Owen returns from Bay Hill disappointment

The letter arrived last spring in the after-the-math aftermath, a few days removed from when Greg Owen had given away the title at the Bay Hill Invitational in Orlando with both hands. Its author, fittingly, had penned some messy endings himself on PGA Tour courses over the years.

Arnold Palmer, the longtime host and new tournament namesake at Bay Hill, sent a missive about missed opportunities to Owen, whose absent-minded three-putt from 40 inches on the penultimate hole last March ultimately cost the Englishman the biggest crown of his career, berths in his first Masters and World Golf Championship events, and possibly a Ryder Cup slot. The letter, a welcome tonic for Owen's public injury, has become one of his favorite career keepsakes -- and no, he didn't give himself a paper cut when he tore open the envelope.

"It was really a surprise," says Owen. "I have never even met the man personally. I framed it."

Framing what happened to prompt the correspondence requires far more than an 8 x 11 sheet of letterhead, because while the postman might have delivered, Owen somehow didn't. Playing the best golf of his eight years on the major world tours, the statuesque Owen had had assumed the lead and was six under for the final round before he abruptly three-putted No. 17 from the approximate length of his inseam. It was the golf equivalent of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, replete with a chalk outline and obvious forensics.

"It was tough to watch, tough to see," says fellow Englishman Luke Donald. "That kind of stuff happens. Hopefully, it'll never happen to me."

In a spasmodic span of seven seconds, Owen's ball visited every part of the 17th cup but the bottom, taking the scenic tour as it rolled past on the first misfire, then circling the hole on the ensuing point-blankety-blank tap-in, ruining 70 holes of brilliant play against one of the toughest fields in golf.

"I guess it enjoyed the atmosphere," Owen says of his disagreeable ball. "And the view."

Oh, how Owen's vantage point might have changed had he not experienced the most embarrassing gaffe in tournament history, a lapse he still can't fully comprehend. Palmer clearly identified and empathized with Owen, a level-headed chap with a self-effacing wit and plenty of friends. The gist of the jottings, from a kindred spirit in Palmer: "I encouraged him not to let what happened upset him and [told him] that his future remains very bright. I offered my condolences. I also referred to some of my own failings along the same lines. Overall, I tried to tell him that it's not the end of the world."

Easy enough for Palmer to say, since he has the benefit of roughly six decades of perspective and a passel of victories to match. Outside of the 72nd-hole disasters of Phil Mickelson and Colin Montgomerie at the U.S. Open last June, Owen's miscue might have been the most televised snippet of the 2006 season, partly because it all fell apart so quickly. Lefty and Monty took 20 minutes to immolate themselves. Owen ruined a stellar week in the time it takes to open a bag of pretzels. After the first miss, he never bothered to mark his ball -- he was 54-for-54 from inside five feet that week before stepping onto that green, so why would he? -- and now it might leave a marked dent in his reputation and psyche.

The mental spin control began almost immediately. "I told him, 'Think about it like this: You just found out you have what it takes to win out here,' " says Bob Rotella, Owen's sport psychologist. " 'You have the talent, your mind is strong enough. You should gain confidence from this.' "

If nothing else, he accumulated fans for the way he faced the music. As the King handed winner Rod Pampling the tournament trophy, a 4-foot-long Scottish Claymore that looks like a chrome-plated prop from a Robin Hood movie, the man who grew up on the fringe of Britain's Sherwood Forest trudged off to fall on his sword. Considering the temperament of some tour players when dealing with failure, his appearance before the assembled media was nearly as stunning as the three-putt.

In 2004 Stuart Appleby shot 76 to blow a four-shot third-round lead at Bay Hill, losing to Chad Campbell. The upset Aussie jumped in his yellow Lamborghini and hit the road with nary a word of explanation. A year later Vijay Singh dunked a crucial approach shot into the pond on the 18th to lose and bolted before his signature was dry on his scorecard. Owen, who experienced the most brutal of the three endings, stoically faced the music. If dignity and class count, he was the week's biggest winner.

"I am honored that people want to talk to me and hear what I have to say," the 35-year-old Owen said recently, his hands holding a cup of hot chocolate at Orange County National, his home course in Winter Garden, Fla. "I do this job because I am good at it, I enjoy it and I make good money. But I understand that the only reason I get a lot of money is because people want to know what happened.

"I didn't have the answers, but I was willing to tell them I didn't have the answers. We get paid to be in the spotlight, so be a man and talk about it. I don't know how anybody can say no. Some guys out here think they are better than everybody else."

