MAMARONECK, NY – They jokingly refer to themselves the “Back Nine Bandits,” but despite the saucy nickname Holliday Farms Club’s duo of Blair Webb and Andrew Rhodes have rallied their way into the semi-finals of the 86th John G. Anderson Memorial Fourball at Winged Foot Golf Club with late, high-flying, hair-raising, stand-up-and-cheer heroics.
“We call ourselves that because we play poorly on the front nine, but turn it around on the back,” explained Webb, and then he and Rhodes started chuckling and fist-bumping each other.
The celebration was well earned. Seeded 12th in the 16-team knockout bracket, the tandem came from behind in both the round of 16 and quarter-final matches on the fearsome West Course, (host of six U.S. Opens), to upend their opponents 1-up. First, they turned the tables on fifth-seeded Dave Kittleson and Hoyt McGarrity of Arizona’s Whisper Rock Golf Club in the morning. Then they zoomed past a stunned 13th-seeded Thomas Parker and Richard Donegan of Jonathans Landing Club in the afternoon.
“We got off to a really bad start in the morning, getting down three at the turn,” Rhodes remarked. “We made no birdies on the front nine, and Dave and Hoyt played solidly with no mistakes. But the tide turned at number 10.”
It’s of the most recognizable holes in all of golf, the long par-3 10th with its carry over vast swales and bunkers and the green flanked by more deep bunkers on both sides. It’s also just another example of how Winged Foot West is a Ph.D. level final examination in golf. Rhodes’s 4-iron soared straight and true to the middle of the green leaving him a simple 20-foot up the hill to the back left hole location. Both opponents landed in the right bunker, failed to get up and down, and the Back Nine Bandits had cut the deficit to two with a simple two-putt.
The rally continued at 11 where both Webb and Rhodes hit the fairway and pitched 70 wedges to about eight feet. Blair carded the birdie and now the Holliday Farms tandem was only 1-down.
“Then came Blair’s bomb,” stated Rhodes. “It was a huge momentum swing. On the par-5 12th I was out of the hole with a poor lay-up and both our opponents had just 10 feet for birdie.”
Meanwhile Webb was in perhaps the worst place on the green, well below the ridge, 60 feet away from the cup. It’s a chore just getting down in two from there.
Webb made it, of course. Dead center. Perhaps shocked or unnerved, both opponents missed, and the match was even.
That’s back-to-back-to-back birdies on the West Course: No lead is safe in match play, and no lead is safe at Winged Foot.
Rhodes made one final birdie at 15, hitting a gap wedge to three feet at the lovely and idyllic par-4 called “Pyramids,” and the Back Nine Bandits had their first lead.
They “got it to the house” as my old mentor Dan Jenkins used to say, with Blair slowly dripping in a 20-footer on the devilish 18th green to seal the 1-up victory, but that heist was nothing compared to the Ocean’s 11-like caper to follow in the afternoon match against Parker and Donegan.
“Similar to this morning, this time we turned two down, and again we weren’t playing sharp,” began Webb. “But on 11 we again chose driver so we had shorter distances in on the short hole, and Rhodes birdied it, draining a 20-footer. That put us only one down.”
A pair of poor chips by their opponents handed the par-5 12th to Webb and Rhodes with no fuss, but Parker seized the lead back for the Jonathans Landing team at the long difficult par-3-13th with a birdie. And after halving the 14th the Webb and Rhodes were 1-down with four to play.
Cue the Back Nine Bandits.
“Strap yourself in,” Webb remarked with a knowing nod. “It’s about to get feisty.”
At 15 Parker’s approach from 150 yards out stopped on the edge of the cup; he nearly holed out for eagle. With cheers still echoing and Parker’s golf ball all but bawdily winking at him, Webb likewise covered the flag, lasering a 50-degree wedge to five feet to make a birdie right on top of Parker and stay only one down.
“On 16 I decided it was time for me to call out for a ‘Rhodes Special,’” Webb explained. “That’s what we call it when Rhodes makes a ridiculously shocking birdie out of nowhere right when we absolutely need it.”
“Yeah, I hit my best drive of the week, a big cut off the tee, and then like Bubba Watson I draw-hook a 47-degree pitching wedge from 143 to 15 feet and made the putt,” laughed Rhodes, whose birdie at the monstrously long, uphill par-4 called “Hell’s Bells,” (par-5 for member play), tied the match.
Now with Bandit Mode fully engaged and Rhodes Specials available on the bargain table, it was time to seize the lead, but 17 has never been kind to Webb.
“I’ve been in the fairway on 17 every time on the West Course, and I never get my distance right. I’ve been long every time,” lamented Webb. “So, Joe our caddie and Rhodes and I walked through the shot prep together, and we think we finally had the distance right distance.”
So he fanned it right…into the greenside bunker. Ugly shot. It was pin high though.
Then the metaphoric rubber band broke – Webb mishit his explosion shot. The ball stayed on the green, but settled 35 feet from the pin on a different level than the cup. That was left for par, the kind of putt Tom Watson used to call a “snake.”
Mind you, Blair’s situation felt like a Swedish massage compared to the chopped salad Rhodes made out of it. He was out of the hole completely while Donegal was on in regulation, 25 feet away, but above the pin.
Of course Webb drained the bomb. Again. 35 feet across the green.
“I had a putt in the morning on the same line and I remembered that I didn’t play quite enough break, but I did this time,” Webb noted.
