Golf, more than any other sport, can provide the circumstances that played out in the long, hot shadows of Sunday evening at Congressional Country Club. Justin Rose, a player of major accomplishment ranked 10th in the world, stood on the 18th tee, a playoff about to begin. Shawn Stefani, a player of absolute anonymity ranked 246th, stood to his side. One hole would decide a tournament title. At that moment, they were equals.
“That’s the thing about a playoff,” Rose said. “You never underestimate anybody, because a playoff can be won and lost with one swing.”
Perhaps 30 minutes earlier, Stefani had drawn back his driver on this very hole and uncorked a bomb, 362 yards, front and center, calm as could be. Perhaps 10 minutes before that, Rose stood in the same spot with the lead to himself and yanked his drive left, dead in the trees.
And in the playoff, those roles completely reversed — and Rose took the title because of it.
Rose’s closing 70 at brutal Congressional got him to 4-under-par 280 for the tournament, and his par in the playoff beat Stefani and made him the second two-time winner — along with Tiger Woods — of this event. More than a year after his breakthrough victory in the U.S. Open, he has finally won again in exactly the style he prefers, on a punishing course that puts pressure on both temperament and talent.
“This week you’re going to miss greens,” Rose said. “You’re going to be challenged. You’re going to have to grind, and you’re going to have to do everything at some point this week, and that’s the type of golf that I like, that tests all your skill sets.”
What type would Stefani prefer? How would we know? It’s hard to imagine more disparate résumés dueling in the same event. Tiger Woods and Roy McAvoy from “Tin Cup,” perhaps? Rose has been in golf’s consciousness since his teenage years, when he holed out from the rough on the final hole of the 1998 British Open. Stardom was predicted at that point, and though it took time, he realized it last year when he beat Phil Mickelson for his first major title at Merion.
Stefani, conversely, is — well, who now? A 32-year-old Texan, he went to Lamar University in the southeast Texas town of Beaumont, then spent no fewer than seven years on the mini-tours, golf’s special territory between limbo and obscurity. His only appearance in a major championship came in the U.S. Open that Rose won. Beyond that: two wins on the Web.com Tour, a career-best fifth at Houston this year.
“This is the first time I’ve been in that position coming in on Sunday late,” Stefani said.
How would he handle it? On a perfect day at Congressional, so many decisions, so many bounces, determined so many fates. When Woods missed the cut and a slew of what’s-his-names dotted the leader board, the final round was greeted with a yawn. But it delivered the most exciting finish in the eight-year history of this event.
The final group on the final day consisted of a pair of 23-year-olds: Patrick Reed, a three-time winner on tour, and Seung-yul Noh, who posted his first victory this season at New Orleans. But they combined to play the first two holes of the back side — the water-protected par-3 10th and the hardest-on-Tour par-4 11th — in 7 over. Reed shot 77 and finished tied for 11th. Noh shot 79 and finished tied for 28th.
“Today was rough,” Reed said.
So what had been a jumble of a day — one in which no fewer than eight players held at least a share of the lead at one point or another — came down to two men, playing a group apart, over the final two holes. Rose took the lead by himself when Reed dumped his tee shot at 10 in the water, and he held it by making an unlikely birdie at 11, then following with six straight pars. Stefani crept into a tie when he birdied the par-5 16th, then fell back again when he couldn’t get up-and-down from the fringe at 17.
So it came to Rose and the 18th, where it seemed certain a par would win. Yet his tee shot went left — way left — and presented him with an approach that only could be threaded between two trees, a window of perhaps a few feet. Rose grabbed a 4-iron.
“I felt pretty comfortable that I would not hit the tree,” he said.
He didn’t. But he put too much right-to-left spin on it, and the ball scooted into the water to the left of the 18th green. He chipped to 14 feet. Mark Fulcher, his caddie, knew Stefani had bogeyed. “Make this putt,” he said, and Rose rolled it in, a big bogey.
Stefani had one 20-footer to win the event but couldn’t drain it, and so the playoff began. Stefani went first, and here came his own version of Rose’s tee shot on the 72nd hole — but worse. It landed left of the cart path, and after he took relief because the grandstand was in his line, he faced Rose’s circumstances. He grabbed a 6-iron. His thought process, his shot, his result — aiming right, bouncing into the water left — all matched Rose.
“I was just trying to play it to the right side and give myself a chance at a putt — two putts for a par,” Stefani said. “That’s the way it goes.”
So all that was left was for Rose to ease his approach to the center of the green and two-putt. When he did, he had his sixth PGA Tour victory, all at difficult, classic venues: Muirfield Village, Aronimink, Cog Hill, Doral, Merion — and now Congressional.
“You can’t sort of luck into it,” he said. True enough. But when two men — even of vastly differing statures — stand on the tee box in a playoff with one hole to decide a match, anything can happen, and having a little luck at the right time doesn’t hurt.