PALM HARBOR, Fla. -- Nick Watney is riding a mini-losing streak, but he's still swiping away, trying to keep the ball on the green-colored portion of the playing field and inside the white lines.
|Few have been as dependable presence on leaderboards as Nick Watney this spring. (AP)|
For those who thought he'd be left a bit downcast from last week's 72-hole, good-to-the-last-dropped-shot battle with Phil Mickelson, that is assuredly not the case. It's just that the little white ball isn't listening at the moment.
By early this week, Watney was back slapping it around at the Transitions Championship, none the worse for wear. He was energetically hooting, hollering and talking a little smack, too.
Rather than playing outside in the wilting Florida heat, though, he was inside the Innisbrook Golf Resort & Spa locker room, banging pingpong balls at fellow California pro John Mallinger. They went at it for over an hour in another entertaining nail-biter.
"He took me down, 3-to-2, in a best-of-5 series," Watney said.
It hasn't taken the surging 27-year-old long to put himself back in position while belting balls with dimples, shooting 67 to claim a share of the lead with Steve Stricker at 6 under Friday.
Watney won his second PGA Tour title in February with a clutch shot on the closing hole at the Buick Invitational, then turned even more heads last weekend in Miami, where his putt to force sudden death with the veteran Mickelson on the last hole of the star-filled CA Championship missed by a half-inch. Now he's in the weekend mix yet again on one of Florida's toughest tests, the Copperhead Course.
Outside of Geoff Ogilvy and Mickelson, the tour's lone two-time winners in 2009, Watney has been the steadiest presence on the leaderboard this spring. In fact, at times Nicholas has looked like Nicklaus -- Saturday will mark the third consecutive weekend round in which Watney has played in the final twosome of the day.
It's getting to the point where he's not even surprised by it anymore. Don't pinch this guy until after the Masters, at the earliest.
"I guess I'm playing very well, but it really seems like this is just what I'm supposed to be doing," he said Friday. "I'm keeping the game pretty simple, and putting well. "It doesn't really seem like I'm unconscious or anything. It's just kind of the way I'm supposed to be playing."
Impressively, he's in the hunt on a course that bears little resemblance to last week's track, Doral, where the rough was sparse and it was a bomber's paradise of sorts. The Copperhead is far more demanding, especially off the tee. The winning score last year was 4 under.
At a tourney called Transitions, he's effortlessly morphed from ball-bashing to ball-tracking, a sure sign of a maturing game. If Watney wins Sunday, he will jump over Ogilvy and Mickelson, who are idle this week, to No. 1 in earnings with $2.96 million.
His play is strong enough that some have begun looking down the road. Mickelson, after winning last Sunday, said he looked forward to having the skinny Sacramento native on the Presidents Cup team later this fall. Watney is ninth in points and the competition will be held in San Francisco, making it a veritable home game if he makes the team.
"While that's very nice to hear, I still have a lot of work to do to make the squad," he said of Mickelson's flattery. "So I'm just going to try to use that as fuel and hopefully I can qualify."
Given his current trajectory, it would rate as a surprise if he didn't. Watney is starting to feel like he did as a collegian at Fresno State, where he began as a lightly recruited player who eventually won four consecutive starts in his senior year and became the country's top-ranked collegian. At every level, he has managed to improve, which is what ultimately separates the men from the boys -- the best find ways to continually break through the grass ceiling.
"In college I did that, and then on the Nationwide Tour, playing with guys that had had their cards," he said. "And once I got out here, I think I was I've gotten over that, or I've gotten over that at every level I've played.
"But I enjoy that. I enjoy trying to get better and learning from different situations. I don't think for me, there's not one time when I said, you know, that was when I made a leap or that was when 'I got it.' It's just kind of a process."
Which is what makes his next major championship potentially compelling. Watney is such a fresh face at the game's high levels that he has played in exactly five Grand Slam events. One of them, however, was the 2008 Masters, where he finished T11 in his first trip around Augusta National.
Other than a couple of practice rounds before the event last spring, he'd never before set foot on the property.
"I was in awe of that place, just the aura of it, the feeling you get when you walk on the grounds," he said. "The golf course is everything I thought it would be and more. It's incredible.
"I am really looking forward to Augusta. I think I'm a much better player now. It's just so nice to see that work pay off."
Better still, most of his recent improvement has come in the elements of the game that usually prove most crucial at Augusta. After dropping from No. 43 in 2007 to 121st in earnings last year, he and coach Butch Harmon worked for weeks on honing the short-game nuances, especially with the putter.
After six starts, Watney ranks No. 28th in putting average, a whopping 99-spot improvement from last season. Harmon's a great coach and all, but he must have subcontracted with an exorcist to make such a quantum leap.
All the while, Watney's head is hardly doing the Linda Blair, 360-degree spin. In fact, the understated Watney has been a quiet introvert in the press room. In Miami, Watney was bluntly asked what he'd say to those who believe he has a vanilla personality. He didn't even get mad.
"I would say they don't know me very well," he said, politely.
In an era when other 20-somethngs like Anthony Kim and Camilo Villegas are carving identities with their swaggering style, flashy belt buckles and form-fitting attire, Watney laughed when it was suggested that he skews hard toward traditional colors and khakis.
"I think that Tiger dresses pretty conservatively, and he still seems to get noticed," he said, drawing laughs.
Watney's clubs are doing plenty of talking. He's ranked No. 40 with a bullet in the world rankings, and most of the Americans ahead of him are close to household names in the game, including Tiger Woods, Mickelson, Jim Furyk and Kenny Perry. In fact, 10 of the 11 U.S. players ranked above him have played on Ryder Cup teams, won a major championship or both.
"I think last week was 99 percent positive, and that one percent kind of left a bad taste in me," he said. "From Thursday to Sunday, it felt like it was a really long week, and to come up one shot short or half-an-inch short was a little bit bittersweet, to be honest.
"I was very pleased with a lot of things, but to lose was kind of not as fun as winning, obviously. I mean, I think one of the things that I admire so much about Tiger is that he's ready every single week and you never hear him say, 'Well, I played well last week, so it's OK if I finish whatever.' I think he's ready to go every week.
"I just want to try to get back in the hunt on Sunday."