ATLANTA – Here's a little experiment: try throwing a paperclip into a shot glass from across the room. Now try it knowing you'll make more than $11 million if you get it anywhere close … and next to nothing, relatively speaking, if you don't.
Now you've got an idea of what Brandt Snedeker faced late Sunday afternoon standing on the tee of East Lake's 17th hole. At stake: the $10 million FedExCup and the $1.4 million Tour Championship. Two strokes behind him: the burly, bearded Ryan Moore, who'd been stalking Snedeker all day, as well as Snedeker's playing partner Justin Rose. In front of him: the 470-yard par-4 17th, a hole which runs the entire length of East Lake, a hole whose tee box is hard up against Glenwood Avenue.
At this moment, Snedeker is looking at victory or bust. The arcane numerology of the FedExCup means that Snedeker could win the Cup with a victory … or lose it to Rory McIlroy, buried in the field but still in the top 10, with a loss to Rose or Moore.
He steps up to his tee shot, waggles the club just once, and swings away.
2003. First-team All-American Vanderbilt golfer Brandt Snedeker – and, really, is there a more Vanderbilt name than Brandt Snedeker? – is coming off a victory at the U.S. Amateur Public Links. Any minute now the phone will ring with a call from the United States Golf Association inviting him to join America's Walker Cup team, the Ryder Cup's amateur equivalent.
The call never comes, and neither does any reason for Snedeker's omission. Nine years later, it still burns.
"I think everything that happens in your career happens for a reason," he said after Saturday's round at East Lake. "It definitely gave me a fire because I felt like I had proven that I was one of the best players in the world, or best amateurs in the world. "Wound up being the No. 1 ranked amateur in the world, right before I turned pro after Augusta to try to prove a point to them that they should have put me on the team. But that's the way stuff happens sometimes. Still frustrated about it."
[Related: 10-under is worth $11.4 million]
He's laughing while he says it, but the words still carry bite.
Fun with history: the 2003 Walker Cup team included Bill Haas, the 2011 FedExCup winner, and Ryan Moore.
Ahead on the green at 17, Moore is bogeying his second straight hole. Snedeker doesn't have time to worry about that, though; his tee shot has drifted right, into the gallery and just in front of a hospitality tent. He doesn't have much room to play with here; he's more than 170 yards from a green that has water on two sides.
His nine-iron starts left and stays left, right in the direction of East Lake. Bill Haas chipped up from the water last year to clinch an overtime FedExCup win over Hunter Mahan, but that was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of shot. If Snedeker's shot goes in the water, he's in a world of trouble.
At its apex, the ball starts drifting just the tiniest bit right, caught by a breeze coming off the lake. It settles onto the fringe just off the green, the gallery catching itself before full groan.
July 2012, Royal Lytham & St. Anne's. The kid from Tennessee has tied a record for the lowest 36-hole score at The Open Championship, firing a 66 and a 64 to hold a one-shot lead. He's never made a cut at this major before, but here he is in position for a victory.
[Related: Final FedExCup standings]
It's not to be; he, like the rest of the field, falls victim to the charge of Adam Scott (who in turn would fall victim to Ernie Els). But Snedeker will finish the Open Championship tied for third, matching his best-ever finish in a major.
"I looked back at the British this morning [as] I came to the golf course," Snedeker said late Sunday. "Even though I didn't play particularly great, I hung in there very, very well. It could have gotten really ugly on the weekend, and it didn't."
The fringe on 17. Snedeker is nine yards from the hole. He knows that Moore is all but out of the mix; the angle of East Lake means that he can see all but the tee shot on 18 as he's walking up the 17th fairway. He hasn't heard cheers, hasn't seen the gallery go insane the way they would if Moore was birdieing holes. So it's all down to him and Rose.
Snedeker hasn't holed a pitch shot like this in as long as he can remember.
One smooth swing, one lift-and-run, and the ball finds the bottom of the cup like he was hitting into a funnel. Eleven under par, and after Rose bogeys the same hole, Snedeker is four clear.
Sunday morning. Perspective time: For all the money involved, this is a game where grown men hit a little ball into a hole with a stick. And like all games, it withers in importance, even for the players, once you get a look at the reality outside the ropes.
A dozen miles from East Lake sits the Shepherd Spinal Center, one of the nation's preeminent spinal injury facilities. One of the patients there right now is Tucker Anderson, the son of Snedeker's swing coach. Involved in a near-fatal car wreck on September 7 and in a responsive coma, Anderson has steadily improved to the point where he was able to get out of bed and into a wheelchair on Friday. On Sunday morning, Snedeker paid Tucker a visit.
"Seeing him really uplifted me," Snedeker said. "I asked him, did he think I could beat Rory? He gave me a little wink."
Every little bit helps.
The 18th at East Lake is two plateaus separated by the valley of East Lake, a thin footbridge connecting both. It's a 235-yard par 3, and the grandstands surrounding the green on three sides make it feel like you're trying to drop your tee shot into the corner of the Georgia Dome end zone.
Snedeker stands there, waiting for Moore and McIlroy to clear the green. That gives him time to start to think. His father is up there somewhere, and his wife, eight months pregnant with their second child, is watching on TV, and he's got an eight-figure check with everything but the last "r" in his name written on it. All he has to do is get out of the hole with anything this side of a seven.
His caddy wants Snedeker to hit a 4-iron short and play the putting game. Snedeker overrules him, pulls out a hybrid and proceeds to jack the ball straight into the grandstands.
"That's why you have a big lead," he said later with a smile.
He doesn't get up-and-down – for one of the few times in the last six weeks, Snedeker's putter betrays him – but a bogey is more than good enough to keep clear of Rose. Heck, a triple-bogey would have been good enough.
And then it's over, and he's rushed right off the 18th green into a whirlwind of interviews, gladhanding and celebration that's going to run right into next week's Ryder Cup. There, he'll go from being a slightly-questioned captain's pick to a centerpiece, a designated putter whom captain Davis Love III will deploy like an NBA three-point specialist. The crowds were already beginning a U-S-A! cheer as Snedeker stood on 18, and he conceded later that he began thinking of how next week at Medinah will go.
But that's for later. For now, Snedeker can revel in a life-changing win, a validation of decades of work and hope and sweat and dreams.
"I've never had more confidence in myself than I have in the last five weeks, and I made sure I kept telling myself that all day," Snedeker said. "I am one of the best players in the world. This is supposed to happen."
He believed it, and now everyone else does too.
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