David Toms has made exactly 600 more PGA Tour starts than Ben Taylor. Somewhere in his golf bag, he probably has clubs older than his much younger LSU protégé.
Their paths crossed Friday at TPC Louisiana in the Zurich Classic of New Orleans. Toms, the Tiger in winter, rekindling an old fire. Taylor, the cub by comparison making just his second start on the big tour, trying to ignite the spark of his pro career.
At 49, Toms often has to get by with savvy and guile. The courses, stretched to the horizon to combat the stupendous lengths of modern muscle and clubs and balls, have Toms playing zone defense. His caddie, Scott Gneiser, figured in Friday’s second round that Toms hit six or seven hybrid clubs, metal woods, while playing partners Charley Hoffman and Smylie Kaufman (the brightest LSU light this season) were using mid to short irons.
“We joke that he has to get them regrooved after each tournament because he hits a lot of them,” Gneiser said.
But Kaufman was slamming the trunk on his courtesy car Friday afternoon after missing the cut. Hoffman found himself looking up the leaderboard at Toms, who at 5-under-par through two rounds is at least in touch with the leaders six strokes out of first.
“I know what my game allows,” Toms said. “Some holes aren’t birdie holes. I just have make par and move on.”
Toms flashed the old skills that made him a major champion (2001 PGA), keeping the ball in play, minimizing mistakes. When he did miss, as he did on the 14th green, he used that velvety putting stroke to send the ball up a slight slope and into the hole for an impressive birdie.
“He just knows what he’s doing,” Kaufman said. “He’s played the same game for the last 20 years, and he plays it better than anyone else. It’s fun to watch.”
Watch and learn, young Jedi. You were playing with one of the game’s masters this week.
While Taylor is young in the ways of pro golf, he has a major sports moment to his credit. It was Taylor who sank the clinching putt last year to help LSU clinch its first NCAA men’s golf championship in 60 years.
It may be down the hall and around the corner, but Taylor’s putt goes into the pantheon of great LSU sports moments with Billy Cannon’s punt return, Warren Morris’ home run and Anthony Wilson’s jumper to beat Memphis State on the way to the 1986 Final Four.
Taylor is from England, and he spent just two seasons at LSU, so forgive him if Cannon isn’t in his sports canon. When it comes to “football,” he’s an Arsenal man. But he’s trying to build off what he called his “fairy tale” college golf finish and fashion a pro career moving forward.
Confidence. That’s what it’s all about for Taylor.
“You think on a stage like that, live on the Golf Channel, if you can hole clutch putts to win the national title, anything’s possible,” he said. “It’s only added to my belief that I can compete out here.”
Taylor got to 4-under at one point Friday but frittered away three strokes to par on the back nine. He missed the green right on the tough par-3 17th and faced a nervy 42-foot chip going toward the alligator-infested lake left of the green.
He holed the chip for an ego-building birdie that helped Taylor finish two rounds at 2-under. Seventy-nine players were at that mark at the end of the darkness-suspended second round, meaning more nerves for Taylor on Saturday morning.
But if he can make the cut and earn a check, it will be huge. Taylor, who recently moved from Baton Rouge to Orlando, Florida, to work closely with famed teaching pro David Ledbetter, will be headed in a few weeks for a stint on the Mackenzie Tour, a summer series of tournaments in Canada.
It’s all about stepping stones for Taylor, who’s trying not to get ahead of himself.
“The feeling you belong out here is a lot better than the feeling of being nervous and not wanting to make a fool of yourself,” said Taylor, who got in on one of the Zurich’s few sponsor’s exemptions. “It’s not like these guys are a lot better than me; they’ve just done it a lot of times on a big stage.”
Taylor’s only other time on the big stage was at last summer’s British Open at St. Andrews, where he missed the cut. If he could lease a little experience from Toms, it probably would serve Taylor well this weekend. Toms could use a little of his length.
It doesn’t work that way, of course. Both will have to play with what they’ve got. So far, at the intersection of their golfing careers, that’s working pretty well for both of them.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.