A decision had to be made—hit driver at the green, or lay up and try to make birdie with a wedge. That’s what faced Ryan Williams last week during the final round of the Freedom 55 Financial Championship. With me carrying his bag, Williams found himself playing his second playoff hole. A win would get him back to the finals of Web.com Tour school and put his financial house in order. A loss would still be a lot of money, but at 33, that’s not what Ryan was playing for.
But the damned driver had gone left on the 17th hole and I’d suggested he keep it in the bag, and instead hit 3-iron into the short par 4 closer at London Highland. The problem was that too was going left—it went left during the final hole of the tournament, and it went farther left in the first playoff hole. Like some sort of golf version of Groundhog Day, it looked like Ryan was going to pull the 3-iron out again.
I wanted to shout, “Buddy, hit anything but the 3-iron. Hit a 6-iron and an 8-iron onto the green. Blast your driver. Do anything but hit the damned 3-iron.”
But he hit the 3-iron, which is why it has taken me a week of pondering to get around to writing this.
A year ago I caddied in my fourth professional tournament, working for Williams, a former semi-pro hockey player turned golfer.
By all account Williams is one of the nicest guys on PGA Tour Canada/Mackenzie Tour. He works hard, but doesn’t take himself too seriously. He doesn’t expect a ridiculous amount out of his caddy, but involves them to some level. I first met him when my friend, SCOREGolf editor Jason Logan, worked for him four years ago in the Tour Championship. It was Logan’s first taste of lugging a bag for a pro tournament, and it was mine as well. Our players, Mike Mezei, a once terrific amateur who was in the last years of chasing pro golf, and Williams, were both relatively easy guys to work for. I liked Williams—he played that tournament hurt and still managed to shot 28 on the back nine one day.
Last year Williams came to stay with me, bringing his friend, Adam Cornelson, with him. The pair had an incredible week—Williams won with me on the bag and Adam finished second. I wrote about the experience here.
This year Williams again came to stay with me following the tournament in Nova Scotia. Cornelson didn’t make it unfortunately.
Williams’ year was solid, if largely uneventful. It started well, and he made cuts. But he didn’t get himself in the position to win again.
The Freedom 55 tournament was held at London Highland. On its face it would seem too short to really challenge players like Taylor Pendrith, who blasts the ball 350 yards. But it has small, delicate greens, and they are all the defence it needs. Williams took to it right away, though I’ll admit to being skeptical during the pro-am when he sprayed a few shots, hit one OB and clipped a tree with another. He didn’t look sharp, but had a very positive attitude.
“RT, if I play this in 3-under every day, we’ll be there on Sunday,” he told me.
Three under? Seemed a little high. But when he went out and fired 2-under on the first day, followed by two 5-under 65s, it turned out Ryan knew his game significantly better than I did. His third round, played in swirling 50 km winds was among the best I’ve seen anyone play—anywhere.
That put Ryan one shot off the lead. We both breathed a sign of relief when he wasn’t paired with Pendrith, who rips the ball. Instead Jason Millard was paired with him. I’d watched Millard, who was paired with Ryan in the third round, make an ace. He played a tidy, if slightly underwhelming game, and I thought he might struggle in a head-to-head with Pendrith.
It turns out that Pendrith struggled from the start, while Williams made pars and birdies. In fact, in one stretch he went 53 holes without making a bogey. It was impressive golf and Williams had the lead with two to play. Normally a golfer who cuts the ball with his driver, 16 had been kind to him all week. There was no reason to think that would change.
“Stick with the game plan?” he asked, stepping to the tee. Yep, I handed him his driver. The game plan was to be aggressive where it made sense and to keep the ball below the hole at all costs on Highland’s slight, severe greens. It worked for more than three rounds.
And then Ryan’s drive on 17 went left. It was like a balloon had just popped. I was pretty sure it was OB, and Ryan quickly grabbed a second ball and hit a provisional that went, not surprisingly, way right.
I was more calm this time around as a caddy with a player in contention. Perhaps, I thought, the ball would stay in play. I ran ahead to find the ball sitting a yard from the white stakes, in bounds and playable. A chip out from the trees and a 60-degree wedge that went four or five yards longer than expected and Williams made his first bogey in more than two rounds.
That’s why he pulled the 3-iron the first time—because though the hole was drivable at 320 yards, it was playing into the wind and had such a narrow entry to the green that it made sense to hang back and hit a full approach. Only Williams’ drive flew into the rough and his approach came in heavy, landing in the front bunker. A smart up and down and he’d finished his round at 15-under. I think both of us knew it wouldn’t be enough.
Surprisingly Millard outplayed Pendrith, but on 18 his birdie putt was slippery and downhill from 20 feet. It rolled by and Williams and I found ourselves in a playoff.
The third time through 18 went worse than the previous two attempts. Millard pounded his drive right of the green into the rough, not a bad play with a left pin. Ryan’s 3-iron went farther this time—240 yards right into the left fairway bunker. He hit his approach heavy and left his chip 8-feet from the hole. His par attempt slipped by and Millard made an easy two putt for the win.
Last year there was plenty of revelry after Williams’ win. This year it was much more sedate. He made his appearance at the festivities for the so-called “five” who get some status on the Web.com Tour (Williams finished 14th.) He picked up his cheque for Canadian player of the week (a nice $2,500), and I suggested we grab dinner.
Sitting in a quiet restaurant with a beer in hand, Ryan didn’t beat himself up too much. He did second guess the choice of 3-iron, as did I, but we both recognized that the decision had been set by the drive that went left on 17. You couldn’t go left on 18 and get up and down, so that was out.
But I also told him he’d played stunningly well. Over the course of four rounds he’d made four bogeys, and played through an incredible stretch where his golf was almost dull—just fairways and greens.
The other thing I noted is that Williams plays the game. He can move the ball, flight shots that duck under the wind, and make longer putts when he needs to. Contrast that with two of the other players we were paired with over the week. Both are great golfers, but both hit high draws that get lost in the wind occasionally and end up in bad spots.
Williams knows he’s at a cross roads. He’s not making any money chasing his dream, but he’s so close it is nearly impossible to stop. He could play on the PGA Tour, without question. But he could just as easily pack it in, tired of the drain of heading to Saskatoon, Winnipeg or Kingston again.
But who am I kidding? I just got a glimpse over a week. And what I saw was impressive.
I’ll be back on someone’s bag again next year. Maybe it’ll be Ryan, who I consider a good friend. Or maybe he’ll move forward, secure his Web.com status and not return to London again.
I hope so. I really do.