Vanderbilt’s Will Gordon stood on a sloping downhill, iron in hand, with the outcome of the East Lake Cup stroke play in his hands. The par-5 18th hole presents one last chance to make up for past mistakes, and Gordon, despite a stellar three-under front nine, had drifted back towards the field at even par.
This is when Scott Limbaugh, Vanderbilt’s head coach, told Gordon the situation: his lead, once three, was down to one stroke after a double-bogey on the 17th, with two groups trailing him.
Gordon lined up his shot, let it go, and found bunker.
“After coach told me that, I was trying to make four,” Gordon said after his one-shot lead remained intact and he won Monday’s individual stroke play with an even-par 72. “But I did a good job of getting up and down, and it worked out.”
The junior, who finished runner-up at East Lake last year after shooting an equally stellar 3-under par, said he knows golfers need to be on their game for all 18 holes, and he wasn’t today.
“I played 15 of them well today,” he said, grinning begrudgingly. “Hopefully we keep improving in match play tomorrow.”
Yet for the majority of Monday’s play, Gordon was in good spirits, and with good reason.
He shot a mistake-free front nine, including consecutive birdies on the fifth and sixth holes, and Gordon seemed upbeat and confident as he walked off the ninth green. He chatted with a friend after his par, and strode to start the back nine with swagger.
Then disaster struck; Gordon bogeyed the 10th and 11th holes with what he called his biggest miscues of the day.
“On 10 I had a bad drive, and then on 11 I just made a bad decision, used the wrong club for the situation,” Gordon said.
But Gordon called on his prior knowledge of East Lake’s challenges and, when he found more disaster in a bunker on the 12th, he did his best to stay calm.
“When I hit it in the fairway bunker, yeah, that could’ve been a killer,” Gordon acknowledged, “but I hit a real nice shot and gave myself a birdie chance (he hit a par) to settle down and get back to my game.”
After burying a birdie on the 14th, Gordon was 2-under par heading into the final two holes. He couldn’t find footing at all on the 17th, missing a putt and eventually double bogeying on his toughest hole of the day. Meanwhile, three golfers behind him — [Oklahoma’s Grant Hirschman, Norman Oregon’s Xiong, and Vanderbilt teammate Theo Humphrey] — were closing in.
A perfect tee shot on the final hole of the day, though, kept them at bay for a moment, and when opportunity came knocking once more, and Limbaugh made sure Gordon was prepared.
“I think it was a really good decision by coach,” Gordon said. “Standing on the fairway of a par-5 with an iron in my hand? Yeah, coach does a really good job of preparing me for those situations.”
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He shot par on the final hole of the day, and no one behind him managed to birdie the 18th — Humphrey came the closest — and, as the sun set behind a row of trees west of the course’s central lake, Gordon held his trophy aloft.
A year after he came dominated the front nine and came up just two strokes short, he did just enough in his repeat performance and found himself in first.