On the practice putting greens of Torrey Pines in the days leading to the Farmers Insurance Open, Marc Leishman’s thoughts turned to, of all places, Malaysia.
Fifteen months ago, the 36-year-old Australian dominated the TPC Kuala Lampur course to shoot 26-under-par and notch a runaway win in the CIMB Classic.
Always comfortable on the poa annua greens of California that are similar to those he grew up on, Leishman got the most welcome of familiar feelings when he started rolling balls at Torrey. He was so taken by it that he pointed it out to his caddie, Matty Kelly.
“It’s nice when it happens like that,” Leishman said. “I wish it could be like that every week.”
When that feel arrives, players are eager to take advantage of it, because they don’t know how fleeting it could be, and Leishman can say that his putter carried him to his first Farmers Open title after a couple of frustrating close calls.
Struggling in the final round with a driver that had been good to him on previous days, Leishman more than made up it, rolling in eight birdies while making three tremendous par saves on the back nine in shooting a seven-under 65.
Among his birdie putts, Leishman made a 42-footer and two 14-footers, and he drained a 20-foot par effort on the par-four 12th, the hardest hole on the course.
“You’re not going to win tour events if you’re not putting well, and I putted probably as good as I ever putted today,” Leishman said in the immediate aftermath of his fifth PGA Tour victory.
When Leishman birdied the par-five 18th from five feet to finish at 15 under, it looked as if he would win comfortably. But third-round leader Jon Rahm, who had blown his advantage with a four-over start through five holes, stormed back by going four under on the back nine through No. 17.
Rahm needed an eagle at No. 18 to tie Leishman, and he’d pulled off that feat before in the final round of his Farmers victory in 2017.
Leishman was concerned enough to go straight from the scoring room to the South’s first tee to practice.
But when the Spaniard’s 56-foot eagle putt veered inches left of the cup and he could only make birdie for a two-under 70, Leishman could exhale and celebrate. He’d won one of his favorite tournaments, on a course he first played as a 17-year-old in a junior competition.
“This is a pretty sweet victory, just because I’ve come close here a few times,” said Leishman, who won $1.25 million. “From my first year on tour I felt like this is a place I could win at, and then to finally do it my 12th year on tour is really satisfying.”
Leishman’s elation was tempered by the news that Lakers legend Kobe Bryant and his daughter were among nine people killed in a helicopter crash Sunday morning in the hills of Calabasas.
Leishman has suffered through his own difficult life circumstances. In 2015, his wife, Audrey, the mother of their two sons, nearly died from toxic-shock syndrome. Recently, he has been a high-profile advocate for relief fundraising in support of the wildfires that have ravaged Australia.
He said of Bryant’s death: “It’s devastating news for his family and the whole basketball community. It’s horrible to see someone who’s so successful die in a tragedy like that.”
While news of Bryant’s passing spreading quickly around the course among spectators as Leishman played his front nine, many of the competitors were unaware until after their rounds.
Among them was Tiger Woods, who was informed by his caddie, Joe LaCava, as he walked from the 18th green to the scoring room.
“It’s unbelievable, the reality that is he no longer here,” Woods said.
Woods shot a two-under 70 and finished tied for ninth at nine under, his best placing in the tournament since winning in 2013.
Leishman’s closest pursuer, Rahm, appeared devastated by the Bryant news and attempted to put his golf defeat in perspective, saying, “It really doesn’t matter to me now.”
Rahm, who seized the 54-hole lead with a 65 on Saturday, battled mightily back after a terrible start to his round. He opened with a bogey, suffered a double bogey at the par-three third when he hooked his approach into the bank above the canyon, and eventually shot three-over 39 on the outward nine.
But the explosive player stormed back with an eagle on No. 13, and birdies on Nos. 14, 16 and 17, though one of those strokes was given back with a bogey at No. 15.
At No. 18, Rahm arrived at the tee thinking he needed a birdie to tie Leishman. He hadn’t looked at a scoreboard and didn’t think there was much commotion on the green when Leishman finished.
When he hit two strong shots to get to the back portion of the green, he thought his eagle putt was for the win. Rahm said he didn’t realize otherwise until his caddie, Adam Hayes, said, “Hey, good try.’ ”
“What do you mean, we’re in a playoff,” Rahm said he replied.
“Nope, he birdied 18,” Hayes said.
“Even if I hit the right speed, that putt doesn’t go in,” Rahm said. “It was left of the hole the whole way, so it doesn’t matter. But still, it’s a sour feeling.”
Rahm finished two shots ahead of world No. 2 Rory McIlroy, who also struggled early and scored 69, and Brandt Snedeker (68).