When Charles charged, Adam answered.
Australian Adam Scott added another impressive line to his burgeoning resume yesterday at TPC at Avenel, staving off a spirited charge by fellow young gun Charles Howell III to capture the Booz Allen Classic by four strokes.
“It’s a nice turnaround for me,” said Scott, who posted a final-round 68 on the 6,987-yard, par-71 course to match the event’s 72-hole scoring record (263). “It’s only been one week since I missed the cut at the U.S. Open, and that was pretty disappointing. … To come here and play four rounds of really solid golf and get out with a win is a major lift.”
With a six-stroke lead entering the finale, it didn’t seem like the 23-year-old Scott would need to do much more than stay upright for four hours yesterday to collect the winner’s Waterford.
But as is so often the case in golf, something funny happened during Scott’s victory lap celebration at Avenel yesterday: Howell decided to crash the party.
Turning a would-be rout into the foundation for a future rivalry, the 25-year-old Howell carded five consecutive birdies on the back nine (Nos.11-15), matching a tournament record and trimming Scott’s once-insurmountable lead to a precarious two strokes.
As Howell was walking off the 14th green at 17 under, Scott was standing on the 14th tee at 19 under, his pulse rate suddenly elevated thanks to Howell’s charge and his 3-putt par at the 13th.
“I was getting a little nervy there on the back nine after I missed that birdie putt [from six feet] on No.13,” Scott said.
Piqued and pressured, Scott reached for his driver on the reachable 301-yard 14th. Enter Tony Navarro, the veteran caddie under Scott’s bag who spent the better part of the last two decades riding the roller coaster better known as Greg Norman’s career.
“I wanted to hit driver pretty bad there,” said Scott, who averaged more than 300 yards with the big stick all week. “I reached for it and said, ‘Do you like driver at the [left green-side] trap?’ And he said, ‘No, not really.’ So, I just kind of put it back in. I thought he was pretty serious about that, so I took out a 3-iron.”
Now, it’s strictly against the caddie code to utter the word “no” to your man, primarily because there’s no room in their world of tenuous relationships and fragile confidences for traffic in negativity of any kind. In response to Scott’s initial question, most caddies would respond, “I was thinking 3-iron, boss.”
But Navarro isn’t just any caddie. He had been under the bag for Scott’s idol, Norman, through both the glory and the gory. He had been watching Scott fight a nasty case of the dead blocks all day with his driver. And he knew the only thing worse than watching a six-stroke lead shrink to two is watching an impetuous play find the creek right of the 14th green.
To Scott’s credit, he took the advice of the caddie he later called his “wise man, Tony,” piping a 3-iron to within 60 yards of the green, flipping a wedge to 15 feet and holing the birdie putt.
“I really needed a birdie, and it was good it came at the 14th because those last few holes are quite tough,” Scott said after recording his third tour win in the last 10 months (Deutsche Bank, Players Championship).
The birdie at the 14th seemed to steady Scott, who matched Howell’s birdie at the 15th to maintain his three-stroke cushion and then recorded an all-universe up-and-down save at the 16th from the deep rough short right of the green just as Howell was three-putting the 17th.
“I had to give that birdie putt a good go, and it resulted in a bogey,” said Howell, the former Oklahoma State star who faced Scott (UNLV) regularly when the two were in college. “I gave him a little heat there and my best effort, but he finished beautifully. … [After my bogey at 17], unless he breaks a leg coming in, he’s going to win the golf tournament.”
Instead of a fracture, Scott lasered a 7-iron to the 17th green and coasted home a 10-foot birdie to reach 22 under, a mark that would have broken the tournament record.
But after two safe shots to the center of the 18th green, Scott made two of his few mistakes all week. He putted his lag bid off the green, missed his 12-footer for par and then tapped in with Olin Browne (11 under) still facing a short par putt.
It’s slightly poor form for the champion to hole his final putt before his playing companion, simply because it leads to an awkward gallery roar and considerable and predictable commotion with another man’s money still on the table. Browne ribbed him good-naturedly afterward but had nothing but praise for the Australian youngster likely to rise to No.11 in the world when tomorrow’s rankings are released.
“The sky’s the limit for him,” Browne said. “He plays smart shots. He strikes the ball beautifully. He hits it forever. His swing is flawless. He putted wonderfully this week. And he has an excellent short game. He’s got all the tools. What else can you say?”
Not much, other than Booz Allen got as close to a dream scenario as it could have hoped for its virgin run as title sponsor. In terms of sheer popularity, perhaps tournament officials might have picked Fred Funk or John Daly over the Scott-Howell duel. But in reality, the two best players on the property by anyone’s reckoning engaged in a back-nine battle on a near-perfect day.
Those in attendance got a glimpse of the game’s future. Any short list of youngsters most likely to push the likes of Tiger, Ernie, Phil and Vijay into the next decade probably would start with Scott and Howell.
“I think there may be three of us who are probably fighting it out [for top young gun]: Charles, Sergio [Garcia] and myself,” said Scott, who now ranks fifth on the tour’s money list ($2,915,670). “There’s no question that Charles and I will be out there playing against each other for a long time. This may be the start of a rivalry.”