Former Bulldog Todd continues stirring comeback at PGA Championship

This Brendon Todd interview has been yellowing in my notepad since mid-March, when we sat for a spell before the Players Championship to discuss golf’s current undisputed champion of a comeback story. Then it all went to hell. Three days later, they pulled the plug on the Players – and everything else – as the coronavirus mushroomed.

Normally, these stories aren’t like wine or Denzel Washington, they don’t age particularly well. Too much changes. The shelf life of an inspirational tale can be brief, gone with the next injury or slump.

Yet here we are nearly five months after and the former Georgia Bulldog golfer, and a long-time Atlanta resident who in 2016 moved to Watkinsville, remains in the thick of a career resurrection.

There are at least a dozen good stories to track into the weekend at the PGA Championship outside San Francisco. Where the first-round co-leader, who followed that 5-under 65 with a 70 on Friday, might rank is hard to say. Todd isn’t exactly the brightest star in the golfing firmament.

But seeing how just a couple of years ago, as he lost his PGA Tour playing privileges for a second time, his world ranking plunged below No. 2,000 and he couldn’t make a cut with a steak knife, he should be worth a passing glance.

Consider that during one stretch between 2016-18, Todd missed 34 cuts in 36 PGA Tour starts. Persevering through a pair of prolonged playing slumps and an almost paralyzing doubt whenever he drew back a club, he has missed the cut in nearly half his PGA Tour starts (in 95 of 191 events) and more than half his Nationwide/Korn Ferry starts (42 of 80). In 2010 on that Triple-A level, he missed the cut in all 13 events he entered. Yeah, it was bad. Unsustainably bad.

In retrospect, those numbers don’t insult as much as they illustrate Todd’s stubborn resilience. They offer proof that maybe there is no storm a person can’t out-wait. There obviously were times Todd thought he should go find a real job, but he managed to hold off that awful fate long enough to rediscover his golf game.

Anyway, you get the picture: Todd is not the guy you’d expect to have a pair of victories this season and to be viable in the season’s first, long-delayed major.

When we spoke in March, when asked his goals for the year, Todd said, “Get back in contention in a major would probably be the first goal. I played in the last group of the U.S. Open on Saturday, 2014. I had a good weekend at the British Open in 2015 (T-12, the last time he made the cut at a major). It would be nice to kind of feel that feeling of contending in a major.”

By the close of the business day Friday, Todd was three shots behind the second-round lead of Haotong Li. There is some other noted traffic one shot in front of Todd, as in three major winners at 6 under - Brooks Koepka, Jason Day and Justin Rose.

The goal has not quite been met. “We’re only halfway through the tournament,” Todd said after his round, via a Zoom video conference. “I would consider contending as having a chance to win on Sunday, and we’re still a long ways from there.

“I’m in a pretty comfortable situation in that I’ve been near the lead a few times here in the last month. It really comes down to executing golf shots and making putts. I’ve proven that on this course I can do that.”

Some good concrete confidence there for a man who had been beset by a different species of the yips – the kind that burrowed into his brain while on the fairway rather than the green. Todd at his worst had a backswing weighed down by fear.

“There were some periods when I was playing the round, sometimes I would fear a shot a few holes in advance when I knew it was a shot I had been struggling with,” he said. “That was really difficult to navigate. It’s nice now to not have those things pop in my head and feel pretty good about being able to pull off all the shots that are going to come my way every day.”

Golf was a symptom rather than a game. But he found a sports psychologist who was able to clear his head and a doctor for his swing and won twice earlier this season in mid-level events in Bermuda and Mexico. He currently ranks ninth in FedEx Cup points and clearly would like to ride that all the way back home for the Tour Championship.

Insert here a plug for the family and the future: “When I went through the difficult years, my wife went through them with me,” he said. “All my family went through them with me. It’s been very rewarding to play at a high level again and to feel like I can have a long career out here of great golf and make the slumps a small percentage of my years out here.”

The fact is, nobody has had so many end-of-round leads this season as Todd. Which begs the question of why he hasn’t won more? The answer: Sunday has been no-fun day.

He held the 54-hole lead in two of his past four events but closed both with a Sunday 75. In those four events, his cumulative score over his first three rounds was 40 under par. And for the last round: 15 over.

But what is the proper way to color that stat? Is it that Todd can’t quite finish, especially against better fields? Or that it is something of a wonder that, given all his struggles with the game, that he has even been a factor so often at the end. Probably a little of both.

This is a bit more of what he said in March, and it sounds like someone who already has won, whatever the outcome this weekend:

“I don’t have a large ego when it comes to my golf career. I’ve always looked at professional golf as an honor and an opportunity and something I did because I liked it, not because it was given to me. Whether I was going to Monday qualifiers or going to mini-tour events or I’m playing in the majors, I look at golf as enjoying the work.”