PEBBLE, BEACH CALIFORNIA – Vaughn Taylor doesn’t know how he lost his game. Even more mystifying was the way it returned.
His goal Sunday when he teed off in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, trailing Phil Mickelson by six shots, was to finish in the top 10 so he wouldn’t have to rush down to Los Angeles and try to qualify for the next PGA Tour event.
It had been more than a decade since he won. It had been three years since he had a full PGA Tour card. And just 10 days ago, Taylor was throwing up in his hotel room in Bogota, Colombia, so sick that he withdrew from a Web.com Tour event and flew to Pebble Beach as an alternate. The one-time Ryder Cup player only had a carry bag with him to save money on baggage fees.
Taylor ran off four straight birdies on the back nine at Pebble Beach to close with a 7-under 65, and he wasn’t sure it was enough when Mickelson stood over a 5-foot birdie putt to force a playoff. And then Taylor got one last surprise.
“Just absolutely amazing,” Taylor said. “Didn’t know if it would ever happen again, to be honest. Just lost a lot of confidence, lost a good bit of my game. I just kept working, grinding and kept at it. And I can’t believe it actually happened today.”
Neither could Mickelson.
Lefty was going for his record-tying fifth victory at Pebble Beach, and the 43rd title of his Hall of Fame career. He had a two-shot lead to start the final round, lost the lead after five holes, rallied with a birdie on the 17th hole and then delivered two good shots to within 60 feet of the hole, just short of the green on the par-5 18th.
“It never crossed my mind that I wouldn’t make that one,” Mickelson said after his 72.
Hiroshi Iwata, who started the day in second, two strokes back at the iconic seaside links, carded three birdies and three bogeys in the final round. His 14-under 273 total tied him with Sweden’s Freddie Jacobson in fourth place.
The 35-year-old Iwata was briefly tied for the lead before bogeys on Nos. 16 and 18. Two solid shots on the 543-yard 18th left him 35 yards within the pin, but he missed badly with an approach shot that failed to reach the green.
Although he surged in the world rankings, moving up from No. 121 to 91 following his best result of the season, Iwata called his fourth-place finish “lame.”
After reaching just 50 percent of the greens in regulation, Iwata said, “My iron shots were just too awful. That’s the problem.”
Iwata said he was calm playing in the final group with Mickelson.
Iwata failed to make the most of his putts at the start of the round, blowing a 14-foot birdie putt on No. 1, just missing a long birdie putt on No. 3 and failing on a 5-foot par putt on No. 4. But his patience was rewarded with birdies on Nos. 6 and 7.
A birdie on the 11th put him in a tie for the lead, but that was the high-water mark for Iwata, who is playing his first season on the PGA Tour.
“I have not felt at home (on the U.S. tour) even once,” he said. “I can’t say my form is going to be bad forever. I just have to give it my best next week.”
Taylor had never given up on his career, though he was starting to rule out another victory, and he never imagined returning home to Augusta, Georgia, to play in the Masters. He is the first player this year to qualify by winning.
“Playing in the Masters is my Super Bowl,” Taylor said.
Taylor was No. 447 in the world and had never won a tournament against the best players. His previous two victories were the Reno-Tahoe Open (2004 and 2005), which is held opposite a World Golf Championship. He had a scare two years ago when his aluminum fishing boat capsized in a strong current, leading to a few moment of panic with cold water up his chin and a park ranger guiding him to shore.
He finished at 17-under 270 and earned $1.26 million, which is about $165,000 more than he made the last three years combined.
Jonas Blixt, the first player to catch Mickelson, made bogey on the par-5 14th to fall back and closed with four pars for a 69 to finish third.