Somewhere in the rough-hewn, blue-collar, coal-stained mining town of Mansfield, folks are doubtlessly puffing out their chests. Owen has friends who work thousands of feet under the earth's surface, blackened by soot, one reason why he remains among the tour's most grounded players. No question, Owen wasn't born with a silver spoon in his mouth. More like a gray pickaxe.

Owen's dad, Albert, sold mining equipment and his mum, Gillian, hawked various goods door-to-door so that Owen and his two siblings could attend private school. A top tennis player as a teen, Owen had to quit the game because the travel and coaching were too expensive. His parents weren't crazy about his decision to pursue golf as a career, but then again, who was? His coach of 20 years, David Ridley, estimates that Owen was a 2-handicapper when he turned pro at age 19. "If desire, hard work and a little bit of talent will get you there, then he was all you could ever want," Ridley says with a chuckle. "He was very raw."

Early on, Owen worked six days a week at a driving range, where he made roughly £280 a month while living at home with his parents, who charged him rent. He trimmed hedges, pulled weeds, swept floors and honed his game on artificial mats. He eventually landed a job as an assistant pro at Mansfield's Coxmoor GC, Ridley's home course. Eventually, Ridley, coach of the English men's national team, sent Owen off to play in area tournaments against other assistant professionals, then to regional competition and, four years later, to Europe's developmental Challenge Tour. "I'd not change anything I have done," says Owen, who found a foothold on the European PGA Tour in 1998 and climbed steadily up the Order of Merit before being sidelined with a back injury in 2003. "I would go back to that driving range again. To me, it's held me in good stead, and every year I think I have improved as a player."

True to his roots, Owen doesn't have a disingenuous bone in his 6-foot-4 body and thus has always been a favorite of the fickle British press corps, especially since he tends to blurt out unvarnished truths. As if that doesn't underscore the measure of the man, Owen mostly dines on the road with members of the caddie corps. "Caddies are human, too," he says.

That innate sense and sensibility are why Owen will likely survive his Bay Hill scars, though reliving it, even a year later, causes predictable discomfort. The synaptic synopsis: Owen birdied the 16th hole to take a one-shot lead over Pampling, then laced a 3-iron dead at the flag on the par-3 17th, traditionally one of the toughest holes on tour. Owen holds up a thumb and forefinger.

"It was this close to being perfect," he says. Instead, the approach landed in the fringe area above the bunker fronting the green and rolled backward. He chipped to 40 inches and waited several minutes as playing partners Pampling and Darren Clarke made a mess of the hole with matching bogeys. Admittedly looking ahead to the 18th tee as he waited his turn, Owen knew he would hold a two-shot margin once he holed the putt.

Seven ticks of the clock and three jabs later, he was tied. A bogey on the 18th, when yet another par putt cruelly lipped out in horseshoe fashion, sealed his fate. Despite ample time for reflection, deflection or genuflection, he's still not precisely sure what his brain was doing while his hands played hockey with the golf ball.

"It's unexplainable, really," he says. "You see the crazy things that happen out here when people win, and maybe it just wasn't meant to be."

After fearlessly meeting with the scribes, Owen stood near the Bay Hill parking lot for several more minutes, recording a series of local television interviews, when his daughter Lauren, then 3, began to weep. "There's no crying on television," he said softly.

Easier said than done. Owen drove to his home in nearby Windermere, watched the painful replays on television, then fitfully rolled around in bed for hours. He rose at 5 a.m. and washed his car, unable to let go of the letdown. In terms of improbable, last-minute shock value, it ranked in the same vicinity as Retief Goosen's three-putt from 12 feet on the final hole of the 2001 U.S. Open.

Owen found some solace in the fact he had been in similar straits before and emerged the better for it. On the European Tour in 2003, he blew a two-shot lead with five holes to play to lose at the Portuguese Open, then won the British Masters seven weeks later to record his lone big-league victory before cruising through PGA Tour Qualifying School in late 2004.

"Hopefully, you learn from these things, like I did in Portugal," he says. "The lessons are not necessarily easy." Owen has amassed seven top-25 finishes since the triple-tap incident at Bay Hill. He did, however, three-putt from three feet in each of the following two weeks -- once he marked his ball after the first miss, and once he didn't.

Here's a lesson he might care to recall: Under enough heat and pressure, a lump of coal can become a diamond.