CROMWELL, Conn. - Every so often Marc Leishman would glance over at the Travelers Championship trophy placed on the table next to him, smile, and shake his head.
After what had transpired at TPC River Highlands over two hours on Sunday, nobody could blame Leishman if he wasn’t completely convinced he was wearing the champion’s jacket, or that he’d see his name etched onto a PGA Tour trophy for the first time.
“Unbelievable,’’ Leishman said. “It’s probably not the way I would have expected to get my first win. But you take them when you get them, any way you can.’’
Leishman certainly did his part, shooting a bogey-free, 8-under-par 62 to finish 72 holes at 14 under. But because he started the round six shots back, there were at least six players finishing behind Leishman who would factor prominently in the outcome.
All six failed, combining for a steady stream of wild shots that sent balls out of bounds, into lakes, off greens. Missed 2-footers, blown two-shot leads. The final round of the Travelers might have ended with a 28-year-old affable Aussie holding court in the winner’s news conference. But it was a comedy of errors that helped send him there.
None worse than Charley Hoffman, who took a two-shot lead to the 17th tee. Leishman had been done for 90 minutes, and nobody else on the course was within three shots of Hoffman, so it was his tournament to lose. Which he promptly did, putting his tee shot on the 17th into the water with a hybrid, which led to a double bogey.
“It’s a tough tee shot for me on 17,’’ Hoffman said. “Simply blocked it.’’
Now tied with Leishman playing the 18th hole, Hoffman’s drive once again sailed way right. Not into the water this time, but on the side of a hill in heavy rough, with an uneven stance. Hoffman bunkered his approach, blasted out to 15 feet, and never gave his par putt to tie a chance. A double bogey-bogey finish when he had been in control.
“Two bad swings out there unfortunately cost me the golf tournament,’’ said Hoffman, who shot 66 and tied Bubba Watson for second at 13 under, one behind Leishman. “What I did on 18 was pretty pathetic. Obviously a bad finish and bad taste in my mouth.’’
He wasn’t alone. Watson shot 65 and never made a bogey. But his drive on the par-4 15th found the water, and he couldn’t make a birdie on the final five holes.
Tim Clark trailed Hoffman by three shots when he knocked his second shot on the par-5 13th on the green. Then he knocked his 30-foot eagle putt off the green and almost into the water hazard. He chipped up and holed a nervy 5-footer for par, and with three more pars was still 13 under when faced with a 2-foot par putt on No. 17. Considering Hoffman’s collapse, Clark needed the short putt to stay one behind Leishman and give himself a chance for a tying birdie on 18. Instead, he missed the near-gimme, confirming his fears.
“I pretty much knew I was going to miss it, to be honest with you,’’ Clark said. “Mentally I’m a long way away from where I need to be. I played great. Hit the ball great. But obviously 17, that’s like taking a bullet to the head.’’
Clark shot 67 and tied John Rollins (68) and third-round co-leaders Brian Davis (70) and Roland Thatcher (70) for fourth, two shots back. They had late-round issues, too. Like Watson, Rollins and Thatcher hit their tee shots on No. 15 into the water, each making bogey. Davis bogeyed No. 13 - the second-easiest hole in the tournament - when his second shot found the pond guarding the green.
Even James Driscoll, who briefly had a share of the lead early in the round, couldn’t steer clear of the contagious bad play. Driscoll hit drives out of bounds on No. 10 (double bogey) and No. 14 (quadruple bogey), ending his bid for his first tour win.
The mountain of miscues benefited Leishman, who had more than two hours to kill from the time he finished his round until the final twosome of Davis and Thatcher played the last, Thatcher still with a chance to tie after a birdie on No. 17 drew him within one. But he bunkered his approach and couldn’t blast out for birdie, making Leishman a most unlikely champion.
“Waiting around is really hard, especially when - well, it wasn’t too bad because, you know, Charley was ahead, and it didn’t look like I had much of a chance,’’ Leishman said. “Waking up this morning I definitely didn’t think I was going to be in this situation, but I’ll gladly take it.’’
Leishman’s first victory since a 2008 Nationwide Tour win was sure to please his wife, Audrey, and their newborn son, Harvey, back home in Virginia Beach, Va. At least they could be up watching on TV. Not so back home in Warrnambool, Australia, where Paul and Pelita Leishman were likely fast asleep when their son became a PGA Tour winner.
“Mom and Dad probably woke up this morning and got a real shock,’’ Leishman said. “Gone to bed probably not expecting a whole lot.’’
It was that kind of day, full of surprises.