Another of Dan Jenkins’s best observations is this: there is no more annoying sight in golf than a guy holing everything he looks at. Annoying, frustrating, nerve-wracking, it certainly ratchets up the blood pressure. No way of knowing exactly how much that 35-foot putt unnerved Donegal, but he three-putted, unable to stop the downhill first putt and missing right on the second. Now the Bandits were 1-up headed to the 18th – which along with Carnoustie, is the hardest closing hole in tournament golf.
“On 18 I was bush-hackin’ and billywhackin’, completely out of the hole, so Rhodes had to cover for me,” Webb began. Meanwhile, Rhodes had hit his patented cut-peeler drive and had 183 to the pin.
“For the record, I called out ‘RHODES SPECIAL!”
“He did,” Rhodes confirmed. “Our opponents were both on the green 25-feet away for birdie. I hit a 9-iron from 183, but it goes to the back fringe and I have 40-45 feet. And then I hit one of the worst putts of my life.”
Winged Foot’s cunning internal contours can make anyone look silly at any moment, but the 18th green is especially not the time to have a putt go 90-degrees off line. After swerving drunkenly around this swale and that, the putt finished 25 feet away. After both opponents lagged up and made par, Rhodes looked over a double breaker with worrisome speed to win the match.
And with a screech of tire, the getaway car took the back Nine Bandits back to their hideout to divvy up the loot. All the normally loquacious Thomas Parker could muster was to graciously remove his hat, earnestly shake their hands, and mutter, “Man, those guys’ putters were hot! They could win the whole thing.”
So, let’s review: over the last three holes on the behemoth West course it went 25-footer, 35-footer, and 25-footer on 16, 17, and 18 respectively. Do that in a West Texas money game, and they’ll shoot you on general principle. And that’s on top of all the putts Rhodes and Webb made the rest of the week.
“That’s the difference maker,” Webb stated. “Everyone here can play great golf. The ones that are still around are the guys making putts. We’ve had some putts fall that were nice, and had some breaks fall our way.”
However, if the boys from Indiana want to take home the title tomorrow – and a huge sterling silver trophy to rival that of the Wanamaker in size and history and immortality at Winged Foot – they have their work cut out for them. Their semi-final opponents are eighth-seeded Steven Bright and Crawford Reeves of the Thornblade Club, a pair of giant killers over the first two rounds.
First, the highly-touted ninth seeded team of Trip Kuehne Mike Lohner fell 2&1 in the morning. Again it was a back nine surge that powered Bright and Reeves to victory. Birdies at 11 and 12 (including Reeves nearly reaching the par-5 12th hole by hitting driver off the tee and again off the deck for the approach) gave them a lead they would not relinquish en route to defeating the more experienced and decorated team from Vaquero Golf Club.
“Kuehne grinded so well down the stretch,” they admitted, showing the utmost respect to the well-decorated veteran. “He made a downhill 50-footer late on the match to steal one hole, and he nearly chipped in twice.”
That’s Trip for ya. You know he’ll always be a threat to win anything he enters.
Then in the afternoon match they upset the number one seed and widely regarded favorite to win the tournament in 19 holes, the Isleworth duo of Nico Donaldson and mark Costanza, who had looked bullet proof for the entirety of the three prior rounds.
It was a see-saw battle that saw each side take, then surrender the lead early, but then settle into a battle of attrition late. Reeves and Bright took a 1-up lead to the 10th tee, and then the teams halved eight consecutive holes with pars.
“We had putts to win on 17 and 18 to win that lipped out or burned the edge,” Bright stated.
The shot of the match was Bright’s 45-foot 2-piutt to secure the only par on the extra hole, number one on the West. The hole features, perhaps the most frightening green in America. Jack Nicklaus infamously putted off the front of the green to open the 1974 “Massacre at Winged Foot” U.S. Open, and I have coined my own phrase:
“The Anderson doesn’t really begin until someone putts off the first green of the West Course.”
No one else could muster a par, and so one semi-final will pit South Carolina vs. Indianapolis: Rhodes played college golf at Ball State and Blair played at U. Indianapolis, a D2 school. Rhodes also has Hooters and Korn Ferry Tour experience. And between the two of them, they have four USGA Mid-Ams and two USGA Fourballs.
On the other side Bright’s father-in-law is Jay Haas, and he grew up close with the Harmon family. He also not only played both football and golf at Vandy, but also played on various pro golf tours as well. He is so competitive, he spent the entire interview looking at Your Author as if figuring out which piece of me to eat first.
“We’re not golfers, we’re athletes,” both Bright and Reeves agreed.
So it’s the happy-go-lucky quirkiness and laid-back rope-a-doping of Webb and Rhodes vs. the hardcore athletes. It should be a donnybrook.
Another tall order awaits the winner as the other semi-final pits experience and age versus young guns. In a battle of 2-3 seeds, second-ranked Trevor Randolph, (winner of last week’s New Jersey Senior Open, as well as the 2016 Travis Invitational at Garden City, and holder of the New Jersey state record for Mid-Am titles (40) and the MGA record (2). He played in 14 USGA events, including four Fourballs) and his partner Chris DeJohn (who just wpn the Travis two weeks ago) square off against the Chattanooga Golf Cliub team of Mark Harrell and Derek Reade, who have been steamrolling through the tournament like a Tennesee locomotive.
Winged Foot celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. The Anderson Memorial turns 86.