Brandt Snedeker belongs. I know, because I was there to watch him prove it.
When I saw the schedule had us playing football at Georgia on the same weekend of the Tour Championship in Atlanta, I knew I had to find a way to go. Brandt was kind enough to leave me tickets for the weekend, so I went to East Lake on Friday and for the final round on Sunday. It was two very different, but very special days.
Friday, my friend Chris Weinman from media relations and I went to watch round two. Brandt was playing with Ryan Moore, and as a result, the gallery wasn't much bigger than Brandt had seen in the final round of the Municipal Amateur tournament at Harpeth Hills in Nashville.
There were quite a few Vanderbilt folks in the gallery, wearing the black and gold or the Star V. One man I met from Springfield was an early 70s graduate who came down for the day to support Brandt. It was quite a feeling to be at an event of this magnitude and hear fans behind the ropes call out "Go Dores" or "Anchor Down" as Brandt strode up the fairway. And the Nashville native acknowledged almost every call. Brandt is a fan favorite, and a media favorite because of his demeanor on the course. On the 15th hole, a par 5, Brandt hit his third shot from a greenside bunker to about two feet from the cup. "Pick it up," said someone from the gallery. As he walked to mark his ball, Brandt looked at the patron and said, "that's good?" The fan responded, "it is the way we play." Everyone, including Brandt, got a good laugh.
On numerous occasions, Brandt would walk past me in the gallery and give a nod or a wink. It was very clear that he was enjoying himself, that he was in the moment, and that he, like the rest of the world, realized he belonged on the big stage of PGA golf.
A 64 on Saturday put Brandt into a share of the lead heading into the final round. He spent Sunday morning visiting Tucker Anderson, the son of his swing coach Todd Anderson, at a facility in Atlanta that specializes in treating those with traumatic brain injuries. Tucker had been critically injured in an automobile accident two weeks ago. It was a story the sports world latched onto; here's a guy about to play arguably the most important round of golf of his life, with $10 million dollars on the line, and he spent the morning visiting the injured son of his coach. Brandt afterward said it actually inspired him. He said he asked Tucker if he thought he could hold off a charge by Rory McIlroy and Tucker, unable to speak, nodded with a bit of a grin.
On his way to the first tee on Sunday, Brandt stopped when he saw me to say hello. "Brutal night last night, eh?" he said, referencing our 48-3 football loss at Georgia. "No kidding," I answered. "I'm counting on you to save my weekend." He flashed that smile, shook my hand again and headed for the tee.
Coming off the practice range, I ran into a couple of Vanderbilt basketball legends: Will Perdue and Barry Goheen. Barry lives in Atlanta. Will was there to join Barry for a charity tournament the next day. We walked the front nine together; celebrating his birdie on three, bemoaning the double bogey on the brutal par-3 sixth hole. But when Brandt sank the 40-footer for birdie on eight, Barry grabbed me in celebration and we both knew that it was now his tournament to win. Afterward, Brandt said that putt on eight was probably the moment he knew he could win.
It was a thrill to walk in the gallery along with Brandt's dad, Larry, who has had a liver transplant and was seeing his son play for only the second time this year. Brandt's brother Haymes, an outstanding golfer in his own right, was also there. Walking the back nine together, we tried to keep each other calm. Brandt was doing a far better job of staying calm than we were. Once we got to 13, Larry told me, "it's like the U.S. Open now. Just make pars and make somebody catch you." He was exactly right. And Brandt was up to every challenge.
All day long, he stood over three- and four- foot putts that would make most of us weak in the knees, especially with $10 million dollars on the line. And, time after time, he drilled them. And time after time, he'd walk from tee to green acknowledging the crowd, the cheers and the moment. The 17th hole is a devilish par 4, with water all along the left side. Brandt hit his tee shot far right, near the hospitality tents. He hit his second shot just short of the green into the fringe. The crowds were gathering in the area around 17 and 18, as Rory McIlroy was in the group in front of Brandt.
I walked over to the 18th hole so I could be there for the finish, but still see the 17th green. A fan next to me had travelled from Africa to watch the tournament. He saw Brandt with a wedge in his hand and questioned it. "He's going to chip from there?" I could only say, "I think he has a lot of confidence in his game right now." Thirty seconds later, Brandt hit the chip shot that will be remembered forever...dead solid perfect. When it went into the cup, I became a kid. I was jumping, fist pumping, screaming, and yes, crying. I knew he had won the FedEx cup. He allowed himself a little bit of emotion after holing that chip, because he knew it too.
He carried a four-shot lead to the final hole, so he could actually enjoy the walk to the 18th tee, and the adulation of the crowd. Bogey on 18 was more than good enough for a three-shot win; the Tour Championship, the FedEx Cup, and I'm sure in Brandt's mind, validation. Some had questioned his captain's choice for the U.S Ryder Cup team. Some had said he folded in final rounds with everything on the line. All of that was gone. Fans swarmed the 18th green to be there for the trophy presentation. I was right in the middle of them. When he was handed the Cup and turned and hoisted it to the crowd, I cried again. It just doesn't get any better than seeing the good guys win. And Brandt is the best of the best, on and off the course. After all the trophy presentations, there was a brief moment when Brandt was standing alone and I called to him from the 18th green. He turned and gave me a thumbs up, and said "thanks." Typical Brandt Snedeker. Thanking me for being there, when he made it possible.
Afterward, the media sang his praises, and rightfully so. Brandt Snedeker is all that is good with sports. He respects the game, he respects his opponents, and he enjoys the moment. Most important, he now knows, along with the rest of the world, that he belongs among the elite in golf. Brandt will represent the USA this weekend in the Ryder Cup matches in Chicago. He will be a fan favorite because no one there will enjoy it more, work harder, or play harder than Brandt Snedeker. I know this; if there's a six-foot putt to win the Ryder Cup, the USA wants Brandt Snedeker stroking it. And I know this, too; when Brandt tees it up for the first time at Medinah, I'll cry again. It just doesn't get any better.
Photo Credits: John Bazemore, AP and Sam Greenwood, Getty Images