Few things are as great as witnessing two golfers dual during the final round of a tournament for the title of champion. There is something about the increasing tension, the momentum changes from shot to shot and hole to hole that render the remainder of the field an afterthought. And as so often happens it is a matter a few key shots and/or a few inches that determines which golfer triumphs over the other.
As I followed the pairing of J.J. Killeen and Jeff Gove during yesterday’s final round of the Nationwide Tour’s Utah Championship at Willow Creek CC this feeling was again reinforced in me and how golf can be so satisfying to the victor and cruelly punishing to the second place finisher.
Entering the final round of the tournament both Killeen and Gove were tied at 16 under par. And while Killeen birdied the opening hole to take an early lead, it was Gove’s 30 foot eagle putt on the 3rd hole which ramped up the tension and sent the match to the next level. The eagle putt, which just barely limped into the hole, was a momentum changer for Gove who had numerous putts just barely miss the hole during the third round. Since Killeen had faltered on the Par 5, Gove emerged from the hole with the lead. However, golf is often a cruel game and Gove was unable to extend his lead principally because his putter went dead. Birdie opportunities over the next 8 holes failed to find the bottom of the cup, allowing Killeen an open door back into the match.
Killeen, whose short game had been phenomenal all week, made three remarkable up and downs from rough a round the greens on the front nine that kept him close to Gove. Most notable was his save on the 9th hole which preserved a tie at 18 under heading into the back nine (Killeen had birdied the 8th). The save created a shift in the momentum that was solidified by another failed birdie attempt by Gove and a successful conversion by Killeen on the 10th. For those following the group, it became clear that Killeen was aggressively making positive things happen on the course (even when recovering from a mistake), while Gove simply couldn’t capitalize on his steady play (both Killeen and Gove would finish the final round bogey free).
However, Gove seemingly changed all this on the 12th hole when bad luck caught him and his approach shot to the Par 5 nestled itself against the trunk of a pine tree. With Killeen on the green with a putt for birdie, Gove, who was staring down a bogey or worse, made an incredible one legged punch out from behind the tree, followed by a remarkable up and down for his par. Killeen’s would then miss his birdie opportunity leaving many in the crowd, including myself, with the feeling that Gove was on the cusp of getting back into the match.
With their tee shots in the fairway on the 13th hole both Killeen and Gove were well positioned to attack the green and a tricky back pin placement (the pin was on the green’s back shelf with about 15 feet between the hole and a severe slope to the front). Gove’s approach hit the top of the back shelf and spun tragically back to the lower portion of the green, while Killeen’s landed literally one foot pass where Gove’s had hit and stuck to the upper level. The difference in the shots was a momentum killer for Gove, which was made all the more worse when Killeen drained his birdie putt and opened up a two shot lead.
Again Killeen made something positive happen and the final round dual between the two golfers was effectively at an end with 5 holes remaining to be played.
While it was difficult to watch Gove struggle to capitalize on his chances during the final round of play, I always find it impressive to witness the type of fortitude and clutch performance which Killeen displayed on Sunday. Sure Gove could have certainly put more pressure on Killeen, but winners in golf typically make shots when needed and J.J. did just that throughout all four rounds (Killeen finish with a record tying 22 under par, 62-67-68-65). The victory was Killeen’s first on Tour, moving him up to 4th on the money list and virtually guaranteeing that he will be playing on the PGA Tour in 2012. Congratulations J.J.