KRAVITZ: Avon golfer Patrick Rodgers’ day is surely coming – it just didn’t happen Sunday

Patrick Rodgers hits off the 15th tee during the third round of the John Deere Classic golf tournament, Saturday, July 15, 2017, at TPC Deere Run in Silvis, Ill. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Bob Kravitz

INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) - The golf tournament belonged to Patrick Rodgers. The emerging star from Avon High School and Stanford had a two-stroke lead in the John Deere Classic in Silvis, Ill., with four holes remaining Sunday, and it seemed like a simple matter of remaining steady and closing the deal on competitor Bryson DeChambeau and the rest of the field. The 25-year old with all the promise of impending greatness, the local player with the Woods-esque pedigree as one of the strongest players ever to join the PGA Tour in recent years, was this close to banging down the door and winning his first-ever PGA Tour victory after 77 previous attempts.

We’d love to tell you that DeChambeau simply won it – and he was great, shooting a back-9 30 with a birdie on the difficult 18th hole – but this wasn’t so much about DeChambeau winning it as much as it was about Rodgers losing it. Even on a day when he shot even-par on the front-9, he still found himself precisely where he wanted and needed to be, leading by two strokes with four holes remaining.

But then the roof fell in.

Maybe it was nerves. Maybe it was the moment. Maybe it was the fact that so very much was on the line for Rodgers who, with a victory, would have jumped on a charter at tournament’s end and made his way overseas to play in the British Open at Royal Birkdale. A victory also would have meant a two-year exemption and a spot in most of the preeminent tournaments, including The Masters.

And maybe, just maybe, it’s just golf, the hardest, meanest game ever invented.

“[Rodgers] was awesome all day mentally,’’ his caddy, Tom Maples, told me Monday morning. “I could tell the kid has been in that position at different levels on numerous occasions. He was a little shaky on the first nine, but then he made the birdie on 10 and I could tell, there was something different about his demeanor. A good different.’’

So nerves didn’t get him?

“I didn’t see one thing and I feel like I know this kid on the course better than anybody,’’ Maples said. “When he birdied 15, I thought, `This is our tournament to win.’ Then on 17, we had a lengthy conversation about what to hit off the tee. I probably talked him into hitting the driver [rather than the 3-wood] because we were into some wind, so I convinced him of it and he convinced himself that it was the right club to hit, and unfortunately, it was one of the worst driver swings of the week. That’s not the moment or nerves; that can happen on a Thursday morning. But that one swing cost us the tournament. That’s the one thing, looking back now, that I’ll have to live with for a little while.’’

It doesn’t take a genius to understand where and how this tournament was lost.

It was lost on the 14th hole, a drivable par-four that players were eating alive all week at the birdie-friendly course. Rodgers, who hits a hard cut, badly pulled his drive into a bunker on the short side, then had to scramble like a madman simply to make bogey.

It was lost on the 17th hole, a par-5 that is normally child’s play for long hitters like Rodgers. But his driver, which had been his friend all week, betrayed him, and his tee-ball went far right and landed near a tree. His punchout then went too far, landing in the deep rough, and the scramble was on. His third shot landed on the green, but a pesky bunker stood between Rodgers’ ball and the hole, meaning he would actually have to chip on the green rather than putt. He would eventually clean up the unholy mess, but left the hole with another bogey while DeChambeau was holing out his birdie putt on No. 18.

Patrick Rodgers reacts after missing a birdie putt on the 18th green during the final round of the John Deere Classic golf tournament, Sunday, July 16, 2017, at TPC Deere Run in Silvis, Ill. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

That meant Rodgers needed a birdie on the par-4 18th simply to tie and send the tournament into a playoff, but there again, the driver had ideas of its own, his ball landing in an impossible spot, virtually taking birdie out of the equation. He ultimately scrambled for par and finished second in the tournament, but the paycheck of more than $600,000 was small solace for a player who is still trying to find his footing, and his game, on the PGA Tour.

“Obviously, there were a ton of reasons why I wanted to win this week,’’ Rodgers told reporters after his final round, “and the tournament being so special certainly is one of them. I had so many friends and family here (nearly 60 people from the Indianapolis area), and that’s not always the case when you’re in contention across the country playing this tour.

“This would have been a really special one. I’m holding my head high and looking forward to winning soon…Really, I don’t have a ton of regrets. I’m proud of myself for staying aggressive all day. Obviously, you look back on the back-9 and making bogeys on 14 and 17, that’s where I lost the golf tournament – two pretty simple holes. But I made bogeys being aggressive, and I wouldn’t go back and change anything. I’m looking forward to being in this position again soon.’’

The paycheck is nice, really nice, but this isn’t about money. There is no solace in second place

“The way he’s set up with all his endorsements, it’s never going to be about the money,’’ Maples said. “It’s all about winning for him. Winning, I’m telling you, it just changes everything. It changes your life. But it will happen. I’m sure of that.’’

Rodgers will be back in contention soon; there’s too much talent, too great a commitment to hard work, for this up-and-coming player to fade from view. His day will surely come, and when it comes, when the door is finally kicked in, watch him soar and become the elite player everybody expected him to become after a brilliant career at Avon and then at Stanford.

This one, though, this one hurt. It was the first time he’s slept on a 54-hole lead in a PGA tournament and it appeared he was ready for his breakthrough moment, his star turn as a professional golfer. And he failed to hold on and win it.

