Oklahoma Embraces Texas Club Pro Lardon at PGA

By: Jay Flemma

When discussing the Texas-Oklahoma rivalry, prominent golf course architect and native Texan Kelly Blake Moran has a strong opinion. "And I'll tell you another thing," he roars disapprovingly, "those Oklahoma teams that won those national championships a few years ago? I'll give you one guess where half their roster is from." He doesn't wait for an answer.

"Texas, that's where! If I had my way, those players that crossed the border should lose their citizenship and never be allowed back!" Funny thing about it is, most of Texas is laughing and saying, "He's right, you know."

If Moran felt the same way about golf, he might disown transplanted Dallas-born golfer Scott Verplank who went to Oklahoma State, won the 1984 U.S. Amateur and the 1986 NCAA individual championship, then moved to Edmund, Okla. But while Oklahoma celebrates a Texas castoff as he contends at this year's PGA Championship after a 66, another Texan has captured Boomer and Sooner hearts this week, a golfer that might even melt Moran's loyal Texan heart.

Austin club professional Brad Lardon has had a longer, stranger trip than the Grateful Dead in his career: from Q School to several country clubs to numerous stints on Tour. Nevertheless, despite a terrific performance at the 2002 U.S. Open and the 2004 Western Open, the down-home son of a steel magnate and brother of a sports psychiatrist to several PGA Tour players is just at home behind a pro shop counter or giving kids lessons on the range as he is making birdies inside the ropes.

"These people walking in this heat following him are from his home course of Miramont Country Club and I had him as our club pro several years back at Great Hills," said Kevin Donigan, one of 45 friends and family of Lardon who traveled en masse to Tulsa to cheer for their local hero. The "Lardon Loudies" they call themselves. Their ardor for their homespun hero shines through as bright as the Tulsa sunshine in August. "We never realized how good a player he really was working behind the counter because he never flaunted his Tour years, he never bragged. He impresses and inspires us all with his warm, friendly attitude and sincere care for the people he teaches."

You want to see a window to the man's heart? Ask Lardon's friend and often-time caddy Bill Strong to tell stories about his Brad. "When I caddied for him at the 2005 Canadian Open, he opened the tournament with a triple-bogey. As we walked to the next tee, I lost sight of him for a second." When Strong went back to find his player, Lardon was kneeling down, giving the ball to a five-year-old girl as a souvenir and telling his parents how she reminded him of his little girl Lily. "That's Brad. Whether he finishes top ten or misses the cut, he's the same guy - a rare gem."

Indeed, Generosity and selflessness are the order of the day for the entire Lardon team, including Strong. He actually recommended to Lardon that the Rice University graduate would be better off at the PGA Championship with a caddie with more local knowledge, so they hired 32-year old John Custer, a Southern Hills member who has read Lardon's putts with laser precision.

It paid off as Landon torched Southern Hills on Thursday. Nevertheless, his sincerity was apparent after his opening-round 70. When asked if he was nervous when he reached 2-under after 16 holes, he candidly admitted, "I was nervous every shot of every second today." He smiled sheepishly and added, "I just tried to breathe. I drew on some good experiences, like qualifying school which I've played many, many times."

It also helps that his brother Michael is a prominent sports psychologist working with such successful players as Rich Beem. "I just try to keep him hyper-focused," he explains. "Great players make great shots under the most intense pressure. I just try to get Brad to take his anxiousness and use it to his advantage."

Lardon has done that under the most excruciating pressure, playing with Tiger Woods for two days at the 2004 Western Open. "He told me that he spent the first day watching Tiger's ball flight," explained Lardon's father Bob. "But the second day, he beat him." Lardon fired a 68 to Tiger's 71 and made the cut, finishing tied for 58th. His father, nearly an octogenarian, walks the tumbling property at Southern Hills despite the searing heat.

Later in the day, the sun has sunk towards the edge of the horizon. You can see it peek through the window of the famous clock tower that stands sentinel over the practice range. The shadows have lengthened. The crowd, witness to Tiger Woods' historic 63, more blistering than the 99-degree temperature, has thinned. But many that are left have come to the ninth hole to cheer on Lardon.

Sadly, things did not go as well today. After a double-bogey on 15, his sixth hole of the day, he began to break hard and jagged. Putts held agonizingly on edges. Bogey followed bogey with indecent haste. He soared to 5-over. Even so, one final par on nine will earn him his weekend in the sun.

When you look at a person, you look at the eyes and mouth to see the soul. That's where the expressions are: good and evil, pride and fear, camaraderie and loneliness. The rest is window dressing. The eyes tell the story. On the cut line, still possessing a steely determination in his gaze, Lardon hooks his drive into trouble and must punch out. You can now see the concern etched in the lines of his eyes. He must get up and down from 108 yards, the same distance from which he holed out on his first hole of the tournament. Sadly, this pitch rolls back down the false front almost to his feet. Resolute, he tries again. This time he must hole out. He never loses faith, yet the pitch comes to rest a foot from the cup.

He misses the cut by 12 inches.

Still, a great ovation surges from a grateful, respectful gallery, cheering long and loud for his gallant performance. "I went down swinging," he says, dejectedly, but still with the same pride and dignity that earned him the esteem of all North Texas . . . and now central Oklahoma and a country of television viewers.

He's had disappointment before. He knows how a champion deals with setback. "I put it in perspective," he says, calling on the great wisdom of all hard-working Americans, from golf pros to steel magnates, from caddies to psychiatrists, from writers to doctors. "Golf is not life and I am not defined by golf."

Yes, if you could hear crests fall, the sound around the ninth green would be loud, but it would not drown out the ovation for his courage nor quell the warmth he inspired in the hearts of his friends, family and fans. "We did make a lot of fans this week" he says walking through a throng of well-worshippers. "I'll see you all next year."

Yes, we will, Brad. But until then, take solace in knowing that you are one Texan who is "OK" . . . in both states. And the way these two border states do battle that's a towering achievement. Oklahoma embraced a Texan. I guess both states revere the spirit of golf enough to join together in tribute, a tribute even Kelly Blake Moran would join with all his heart.

Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://www.jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 220 nationally ranked public golf courses in 37 different states. Jay has played about 1,649,000 yards of golf - or roughly 938 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.