Adam Long thinks of that birdie putt often, the 13-foot, right-to-left breaker on the 72nd green last year at the Stadium Course at PGA West that meant so much to his career.
The putt capped a final-round seven-under 65 to give him a one-stroke victory in the Desert Classic in La Quinta, Calif. Not only did he win his first PGA Tour event in just his sixth start, but it marked his first professional win on any tour.
And then there was the guy standing greenside, one of the two men he edged by that single stroke. It was Hall of Famer Phil Mickelson, who along with Adam Hadwin had played in the same threesome with Long in the final round. Mickelson and Hadwin were helpless when Long converted the walk-off birdie.
The man whose Twitter handle is @ALongShot and came into the week ranked 417th in the world never blinked.
“I think of that putt pretty much every day,” said Long, who is preparing to defend his title this week in the event now known as The American Express after lacking a title sponsor last year. “I’m proud of how I handled myself not just on that last putt but the whole round, all day. Someone asked me what I remember most, and I always say, all of it. But, yeah, that last putt was pretty good. Obviously, that’s what won it.”
The natural reaction would be to describe what happened to the 32-year-old with a host of hyperbolic terms. But Long is careful in how he characterizes what happened.
“I wouldn’t call if a life-changing deal,” Long said two weeks ago while playing in the Sentry Tournament of Champions in Maui. “It really didn’t change my life or who I am or anything like that. Did it mean a lot to my career? It definitely did that. I played in the Masters. I locked up my card for a couple of years. It definitely was the highlight of my career to this point, I will say that.”
Making the memory even cooler was beating one of the game’s greats. “Yeah, to go up against Phil, a Hall of Famer, to beat a guy like that, I think there’s a different step you kind of take there as opposed to just if it’s another rookie,” Long said. “It definitely made the whole thing feel even more special.”
Long finished at 26-under 262, a strong performance for anyone, but in his case somewhat miraculous since he had been a combined 20 over par in his previous five tour starts. The Duke University graduate hadn’t finished better than T-63 at the Safeway Open when he found himself in the final group with Mickelson and Hadwin. It helped somewhat that no one really noticed him, nearly all of the gallery focusing on cheering for Mickelson, a California native and former winner of the event.
“For some reason, I just felt comfortable in that atmosphere,” Long said. “I was relaxed and just enjoying the opportunity. And once I got a sniff at winning there at the end, it seemed like I had enough confidence to do what I needed to do.”
That included a 175-yard approach off a sidehill lie into the par-4 final hole to set up the winning stroke in the long-running celebrity pro-am tournament once hosted by Bob Hope.
Long couldn’t quite find that same comfort level the rest of the season, though he had his moments, including a T-10 finish at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and a couple of top-25 finishes, one of them in the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Classic. He was more consistent when the 2019-’20 season began in the fall, opening with three straight top-25 finishes.
In November, Long found that scoring gear that propelled him to victory in Palm Springs, opening with a 63 at the Mayakoba Golf Classic in Mexico and finishing at 19-under 265 to finish tied for second, one behind red-hot Brendan Todd.
“I think just getting through one season and having that experience through a whole year was really important,” he said. “I did have a pretty good start in the fall. You get that second time around, and you just feel better about everything. You know what you’re doing. It also helps to know you’re a winner.”
Now he gets a second time around at The American Express. He doesn’t know what to expect. He also doesn’t know what he might say when he sees the new tournament host. That would be Mickelson.
He was thinking of finding some clever to say, but Mickelson’s reputation gives him pause.
“It would be great to shake his hand again, but I don’t think I’m going to throw anything funny out there,” Long said. “I mean, if you’re going to go up against Phil with that kind of stuff, you’d better be ready because he’ll fire it back. He’s pretty quick. I mean, do I really want to go up against that?”
Yes, best not to push it. He got the better of Phil Mickelson once already. That’s enough.