Rozner: Golfer Summerhays delivers classic ending
The story was already too good to be true when Daniel Summerhays arrived at the golf course Sunday morning.
Teeing off several hours before the leaders at the Korn Ferry Tour's Utah Championship, the 36-year-old Summerhays was playing the final round of his professional career.
He hadn't done much on the PGA Tour the last few years and spent 2019 on the Korn Ferry, trying to return to the top level of golf. But that also wasn't going very well.
So he decided to designate the Utah Championship as his final professional event, having not teed it up since the Greenbrier last September. This was his home course in Farmington, where he won a Utah high school championship 20 years earlier at Oakridge Country Club.
On the bag would be his brother. The first two rounds would be played with his nephew, and on that bag would be another brother. He would be walking away at home, with his wife and four children standing outside the fence, since no fans were allowed on the course.
Summerhays was retiring to teach at the high school he attended, to coach golf and influence young people.
The story was already too good to be true.
But then he unexpectedly made the cut and shot 68 Saturday to leave him in 28th place, 6 shots behind the leaders. A Sunday walk would not be spoiled, no threat was Summerhays to win the tournament as his family peaked in through the barriers and held up signs congratulating him on a grand choice.
A good story simply got better by the day -- and then Sunday happened.
Paired with Northbrook's Nick Hardy, Summerhays shot 4-under on the front (32) and on the way home -- truly on his way home -- he caught fire and collected 4 birdies and an eagle, heading to 18 with a chance to shoot 60 and post at 22-under with one more circle on the card.
Instead, he missed the fairway and birdie was out. A par and 21-under would at least be 61 and pressure the leaders to catch him, but a 15-foot par putt was off by a fraction, the ball sitting on the lip and refusing to fall. Summerhays was in at 20-under par after a career-best, 9-under 62. He was leading the Utah Championship on his home course in his final event.
It was all too absurd to be real, right? The fairy-tale ending? The ultimate walk-off to finish a career?
The entire golfing world was pulling for Summerhays, like it did for a 59-year-old Tom Watson attempting to win the Open Championship in 2009.
Still, no chance this score would hold up for Summerhays. The leaders were through 4 holes and only 2 shots back, the course obviously giving up low numbers.
Summerhays slowly walked off 18 to a standing ovation from those allowed on the course; the facility staff, Korn Ferry officials, marshals, volunteers, fellow players like Arlington Heights' Doug Ghim and assorted others who managed to be in the vicinity.
His family stood far away and cheered as he went to sign his card, and then he spoke to Golf Channel as he watched the leaders creep closer to his final tally.
"More than worrying about making the cut, I was just filled with thanks this week to wrap up my pro career here at my home club where I grew up playing the game," Summerhays said. "To be able to go out this way, playing with family and to be almost passing the torch to my nephew, was a really neat experience.
"More than any kind of sadness is the gratitude and thanks that I've been able to do this as long as I have.
"Golf has taught me so many lessons, from junior golf to high-level amateur golf to college golf. The Tour life will teach you more about yourself than you ever could have hoped for.
"I take all of that experience and knowledge and heartache and triumph, all into one big package and I'll carry it with me for the rest of my life."
But the good story became great when the wind began to blow and the rain began to fall, and as player after player finished, the hole at 18 seemed to have a cover on it, preventing the field from catching Summerhays.
Will Zalatoris -- the hottest player on the KFT right now -- horseshoed his birdie putt and finished at 19-under par.
Hour after hour went by as Summerhays waited for the inevitable, someone posting 21-under and removing him from the top of the leaderboard.
Was this really happening? If you sent this script to Hollywood, you wouldn't get even a chuckle in response.
But not a single player could tie or pass him over the next three hours, until the final pair trudged up the 18th fairway. Kyle Jones and Paul Haley II both made par on 18 to shoot 3-under for the day and force a three-man playoff.
It turns out the putt on 18 in regulation -- the one that missed by a quarter inch -- would have won Summerhays the tournament, but at least he had another chance in overtime.
Alas, as the other two players got up and down for par on the first playoff hole, Summerhays' putt again hung on the lip, would not fall and his career was over. The best round of his life finished bogey-bogey.
If that's not the essence of golf, nothing is.
Like Watson, a bogey on 18 in regulation landed him in a playoff and ended the Cinderella story, but that's how close Summerhays came to bookending his career with victories.
He won the 2007 Nationwide Children's Hospital Invitational as an amateur, turned professional immediately and never did win in 339 events on the PGA and Korn Ferry Tours. His best major finish was a third at the 2016 PGA Championship, 4 shots back of Jimmy Walker at Baltusrol.
In 13 years as a pro, he collected nearly $10 million in career earnings, built a life for his family and now returns to the very high school that gave him his start as he gives back to those who helped him.
"I have a long history in my family of teaching and instruction, whether it's in golf or in the education system, so I'm looking forward to passing on what I have learned," Summerhays said. "That package of knowledge, of failure and success, wrap that up and deliver it to the next generation, not just golfers but students. Hopefully, they'll soak in what I have to offer."
But what a way to go out.
"There were two or three times today when I had to choke back the emotion. Especially walking to 15 green, my wife and kids popped out from behind the fence. To make an eagle putt there ...," Summerhays said, tears in his eyes. "Walking up the hill after 18 hole and seeing a gallery form like that, I had goose bumps.
"I'm obviously disappointed, but I was grateful to be part of it."
After a day like that, could he change his mind?
"Well, I feel like this is the path I want and should go," Summerhays said Sunday night, "but we have those days that change the trajectory of our lives."
Sunday was apparently one of those days, as Monday night he decided he would play in Colorado this week since he was driving with his family from Utah toward Missouri anyway.
Trajectory changed, perhaps temporarily, but the story amazing regardless.
If it was merely that Summerhays was retiring to become a teacher at his high school, what a story it would have been, and good stories have been few and far between in sports these last few months.
He made it a great story over the weekend, as most people stumble out of pro sports, pushed out by a younger and more talented generation.
"I could not have envisioned this," Summerhays said Sunday. "It could not have been a more special week. To fill up the cup on the back nine was an absolute dream come true."
It was almost perfect.