Bland then went to Denmark, finished a heady third there, then headed for the California trip his victory afforded him.
“When I saw this place on Monday, I kind of — yeah, it kind of set up to my eye,” he said Friday midday, with gray in his stubble and a glistening 67 on his card. “There’s not too many sort of doglegs. It’s all there just straight in front of me, and that’s the kind of golf course I like.”
There he stood atop the chart all afternoon and still at sundown at Torrey Pines, when 32-year-old American Russell Henley caught up to Bland with a 70 built on 15 pars and said, “I’ve never been in this position before in a major; just feel like I’m going to learn something no matter what happens.” There those two stood, one ahead of Louis Oosthuizen, the 2010 British Open dominator who said he would “try to go one better” than his sixth major runner-up finish, which came to Mickelson at the PGA. There stood Oosthuizen alongside 2020 U.S. Open runner-up Matthew Wolff, resurgent at 22 after a two-month hiatus from the pressure of the gruel.
And there they all were ahead of a scary armada just behind, including the hometown Xander Schauffele at 2 under par, and the 3-under-par duo of Jon Rahm and two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson, bobbing back upward even as he said, “Don’t tell nobody; this is a secret: I am nervous over every shot, okay?”
Yet all those story lines yielded to Bland, whose position of No. 115 in the Official World Golf Ranking happens to match that of Mickelson last month, but get a load of his record in majors, sparser than sparse.
He played the 1998 British Open at Birkdale in northwest England. Mark O’Meara, 64 years old by now, won that event. Justin Rose, 40 years old by now, said hello to the world in that event, and his 50-yard hole-out on No. 18 meant he said hello loudly, the roar still audible to those who heard it.
Bland shot a 71 and a 78 and missed the cut.
Years and years later, he made the 2009 U.S. Open at Bethpage on Long Island. That’s the U.S. Open noted for a rarefied unkindness in weather patterns. It ended on Monday with Lucas Glover winning and with people relieved it didn’t have to end weeks later.
Bland shot a 77 and a 70 and missed the cut.
Years more after that, he made the 2017 British Open at Birkdale again. He opened with a 67, then followed with a 72 and said: “Brutal from shot one to shot 72. So, yeah, it was a cup of tea. And I don’t know, [go] sit down in a padded cell, I think.”
He shot a 70 and a 71 on the weekend and finished a commendable tied for 22nd.
That’s it. That’s the history, his majors calendar filled with sprawling deserts of blankness otherwise. He did say Friday he has lost in qualification playoffs for the U.S. Open four times and for the British Open thrice. “I could have played maybe closer to double-figure majors, but it’s not quite to be, and I’m not going to lose any sleep over that.”
Finally, even after losing his tour card in 2018 and after regaining said card by spending 80 percent of his time focusing on 140 to 150 yards in, as he said on a European Tour blog, there came a day, a Sunday in May. He got to a playoff at the Belfry with 24-year-old Guido Migliozzi, then made a par putt on the first playoff hole to become the oldest first-time European Tour winner.
“When I stood over that final putt,” he said in the blog soon after the win, “I’m not going to say I wasn’t nervous, but I was so much calmer than I thought I would be. … I always thought I’d be shaking like a leaf, but I just felt calm.” By Friday eight time zones west, he said, “It’s kind of nice, when you look on the European Tour website now, I’ve got that ‘1’ by my name [signifying win total].”
Rather than spending eventual retirement with the would-be feeling of “a big disappointment of slightly underachieving maybe,” he said, he has “the satisfaction that I kept going, I never gave up, and I finally got there.”
Here’s a guy who had gotten thinking about 2023 and trying to reach the Champions Tour here in the United States, and then here’s a guy with a two-year exemption because of his win, so here’s a guy with options. “Having that two-year exemption,” he said on the blog, “is almost, almost bigger than winning the tournament in some respects.” It means he certainly will reach 500 tournaments, which “means I’ve had a proper career on the European Tour,” he said.
Now here was a guy Friday on the Torrey Pines South Course, leading the whole magnificent field by two shots at one point before Bland bogeyed No. 8, the 17th hole he tried. His seven birdies offset his three bogeys. He started off on No. 10 with your hopeful everyday 28-footer for birdie, then drained them from 10 feet on No. 13, 18 feet on No. 16 and 12 feet on No. 17. Around the turn, he went from 102 yards to seven feet on No. 2 and 158 to three feet on No. 4, and he went ahead and plunked one in from 12 feet on No. 6.
Then he spoke in ways that could have lent his story further appeal. He said of his participation in a South African charity, “Two things I can’t stand are three-putting and animal cruelty.” He said of the only coach he ever had, Tim Barter, “He’s the best coach in the world for me” and “part of the furniture” of his life and “It just took me 20 years to listen to him,” and then he laughed. And he said, “You get knocked down seven times, you get up eight.”
He embodies that now, and by No. 6 on Friday, his 15th hole, he caught sight of a leader board showing a lead he already figured he had. He had never stopped trying, and of that he said, “Golf’s all I know” and “What am I going to do? Go and get an office job? I’m not that intelligent,” and then he laughed.
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