Before Sunday’s 1:40 tee time, I talked to Charlie Rodgers, Patrick’s father, who was among a throng of about 55 locals who made the 4 ½-hour drive to Silvis. I asked him what he imagined his son’s emotions might be if he closed the deal and won the tournament in the next few hours.

“Relief – that’s a really good word,’’ Charlie said. “And I think it would be validation that the work he’s putting in is paying off. He came in with so many accolades and such a great reputation as an amateur, but there’s something to be learned from every situation. This has made him a better golfer and it’s given him a better overall perspective. I think he appreciates things a little different than he might if he’d had a ton of success right away.’’

Instead, he left with a broken heart, even if he sounded relatively upbeat when he spoke to reporters in Silvis.

Just a few miles away, a charter flight to England was gassed up and ready to take several players over to Royal Birkdale for this week’s British Open.

“If he wins, we’ll be celebrating,’’ Charlie said. “But Patrick will be on that charter.’’

In the end, though, the flight left without him. Rodgers needed a victory Sunday to earn a spot in the British. Instead, he will be going to the Canadian Open in Toronto.

Unforgiving game, golf.

George Arvanitis has been the golf professional at the Country Club of Indianapolis for 17 years, and was the first to give a young boy named Patrick Rodgers his initial golf lessons. He has been following his career closely, and joined up with several dozen CCI members Sunday to watch the final round from the club’s men’s locker room.

At one point Sunday morning, I asked Arvanitis a question about how Rodgers, who was viewed as the Next Big Thing, has struggled (by his standards) his first few years on the tour.

Arvanitis wasn’t having it.

It’s not a narrative he buys.

After all, Rodgers had made $770,000 so far this season, and brought home another check Sunday for more than $600,000. After a rough stretch early in the season when he missed six straight cuts, his game is starting to come back around, especially since he began working with a new swing coach three months ago.

“There’s a lot of competition out there,’’ he said. “A lot. He’s going up against 144 of the world’s best golfers every week. It’s not easy. It doesn’t always happen overnight.’’

The problem is, most of the golf world thought it would happen overnight. Rodgers was a prodigy, leading Avon and then heading to Stanford, Woods’ alma mater, where he tied Woods’ mark with 11 NCAA tournament victories. He was among the most decorated college golfers ever. If you listened to the TV broadcast Sunday, you know it’s become the prevailing narrative: Rodgers has played well at times (especially this week), but he has not yet broken through and become the player everyone expected him to become in relatively short order.

Jordan Spieth
Jordan Spieth drives from the 18th tee on July 20, 2015 during the final round at the British Open Golf Championship at the Old Course, St. Andrews, Scotland (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)

In the meantime, Rodgers’ colleagues, guys like Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth, have come out of college and torn up the Tour. Thomas has four PGA victories; Spieth has 10. Rodgers…still waiting.

“It’s sort of the natural progression; it takes time to familiarize yourself with all the courses, get used to the travel, the equipment change [from Nike to Callaway] this past winter,’’ Charlie Rodgers said. “He knows his game measures up and he’s going to be playing in future Ryder Cups and President Cups, but sometimes it takes a little longer than you want it to…But his time will come and it will be sooner rather than later. It’s encouraging for him to know that his buddies [Thomas and Spieth among them] have won because he knows he’s just as good. On the other hand, I’ve got to think it adds a little internal pressure.’’

Said Maples: “We’ve been dealing with [the high expectations] for the last three years, but I think he’s starting to settle in to who he is as a professional golfer. Guys like Spieth and Thomas, these are guys from the same high school class, so I think it made my guy a little impatient with the process and he maybe tried to force things a little bit. But as he’s settled in, it’s like, 'OK, this is my journey, this is my path. It’s just going to be different.’ But he still believes he can accomplish what those guys have accomplished. His path has just been different. He’s been dealing with these pressures for years and he’s definitely getting better at it.’’

There’s this, too: Rodgers is playing a lot. The top guys play 21-25 tournaments a year, but Rodgers, who wants to keep his PGA card and has so much more he needs to accomplish, is on the road virtually the entire season. He is, in a word, grinding, grinding toward the kinds of lofty goals he set for himself all the way back in seventh grade.

“I took him out to Titleist and they asked him, 'What are your goals?’'’ Arvanitis said. “He said, 'I want to play on the PGA Tour and break all of Tiger’s records.' Right to his face. No laughing, no nothing. He was dead serious.

“I’ve seen him grow from a kid to a young man. There was just something about this kid, I kept thinking, 'He definitely has it.' I’ve been [at CCI] for 17 years and eight years at Medina, and out of all the kids I’ve worked with, he was the one where I said, 'There’s something special about this kid.' Just his love for the game and a practice ethic like no other. I mean, he wore out the putting green at the club. Guys would go out and play and come off the ninth green, they’d come by and say hello to Patrick, then they’d come back after 18 and he’d still be there.’’

So Rodgers won’t be at Royal Birkdale this week. He will be in Toronto instead, hoping to break down that door, finish what he couldn’t finish at the John Deere Classic. It was just two holes, the 14th and the 17th, but in a game where the margin of error is so slim, any hiccup along the way can mean all the difference.

Don’t take your eyes off this guy, though. He didn’t become the world’s top amateur and one of the best-ever college golfers by accident. His time is coming – it almost came Sunday -- and when it does, the floodgates will open. Part of the process, is what it is.

“When he gets that monkey off his back,’’ Maples said, “look out.’’