STATELINE — Mark Mulder’s short game was deadly on Sunday, and he parlayed that into seven birdies to win the 2015 American Century Championship by one point.
Mulder, who had finished in the top 10 the previous three tournaments, finished with 82 points, two off Billy Joe Tolliver’s 2010 record. Eric Gagne, former Los Angeles reliever, was second with 81 points after a 30-point day. Josh Scobee, the 36-hole leader, scored 22 points and took third with a 79. Mardy Fish (71) and former champ Rick Rhoden (63) rounded out the top five.
“It feels amazing, I’m not going to lie,” said Mulder, who won $125,000. “It’s something that I think about all year long leading up to this. I think anytime any of us ex-players, whatever sport we play, to be able to compete at a high level like this, I know I dwell on it. I know I think about it. I know I’m excited about it.
“So my whole year, as far as golf goes, leads up to this, and it’s fun to finally close it out... I’ve kind of put two and a half rounds together, the last few years, and to be able to put three complete rounds together feels really nice.”
Both Scobee and Gagne were amazed at Mulder’s ability to get it close much of the time.
“No, not in a tournament,” Scobee said when asked about Mulder’s accuracy from the fairway. “Absolutely not. It was impressive to watch, because (Gagne) and I, like I said, we’re trying to overpower the course. Mark would lay back and stick it closer.
“And sometimes that’s a good strategy, because you’re the first person hitting out of the fairway and you can throw one in there and put some pressure on the other two. And whether or not that was his strategy, it obviously worked. And maybe it’s something that we could possibly do in the future. But for the most part I’ll just stick to my game and see what happens.”
Mulder said he didn’t lay back by design.
“For the most part, some of the holes I hit rescue or 3-wood just because it doesn’t feel right,” he said. “I used to hit rescue or 3-wood on 8. Now that they changed that I hit 4-iron off the tee. I don’t think I ever hit anything on any of these holes more than a pitching wedge other than the par 5s.
“So all the other par 4s and all par 3s, it is pitching wedge or less. So it’s 54 or 60. And I have confidence in that. Some of those holes are kind of set up for a cut and I play a little draw. So I hit a small little cut off 16, and Scobee and Gagne were laughing at me because they said that ball actually moved right. That was one of the first ones I hit that moved right because everything falls to the left. So, some of the holes don’t set up for me.”
Mulder admitted that he told Golf Channel’s Notah Begay that he was going to win the tournament, and he told the media after his 26-point effort on Friday that he would be disappointed if he didn’t win the title.
“Wednesday when I got on the range for the pro-am, my first couple of shots I knew things felt good,” Mulder said. “I was in kind of the groove and knew I had an absolute chance. Because in past years I’ve had a chance and I didn’t play as well. So with the way I was swinging I was confident with the way I felt.”
Still, it was no walk in the park. Mulder and Scobee were never separated by more than two points through the first nine holes on Sunday. Gagne got into contention with an eagle at 11 and birdies at 16 and 18.
“They put a lot of pressure on me at the end,” Mulder said. “I knew they were going to make a run because they didn’t play that well in the first 12, 13 holes. And both of them got it going there a little bit late. I was lucky to hold on.”
Mulder, trailing by five points (57-52) at the start of the round, made his presence felt with birdies at Nos. 1,2 and 3 to pull to within 62-61. Scobee managed just one birdie in that stretch. At the turn, they were tied at 69.
Mulder missed a golden opportunity to go ahead on No. 8 when he stuck a wedge to within 5 feet and lipped out the putt.
“I missed a couple short ones,” Mulder said. “I missed a 4-footer on No. 8. I 3-putted on No. 18. That obviously wasn’t the way I wanted to finish.”
Mulder took the lead for good with back-to-back birdies on Nos. 10 and 11 to take a 75-70 lead on Scobee. Gagne eagled the par-4 11th to get to 68 points. Mulder did bogey No. 12, but still maintained a four-point lead, 75-71, over Scobee.
“Well, I birdied, what, 10 and 11,” Mulder said. “I was feeling really good about myself, to be honest with you, is what happened. And I just got a little carried away trying to be a little too aggressive on 12. I hit it a little too hard. And the second I hit it I knew it was too much.
Then it went down that slope. So it was, like, OK collect yourself, let’s make a two-putt, make bogey.”
A birdie on No. 14 increased Mulder’s lead to 79-73 over both Scobee and Gagne.
Gagne closed the deficit to 79-74 with a par on 15, and then sliced it to 80-77 with a birdie on No. 16. Both Mulder and Gagne parred the par-3 17th, and Gagne went into 18 knowing that he needed an eagle or birdie to have a legitimate chance to win. For Scobee it was pretty much eagle or go home.
Gagne hit a monster drive on the finishing hole that ended up in the trap, and he blasted out to within 20 feet, giving himself a chance to win. Mulder also reached the green in two and was about 20 feet below the hole. Gagne slid his eagle putt past, which essentially meant that Mulder would win even if he 3-putted, which he did.
“Yeah, you never know, in a way the last three, four holes are pretty reachable for me,” said Gagne when asked if he thought he had a chance to win. “I think anything can happen, but I think Mark was just so locked. I don’t think there was anything we could have done.
“I mean, that lead… I don’t know what he shot, but it felt like 18-under. He was making everything. And it was beautiful to watch. Mark won that one, I think. It’s pretty cool to watch.”
Scobee agreed with a simple “yup”.
Gagne drew “oohs” and “aahs” from the crowd with his distance off the tee. When he got into tee shots, it sounded different than balls going off the tee from Scobee and Mulder.
For Scobee, the turning point was the 11th. He had a bogey, Gagne had an eagle and Mulder a birdie. There was a delay before teeing off, and Scobee hit a bad shot into the brush.
“That was a pretty good turning point for Mark and I because I ended up with bogey there,” he said. “He had birdie, so that was a big three-point swing. And that ends up being the difference in it. I’m not going to blame it on waiting like that. You just have to understand that that’s just how this tournament is.
“You have to wait and sometimes you have to force yourself to walk a little bit slower so you’re not waiting on the next tee. But I just happened to pull that ball. It was nothing other than that.”
Scobee was happy with the way he played overall, however.
“I felt fine last night,” he said. “I had a good night’s sleep. I came out prepared, ready for today. I wasn’t nervous. Just didn’t go exactly the way I wanted. I had 22 points today, which if you told me I’d score 22 points and lose by three points, or how many however I lost by, two or three, I would have said you’re crazy. Mark played amazing today.
“But I’m not even upset about it, because if you told me before the week that I was going to score 79 points, I would have said I’ll take it. But obviously it didn’t take that to win.”
Scobee said he felt more comfortable this year than 2014 when he made his ACC debut.
“Last year I got in one practice round beforehand, and I’m the type of golfer that likes to know green complexes and to feel comfortable with approach shots,” Scobee said. “And so I didn’t feel comfortable last year. The first round it was just kind of hit and hope. And after that I just didn’t play well.
“But this year we did a lot of, not research, but just practice beforehand this week, getting ready for it and trying to get a more comfortable feel with the greens. That was the big difference, and having a better game plan this year.”