PALM BEACH GARDENS -- This was nobody’s dream ending except Michael Thompson’s, but the finish of the Honda Classic on Sunday — this whole tournament, really — reminded us why golf is our most unpredictable sport, and delightfully so.
Other sports can seem almost scripted compared to the one with the dimples.
The NBA’s predictability makes the entire regular season seem perfunctory. Which one of two or three teams might the Heat inevitably meet in The Finals? Baseball, hockey and even football also offer a fairly select circle of true contenders each year. Tennis? You could pick the top four men or women in any tournament and see the eventual champion among them almost every time.
Not so on the PGA Tour, where a man is a legend if he wins one in 10 tournaments, and where Thompson’s Sunday triumph underlined golf’s tendency to rip up expected scripts in favor of surprise endings.
This was “supposed” to be a Sunday duel between world Nos. 1-2 Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods, remember? Well, McIlroy withdrew mid-tournament and Woods was a nonfactor, tying for 37th place on the PGA National course two hours north of Miami.
The week’s marquee was borrowed instead by the little-known Thompson, claiming his first PGA Tour title and its $1.08 million prize, and by Miami-born Erik Compton, whose career-best tie for fourth place might not be that all special, I guess, if he had not survived not one but two heart transplants to get here.
Golf leads all sports in unpredictability because these are the athletes trying to master the ultimate precision skill. The difference between making the cut or going home empty-handed can be one shot over four days, perhaps a putt that hung agonizingly on the lip of a cup but never fell.
So it was that, this week, Thompson, a 27-year-old Alabama graduate, was a better golfer than anybody — good enough for a two-shot victory and his first title in his 61st career starts on a windy-turned-chilly, tough-scoring Sunday.
“This week was magical. I had a groove and kept believing,” he said. “This is everything. It kind of solidifies in my mind that I’m one of the guys now.”
Thompson is no font of effervescence, and admits it. He wore a cream-colored sweater that looked like he borrowed it from Mr. Rogers.
“I’m not a flashy player. I’m not dramatic. I kind of plod along,” he said. “I’m not a Ricky Fowler or Tiger Woods. Everybody wants to see the marquee players, the guys who wear the bright clothes. I’ve never drawn a big crowd.”
If Thompson threatened to make boring trendy, Compton’s name on the final leaderboard lent the emotion. You could call him, at 33, a career journeyman, but the phrase seems harsh when the man’s journey has included a heart transplant in 1992, at 12, and another in 2008.
Compton would rather not constantly talk about his medical past or the human-interest story. He longs to be the golf story, and Sunday was the closest he has come, his first career top-10 finish.
“I’ve been trying to do this for a long time,” he said, just off the 18th green.
The week’s story we all anticipated had none of this. Then again, no sport follows a script less.
This was supposed to be a reprise of last year’s uncommon dream finish here, when young McIlroy held off Tiger — at least that was according to the sincere wishes of tournament officials, ratings-minded NBC and many fans.
You can bet that another McIlroy-Woods weekend duel will be dreamed of this coming week as the tour’s South Florida swing heads south to Doral’s Blue Monster.
Golf’s serendipity tends to intervene and reshape fate, though.
It sure did at the Honda.
McIlroy was out in the middle of the second round, mysteriously and strangely. He had been playing badly and abruptly withdrew because (he first said), “I’m not in a good place mentally.” Later, as if he had been reminded that PGA Tour rules state a player may only withdraw for medical/physical reasons, McIlroy suddenly announced he suffered from a sore wisdom tooth. Hmm.
Woods? His teeth were fine, thanks, but his game troubled him a bit. He barely made the cut and then stumbled to a Sunday 74, needing a last-hole eagle just to manage that 4-over par.
“A lost ball and two water balls,” Woods summarized his round. “Penalty shots really added up my score.”
The gallery following Tiger on Sunday was noticeably bigger than the crowd following the leaders, but the throng could not will a miracle rally. Hundreds stood five deep behind a barrier as Tiger emerged from the scorer’s trailer, fans calling for autographs or photos. If Woods’ popularity has diminished, evidence is not readily seen.
Woods’ bland result and McIlroy’s withdrawal with such a dubious excuse — he might have popped an Advil and played through the discomfort, no? — rabbit-punched this event and verified that golfers tend to be unpredictable and tightly strung.
With that in mind it was unsurprising that broad complaint arose this week that golfers were not being allowed to pick up their ball to clean off mud specks. Scandal!
Golfers also famously abhor the slightest ill-timed whir of a camera shutter, of course, which is why fans are prohibited from taking photographs on the course. Of all people, tennis star Serena Williams, who lives nearby, was nabbed this week for sneaking a smart-phone picture of Woods. Security!
The cameras that are just fine were all over Thompson as he celebrated his maiden victory, long lenses recording his personal history.
He had shed some of his anonymity by tying for second place in the 2012 U.S. Open but had not left an 18th green victorious until Sunday. A third-hole par-5 eagle on a 49-foot putt announced his intentions to not fold — appropriately so, considering Thompson happens to be a former Eagle Scout.
Thompson had not finished in the top 75 in any 2013 tournament prior to the Honda, and before this week his mind-set got so low, he thought, “I’m going to miss every cut. I’m going to lose my card.”
Then something magical and impossible to predict happened.