Back-to-back 68s put him on the edge of contention and booked a third-round afternoon tee-time with fellow South African Wilco Nienaber, a 21-year-old who might be longer than Bryson DeChambeau. He couldn’t have asked for a better pairing – the two have known each other since they were 10 years old and jockeyed for the No.1 ranking in South African junior golf just a few years ago.
“It made it a lot easier,” Higgo said after a gritty 68 that left him six behind heading into the final round. “We could speak a bit of Afrikaans in between shots. My caddie was the only one that didn’t know what we were talking about, so that was great. Yeah.”
He busted out the blocks quickly on Sunday, birdieing holes three and four to get to 10-under but gave them back with bogeys on the sixth and ninth. It wasn’t until an eagle on the par-5 12th – 333-metre drive, 167-metre approach to nine feet, a bucket from there – that he began to think I might be able to actually win this thing.
“I didn’t have to scoreboard watch – I knew already I was kind of up there or close enough. It was just whether Chesson was going to run away with it.”
He did nothing of the sort. Simply put, Hadley had no idea where the ball was going when it mattered most. He’d hook one and then he’d over-compensate with a block-fade. The 33-year-old, who was chasing his first PGA Tour win in more than seven years, stopped short of using the c-word to describe his brutal ball-striking day – he lost 4.6 shots with his approach play – but you’d do well to find a more fitting descriptor.
Hadley fanned a drive well right on 16, only to inquire about, and be denied, relief from an ant hill. Punch out, bogey. On 17, he pull-hooked an approach from the fairway and sent a relatively standard bunker shot racing through the green. Bogey, and a good one at that. At 18, from 149 metres in the fairway and needing a par for a playoff, he missed his target with an 8-iron by a good 20 metres. He gave himself a nine-footer for par that might as well have been 90 feet, and it limped by on the low side.
“It sucks, right?” he said. “I can only imagine what it looked like on TV because it looked freakin’ awful from my view. I mean, I could barely keep it on the planet. That 8-iron from the fairway on that last hole is inexcusable.”
Higgo played his last six holes in one-under par – nothing spectacular, but precisely what he needed on an afternoon when no one seemed particularly keen to close the deal. Bo Van Pelt, who nearly quit the game in 2018 and didn’t have a top-10 on tour since 2015, bogeyed 16 and 18 to finish one behind. World No.1 Dustin Johnson briefly reached 11-under before a triple-bogey at 16 promptly shifted his focus to Torrey. Harris English shared the lead early but shot 40 on his back nine. All these veterans, and the only guy who played mistake-free coming in was the youngin’.
Higgo now moves inside the top 40 of the world ranking after being 728th on June 1, 2019, and will ride a wave of confidence all the way to California. He gets full PGA Tour status, a spot in the Masters, all that jazz. And yet, in every star player’s career, there comes a point where he progresses past the “Getting into this tournament” stage and enters “He can win anywhere” territory.
“I’ve just gone to another level now. So I’ll just see what my game can do. I enjoy playing and seeing what my game does and where it takes me. I’m going to continue with that.”
Those paying attention knew it was a matter of time until Higgo made that leap. It just happened a little sooner than expected.