Vaughn Taylor gets 'magical' win at Pebble Beach

By Art Spander, The Sports Xchange  |  Feb. 15, 2016 at 12:22 AM
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PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- It would have been a great story if Phil Mickelson had won. It might be an even better story because Vaughn Taylor did win.

Golf, as tennis, is built on personality, recognition, and certainly, success. Mickelson is famous, beloved even, and at 45 is in the final stages of an excellent career. He hadn't finished first in two-and-a-half years, and after he came so close in this AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, just missing a five-foot putt on the final green which would have forced a playoff, you can wonder if he'll ever again finish first.

But people had wondered the same thing about Taylor for more than 10 years. And since he's a month from his 40th birthday, been wobbling around in the minors, the Web.Com Tour, even more than Mickelson there was a doubt Taylor again would be a champion. The doubters included Taylor.

"I didn't know it would ever happen again, to be honest," he said after it happened again.

But stunningly Sunday, he called down the echoes, playing as he did a decade past, when he won the Reno-Tahoe Open in consecutive years, 2004 and 2005, and Taylor shot 65 at Pebble Beach, overtaking Mickelson and the other seven pros ahead him after 54 holes. Taylor's total of 270 was a cumulative 17-under par.

Mickelson, after an ineffective 72, even par -- the day after he had a 66 -- was runner up at 291. Jonas Blixt, who held the lead briefly on the front nine, shot a 69 and finished third at 272. Hiroshi Iwata, 72, and Freddie Jacobson, 71, tied for fifth, at 273; while Patrick Reed, 65, and Justin Rose, 69, tied for sixth at 275.

Of course, there was gloom for Mickelson and his supporters.

"I'm certainly disappointed that I wasn't able to put it together," said Mickelson, "but it makes me a little bit more determined to get this back where I want it. I played a little tighter than I wanted, a few more mistakes in the short game around the greens."

That long had been the strength of Mickelson's game when he won 42 times on Tour, four of those titles in the AT&T. But "a little tighter" can be interpreted as feeling the pressure that on Saturday Mickelson said he hoped wouldn't affect him."

One man's disappointment became another's elation. Taylor was going nowhere.

"I just lost confidence, lost a good bit of my game."

And without getting overly dramatic, he almost lost his life.

Taylor was fishing in the Savannah River near his Augusta, Ga., home on Aug. 11, 2014, when his boat was swamped.

"For a minute I thought I could drown," he said. "But he grabbed the waterproof bag used to store his tackle and made it to shore.

"It was a gift from God."

There hadn't been many gifts of late for Taylor, who graduated from Augusta State in a city better known as the home of the Masters, for which Taylor has qualified. Although he won the Reno-Tahoe Open in both 2004 and 2005, the last few years Taylor played often in the minor leagues, the Web.Com Tour.

So, with a family and after the boating accident, it's understandable why after his victory, Taylor would say, "I'm so thankful, so lucky to be here. So many people who have helped me get here. The list is endless."

What hit Taylor after Mickelson's putt curved away at 18 was that he would return to the major tournament in his home town, in which he hadn't been qualified since 2008.

"Oh my God," he said. "I'm thinking about the Masters. I mean, are you kidding?"

Nobody's kidding after Taylor's nine-birdie, two-bogey round of 34-31--65 at one of world's finest courses, four of those birdies coming in succession on 13, 14, 15 and 16.

"Yes," said Taylor, "it's a life-changing victory. Oh man, a lot of dark days and nights. But I couldn't have done it without my family and teachers. I didn't think it was going to happen. I just kept getting knocked down and knocked down.

The golf gods were with him, which is usually the situation for champions. Coming out of the rough near the 15th green, Taylor hit a shot that seemed destined to bounce long. But it hit another ball and stopped inches for the cup and a birdie.

"I just wanted to play next week," said Taylor, who wasn't exempt--but is now. I wasn't even thinking about winning. Things were just magical out there."

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