SAN DIEGO – Nick Watney was gearing up for a celebration at Torrey Pines that would have made Tiger Woods proud when he caught himself, settling instead on a subdued fist pump that better fits his personality.
Nick Watney holds up the winner's trophy after his victory at the Buick Invitational golf tournament Sunday, Feb. 8, 2009, in San Diego.
(AP Photo/Chris Park)
His birdie putt on the 18th hole was just inside 3 feet, straight up the hill, not quite as dramatic as the 12-foot birdie Woods made on the 72nd hole at Torrey Pines last year to force a U.S. Open playoff that he won the next day.
"I'd like to imitate pretty much everything Tiger does," he said. "But that was not planned at all. I was more worried about the 3-footer. I mean, I just hope the first pump looked halfway decent."
Watney imitated Woods in at least one small respect.
After a stunning turnaround Sunday afternoon, when Watney refused to lose hope even when he trailed by three shots with five holes to play, the 27-year-old Californian was posing with a Buick Invitational trophy that has belonged to Woods the last four years.
With two birdies on the last three holes, Watney closed with a 4-under 68 to complete a five-shot comeback.
But this required some help.
John Rollins went through a roller-coaster final round on the South Course. He started with a three-shot lead, but it was down to one after five holes. Two holes later, the lead was back to four. Five holes later, it was back to one. Then came a 20-foot eagle putt on the 13th, and Rollins was three shots ahead again.
Three holes later, the lead was gone.
Rollins and Watney stood on the 18th fairway, separated by only a few yards of distance to the flag on the par 5, both believing it would take a birdie to win, or at least keep playing.
Watney was 235 yards away and the first to hit.
"In a tournament like this, when it's really tight down the stretch, you've got to take it — you've got to grab it," he said. "John is a great player, very seasoned, and he wasn't going to give me anything. There was really no choice."
The only choice was the club, and Watney settled on a hybrid over a 3-iron, because if he missed the 3-iron ever so slightly it would not clear the pond in front of the green and the tournament would be over. It landed on the top shelf, 60 feet away.
"It was the right club to hit," Watney said.
Rollins also hit hybrid, but his twisting body motion and the flight of the ball made it clear he was in trouble. It cleared the water easily enough, but was too far left and settled into a difficult spot in the bunker. The best he could manage was to blast out 12 feet away.
Watney had not three-putted all week at Torrey Pines, and this was not the time to start. He has seen this tournament enough to know he needed only to get the ball to the ridge and let it feed to the hole, and it ran a few feet by.
Rollins missed his birdie, and Watney rolled in his putt to take the lead for the first time all week.
Just his luck, that was the last hole.
"If you're to lead for one hole, this is the time to do it," he said.
Rollins was classy in defeat, making no excuses for the three-putts, the poor chip on the 14th, the 5-iron into a plugged lie in a bunker on the 16th that led to a scrambling bogey, or even his failure to hit the 18th green in two shots.
"It's unfortunate that I came in with a three-shot lead and couldn't get the victory," Rollins said. "But as I said yesterday, if somebody came out and played a great round of golf and came out on top, then my hat's off to him. And that's exactly what Nick did."
Lucas Glover, seven shots behind at the start of a chilly Sunday along the coast, pulled within one shot of the lead while playing two groups ahead of Rollins and Watney. He took bogey from the left rough on the 17th, and so ended his chances. Glover shot 68 and tied for third with Camilo Villegas, who shot a 72 and squandered his chances.
Villegas three-putted from 10 feet on No. 6 after getting within one shot, but his greater mistake was sailing the 17th green and taking a bogey that put him two shots behind. He had an eagle attempt on the final hole that missed by a few inches.
Watney described his victory in New Orleans two years ago as euphoric. This one came with a deeper sense of satisfaction.
"They say it's always tougher to win the second one," he said.
Both come with hard work, which Watney has shown his entire life. He didn't start playing golf until he was 13, when he went to visit his uncle, Mike Watney, the golf coach at Fresno State. Watney eventually walked on at Fresno State, had to prove himself to get on the traveling squad, and led the nation as a senior with five tournament titles.
The one lesson he drew from Sunday, however, was something his uncle always told the Bulldogs.
"He always told me and our team that it was never easy," Watney said. "Winning a golf tournament is never easy."
It wasn't easy starting the final round at Torrey Pines five shots out of the lead. And it sure wasn't easy when he fell three shots behind with only five holes to play.
"I knew we had some good holes to play, and I definitely didn't want to give up," Watney said. "I just tried to keep my head down and give myself chances, and I was able to make some putts."