RIVIERA MAYA, Mexico — If a competition derives legitimacy from the quality of its champions, the FedEx Cup gets a solid A-. Tiger and Rory each have two, but Phil’s been shut out. DJ’s got one, and so do J-Rose and Spieth, but not Brooksy. JT, Furyk, Stenson and Vijay nabbed one to bolster their Hall of Fame résumés. Just four winners in the 15-year history could walk through an airport unbothered—that’s a bit unfair to Patty Ice, who’s not yet 30. Plenty of time to leave his mark, both on-course and in the interview room.
That leaves us with the three Bs: Brandt Snedeker (2012), Billy Horschel (2014) and Bill Haas (2011). Brandt and Billy have hung tough since their big paydays. With Haas, it’s a long story.
He was never a world-beater, not even 10 years ago, when he discovered his ball only half-submerge, decided he could hit it, and summoned the up-and-down of his life at East Lake and the Tour Championship. He entered that week 25th in the FedEx Cup standings; had the current staggered format been in place, no chance he leaves with all that cash. But it wasn’t, and he did.
Winning the Tour Championship and the FedEx Cup title changed his life—a generational sum of money, a spot on the Presidents Cup team. He was 29 and entering his prime. It was good to be Bill Haas. He reached his peak, at least as far as the World Ranking is concerned (12th), with a win at Riviera the following year. Six years later, in that same ritzy enclave just west of Los Angeles, a nightmare.
You likely know the story by now. Haas was riding in the passenger seat of a Ferrari driven by his friend and host that week, Mark Gibello. Their exact speed is unknown but it was too fast. Gibello, 71, lost control, clipped another car, smashed into a tree. Haas emerged relatively unscathed. Gibello never emerged.
The tragedy from 2018 isn’t that only reason Haas entered this week’s World Wide Technology Championship at Mayakoba as the world No. 744. (Yes, seven-hundred forty-four.) His iron play has regressed considerably, and he says he doesn’t quite handle the pressure of a nervy shot like he used to, and so he’s now gone 41 events without a top-20 finish. Turning 40 next May, he was forced to swallow his pride and burn a one-time career money-list exemption to keep decent status for the 2021-22 tour season. He’s healthy, at least externally. He doesn’t feel like the events of three years of ago are lingering. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t.
“It did derail me, I guess, subconsciously,” Haas said. “The what-ifs seem bigger. What if you get in a bad car accident? That was always, it’ll never happen to me. When you experience something like that, I was only slightly injured. But that wasn’t the reason I struggled, it’s been more mental. I do think that had something to do with it.
“But, positives, I’ve still been able to come out here and try and do it. And I still think I can do it for a little while longer. I’m not too old to be out here.”
If 2021 taught us anything in golf—Mickelson, and Stewart Cink, and Lee Westwood—it’s exactly that: 39 is far, far from too old to be out here. And the good shots are still there. They’ve been plentiful at Mayakoba this week, where Haas followed up an opening-round 65 with a bogey-free 68 to sit within shouting distance of the lead heading into the weekend for the first time in what feels like forever.
“I try not to sound like I’m better than that, or better than what I’m playing,” says the six-time tour winner, his last win coming in 2015. “Golf is golf, you have to tee it up and shoot a score. It’s the best and worst part about our game. You write a score down at the end of the day and it doesn’t matter what you did in the past. Just trying to keep my head up. It’s been hard. There are times where you’re saying, I can’t ever do it again. But at the same time, when I practice and play, the good is still there. It’s half mental, for sure. I get uncomfortable at times.”
He’ll be uncomfortable this weekend, especially if he plays old-Bill golf for a third day in a row. Performing under Sunday pressure isn’t quite like riding a bike. It would be the good kind of uncomfortable, of course. Mostly adrenaline. But again, he has to get there first. That’s no guarantee. There are no guarantees in this game. Bill Haas learned that the hard way.