championship, he has a penchant for making remarkable recoveries.

"I don't say this in a negative way, but everybody is cheering for Phil. He just won this last week, he's the man, and if I'm at home, I'm cheering for Phil," Haas said. "Everybody is saying, 'Go Phil, go Phil.' Keegan has a big fan base. I'm not saying like fans did anything wrong. I just was somewhat under the radar, I guess.

"I wasn't in the final group with them. They both birdie 18, they certainly had the fans on their side, which if that's the way it is, that's fine, flying under the radar. It was unexpected for me and for the fans maybe the way it ended up."

The Northern Trust Open was a departure from the past three weeks on the PGA Tour, when a player squandered a big lead on the final day. This week was a tightly bunched leaderboard, where par was a good score. Haas might not have been the one expected to win, but he was the last man standing on Sunday afternoon.

Hopefully, 2012 will produce more tournaments like the Northern Trust Open and winners like Haas. Riviera wasn't tricked up or unfair. It was a great test of golf that produced a proven winner. The USGA should consider bringing the U.S. Open here in the future. I'm sure Bill Haas wouldn't mind.

Sunday (Red) Storm
Keegan Bradley accomplished everything on Sunday at the Northern Trust Open, except for winning. That 27-foot birdie putt he made on the 72nd hole to join Phil Mickelson and Bill Haas in a playoff was as clutch as you'll ever see on the PGA Tour. Sure, the 25-year-old 2011 PGA Championship winner was sometimes excruciatingly fidgety and slow in his final round, but he held it together in front of his idol.

He proved to himself and the world that he's a kid who craves the limelight on late Sunday afternoons. The Woodstock, Vt., native won't be a one-shot wonder. He'll be a contender for many years to come.

I was concerned about how he would fare playing in the same group with Phil Mickelson on Sunday. I wondered if he could distance himself from the aura and reputation of Phil Mickelson and just try to beat Phil the golfer, who he would meet on the first tee on Sunday morning at the Riviera Country Club. After bogeys at holes four and five, I thought that Bradley would fade, but he came back with birdies at holes seven and nine.

The former St. John's University star is a real fighter.

This week probably did more for his confidence than his two wins in 2011, which had to be a surprise to him as a rookie on tour. Like all young players, he'll struggle at some point with his swing or injuries or failures on Sunday afternoons. At the Northern Trust Open he lost in a playoff for the first time, after winning his two previous ones.

"I've got a lot of really good things to take away from this tournament," Bradley said. "I hung tough with Phil Mickelson, one of the best golfers ever to play, in the final group, and when I got off to a pretty bad start, you see a lot of guys kind of crumble away, and I kind of fought back.

"I've got a lot to take away, but I'm also very disappointed."

The kid gets it. Now we just have to wait and see how he does when he gets into this situation again on a pressure-packed Sunday in the final round of a big tournament.

Sergio comes up short
Sergio Garcia fell two shots short of making the three-way playoff at the Northern Trust Open, but no one was better on Sunday on the second nine at the Riviera Country Club.

The 31-year-old Spaniard had two eagles and two birdies on his way to a 6-under-par 30 on that side. Garcia's final-round 64 left him with a 5-under total.

Garcia was the only player among the leaders to play the crucial stretch of holes 12 through 16 without a bogey. He had just 24 putts on the day.

Perhaps if he hadn't shot a 5-over 76 in Round 2 he might have had an easier time catching the leaders. Still, if he had not made two bogeys on his inward half, he would have finished the tournament at 7-under par.

Heading into this week's WGC-Accenture Match Play, Garcia is playing some of his best golf in many years. His two wins on the European Tour late last year gave him the confidence that he could still win. The old demons might have finally faded.

"This is good momentum for me, and I'm hoping that I can take it into next week and have a couple nice rounds early on and kind of get going as the tournament goes on," Garcia said on Sunday.

No matter how he plays at the WGC-Match Play, Garcia's 30 on Riviera's tough second nine is proof he still has the magic touch.

