One par on the last hole of the match was marvelous. The other one was a winner.
Michael Hillyard overcame a Sergio Garcia-like shot by Randy Christiansen, tree root included, to finish off a 2-and-1 victory Sunday for the Don Lee Championship Flight title in the 81st World-Herald Publinks golf tournament.
Christiansen pulled off one of the best recovery shots in the Publinks since the days of Jim Daley in the 1980s. His drive on Benson Park’s 17th hole — the 35th of the match — went into the trees in the right rough and dropped onto bare ground behind an exposed tree root.
Shades of a teenaged Garcia at the 1999 PGA Championship at Medinah.
“I thought something was going to break — my arm, my club or the root — and nothing did,” Christiansen said.
His shot landed in the greenside bunker, but he got up-and-down for a par.
Hillyard, needing only to match Christiansen on the hole to close out the match, had hit through to the green on his approach shot, a pitching wedge from the left rough. His deft, downhill chip stopped about two feet right of the hole, and he sealed the victory in his first time in the tournament.
“I don’t get to play a lot because I’m on the road for my job, but I practice. And practice and practice,” Hillyard said. “I chip and putt so well. It really showed today all that work is paying off.”
Hillyard, 32, is from Falls City, Neb., where his parents, Mark and Angie Hillyard, own a golf shop.
He played two years of junior college golf at Southeast Community College in Beatrice and now is a sales representative with a four-state territory for Tingue, Brown, a laundry textile business.
“A great player,” Christiansen said. “He hits the ball a ton. It can be a little intimidating, but you know you have to play your own game.”
Hillyard had his short game dialed in, especially in building a 5-up lead after the morning 18-hole round.
“I was putting it in there tight and making a lot of 10- to 15-foot putts, some with a good break,” he said. “I wish we hadn’t gotten a break between rounds because I was feeling it. But I smoked my first drive of the afternoon about 340 yards, so that was a good way to start.”
Christiansen, 39, a steamfitter with Rome Service, struggled in the morning with his putting.
“I was up after the first hole. I remember that vaguely now, after all this golf,” he said. “I had a few bad holes.”
He four-putted from the fringe to lose the ninth hole, where the pin placement was on a slope near the back of the elevated green. He also had two three-putts on the back nine.
About a half-inch of rain fell at Benson Park Sunday morning but didn’t delay any of the Publinks finals. The rains took a little edge off the swift pace of the greens until they dried off during the afternoon round.
Hillyard, whose largest lead during the day was 6-up, was still 5 up going to the final nine.
“At that point, it was no holds barred for me,” Christiansen said. “I hit some shots and there finally were a couple mistakes that he made.
“I was able to get it to the 17th, but I would have liked to have played all 18 against a guy who can flat play.”
Christiansen started the final nine by winning the 10th hole. Hillyard took his final 5-up lead by two-putting for birdie from the fringe on the 11th, a short par-5 that crosses branches of Cole Creek twice. Christiansen’s second shot, meanwhile, left him in a bad lie in the first bunker he had found all day.
After halving the 12th hole, Christiansen lipped out an 8-footer for birdie on the par-3 13th, but Hillyard three-putted from long range.
On the par-4 14th, Hillyard’s tee ball hit off a sewer manhole in the left rough and into the trees. His second and third shots bounced off more wood, and Christiansen won with a par to close to 3 down.
Both two-putted the par-5 15th for birdies.
“There weren’t many par-5s won with par,” Christiansen said. “We were turning them into par-4s.”
The 16th was much the same as the previous par-3 — Christiansen lipped out a birdie putt from the fringe but won the hole with a Hillyard three-putt.
“The last few holes were getting a little sketchy on my part,” Hillyard said.
Christiansen was getting closer to pulling off a comeback that would have made him only the fifth in 45 years to become a Publinks champion after winning the qualifying tournament for match play.
“The competition in the tournament was amazing,” he said. “It pushes you to a whole another level.”
The match ended with the theatrics on the 17th hole.
“That was some shot through the trees,” Hillyard said. “It about hit the cart path, had it gone a little farther in the air, and that would have put him on the green.
“I hit a pitching wedge from 160 and I thought it was perfect. Maybe I caught a little flyer and it flew long. But I was very happy with my up-and-down.”
Hillyard said the first time he heard of the Publinks was last year, when he saw a tournament poster. Nor had he been in match-play competition before he entered this year and made it through qualifying.
He said his dad, who was his caddie Sunday, taught him how to play.
“Once I started beating him,” Michael said, “it wasn’t as much fun for him.”