2012 Nature Valley First Tee Open champion Kirk Triplett took advantage of mostly calm conditions at Pebble Beach today, posting a 4-under 68 to overcome a 3-stroke deficit, notching up his second Champions Tour win and successfully defending his title. Along for the ride was Michelle Xie of Palo Alto, his junior partner from the Silicon Valley Chapter of The First Tee, whose partnership with Triplett netted the pair the Pro-Junior title.
The final round of the tournament opened with Triplett three strokes back of 36-hole leader Tom Lehman and tied for third place with his playing companion for the last round, Bernhard Langer. Triplett posted a bogey-free 68, with birdies at three of the four par-5s, including the 572-yard 14th hole, acknowledged to be the toughest long hole in the course.
Pebble’s 14th hole is a 572-yard dogleg right par-5 with a blind tee shot from the tips. The green has a usable landing area that’s about the size of good-sized dining-room table, with a front apron that could double as a ski slope. Good position in the fairway for your approach shot is vital, not only because of the size of the landing area, but because of the yawning bunker that fronts that portion of the green.
Triplett played the 14th hole about as perfectly as it can be played. Though his drive found a slight downhill lie in the left rough on the backside of a fairway bunker, he laid up with 5-iron to 106 yards, and dropped a perfect shot with a pitching wedge to about a foot from the flag.
The fourteenth hole proved to be a turning point in Triplett’s round. Tom Lehman made bogey there right behind Triplett’s birdie, for a 2-shot swing from that took Triplett from tied to 2-up in the space of one hole.
“It’s the hardest par-5 anywhere,” he said, “Every time you walk off there with a five, you think ‘Thank goodness it’s over.’ ”.
Triplett parred home from 14, with tough up-and-downs at 16, from the rough just over the back of the green, and 17, from the bunker fronting the typical back-left Sunday flag location. Playing safe at 18 with a 2-shot lead, Triplett hit his “go-to shot”, a cut driver, off the tee, to the right fairway, his second to the right rough, followed by an approach that skirted trouble from the tree near the front bunker and stayed up on the back edge of the green. Getting down in two with what he described as “the longest putt at Pebble Beach”, he was home with a two-shot lead and the win, after Lehman followed with a par at 18 to close out his tournament.
Xie, 15, a junior at Palo Alto High School, had an up-and-down round on the final day. She opened her round with a pair of sixes, with bunker trouble at holes 1 and 2. She also found fairway bunkers at the par-4 third and fourth holes, but pulled a par out of the third with a nice chip from just over the back of the green. The hole she may remember most form this round, however, is #6, the downhill/uphill par 5 that runs out to the tip of Arrowhead Point.
Xie’s drive ran to the right and came to rest near the edge of the first fairway bunker, leaving her almost no stance. Trying to advance the ball rather than make the safe play of popping it out into the fairway, she pulled the shot, clipping the lip and landing in the bunker.
Chipping out to the fairway for a clean shot over the rise to the unseen green, for her fourth shot she laced a low bullet that skimmed the fairway as it crested the hill, touching down gently and running all the way up onto the green to come to rest about 5 feet past the hole. Running that putt in for par, after having been in a situation that looked pretty grim just minutes before, was a confidence-booster after her bunker troubles earlier in the round.
The Palo Alto high schooler was galleried by an exuberant group of her fellow First Tee of Silicon Valley compatriots and coaches, and received an enthusiastic greeting from her fellow First Tee competitors at the 18th green.
After playing a nice drive to the right side of the fairway, her second shot was a bit too far right, leaving her a tough shot over the front-right bunker which guards the flag position. Trying to avoid the cypress tree that sits in front of the bunker, she stuffed her third shot into the face, but hit a delicate flop shot out of the sand to set up a putt for par. After she stroked the putt, a group of First Tee competitors sitting in the grandstands overlooking 18 green chorused, “Get in the hole!” Unfortunately the putt missed, and Xie, startled but laughing at the outburst, stroked two more before picking up.
Despite her uneven final round, Xie’s play over the first two days, when she contributed seven strokes to the pair’s winning 18-under performance, was instrumental in her Pro-Junior partnership’s success.