Perry's prime
Kenny Perry has never been the same since the 2009 Masters, when he let the green jacket slip through his hands on Sunday afternoon. The Franklin, Ky., resident would win later that year at the Travelers Championship, but he never was a fixture again on PGA Tour leaderboards.

Last year he tried to play both the PGA Tour and the Champions Tour, where he found real success in the over-50 club. In 10 events, he had a win and seven top-10s. As one of the best players ever over the age of 40 in PGA Tour history, the 14-time PGA Tour winner was expected to dominate on the Champions Tour.

Now at 51, he appears finally to be committed to the senior circuit. On Sunday, he had a 5-shot win at the ACE Group Classic in Naples, Fla. The former Western Kentucky University star only needed to shoot a 2-under-par 70 in his final round for a 20-under par total, after setting the tour's 36-hole scoring record with a 64 and a 62 in his first two rounds at the TwinEagles Club.

How dominating can Perry be in 2012? Who has a chance of stopping him from winning every event that he enters?

There are a lot of very good players on the Champions Tour, all within a few years of Perry's age, including guys that he played with on the regular tour.

Tom Lehman, who was the tour's player of the year in 2011, finished 6 shots back on Sunday at 14-under par. Lehman will stay on leaderboards for the rest of the year. When he plays out there, Fred Couples can reduce almost any course to a pitch and putt. After falling off the PGA Tour in his mid-40s, John Huston restarted his career on the Champions Tour in 2011 and had a win and seven top-10s. Corey Pavin got his first Champions Tour win last week at the Allianz Championship.

But Perry is the best of the group. He'll win several more times before the season is over and solidify his place as one of the best drivers of the golf ball in the world, regardless of the tour.

He might never fully get over what happened at the 2009 Masters, but mastery of the Champions Tour could be the balm he needs to keep playing.

NASCAR laps PGA Tour
Earlier this week, NASCAR told Bubba Watson that it was rescinding its invitation for him to do a parade lap in his General Lee car around the Phoenix International Speedway, prior to the start of a Sprint Cup series race there on March 4. The Daytona Beach-based racing organization had feared a backlash over the Confederate flag that adorns the roof of the 1969 Dodge Charger that was used in the opening scenes of the 1980s television show "The Dukes of Hazzard."

It wasn't surprising that NASCAR took this course of action. While Confederate flags are common at NASCAR races, the circuit has tried through the years to distance itself from the stereotype that its typical fan is a beer-guzzling "good ol' boy."

"The image of the Confederate flag is not something that should play an official role in our sport as we continue to reach out to new fans and make NASCAR more inclusive," NASCAR spokesman David Higdon said in a statement on Friday.

Why didn't the PGA Tour make a similar statement? The tour doesn't condone the bigotry and hate that long has been associated with the flag. It tells its players that they represent the tour on and off the golf course. Through its efforts with the First Tee, the tour has encouraged greater diversity in the game.

Watson drove his General Lee car every day during the Waste Management Phoenix Open. CBS Sports cameras filmed overhead shots of the car, putting on display prominently the Confederate flag. The network treated it all in good fun, just another vignette in a three-hour golf telecast.

It's unimaginable that this could have happened during an NBA or NFL telecast. It's unimaginable that a basketball or football player could get past their league censors by putting on display such a historic symbol of oppression and hate.

Ultimately, the players have to take responsibility for their own actions and insensitivities, but the PGA Tour never should have allowed Watson to bring General Lee on the grounds of TPC Scottsdale during the Phoenix Open. No matter Watson's decent intentions.

Indeed, these are arguably very politically correct times, but racially divisive images are too important to dismiss with the wave of a hand.

In the end, the PGA Tour should be on the forefront of racial progress and equality. It shouldn't be taking lessons from NASCAR on what's right for the betterment of society. Sadly, the Ponte Vedra Beach-based tour got lapped in this race.

Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at evans.espn@gmail.com.

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