It was suggested to Toby Wilt that to play and be successful at the highest level of professional golf, one has to delicately straddle an invisible line. You need to be confident but not cross over into being cocky.
Wilt, a successful businessman who years ago befriended a fellow Nashville, Tenn., golfer named Brandt Snedeker, was adamant that the newest rage on the PGA Tour had that part of his career nailed down. “He is not cocky,” Wilt said. “He is confident.”
The onetime Vanderbilt football star and founder of the Golf Club of Tennessee then offered up a story that speaks volumes for the confidence that Snedeker exudes. It was years ago, when Snedeker was a senior in high school and his brother, Haymes, was in law school at Ole Miss, thus unavailable for the qualifying round to the State Four-ball Championship.
No worries. Brandt Snedeker entered the brothers as a team and showed up at the qualifier. And it went something like this, according to Wilt:
“You can’t qualify by yourself,” an official said.
“Why not?” asked Snedeker.
“Because you don’t have a partner,” he was told.
Wilt laughs, then said: “That’s one time when Brandt sort of stood up and got in the guy’s face a little bit and said, ‘Hey, my partner just made ‘X’ on 18 holes, now I’m trying to qualify.’ “
Brandt Snedeker, after winning the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, said it was, exactly as Wilt recalled. And, yes, the high school senior went out and shot 67 on his own ball to qualify his team. With Haymes available for the tournament proper, the Snedekers did not win, but Wilt didn’t care about that part of the story. It was the qualifying thing that resonated.
“That caught my attention early on,” said Wilt, who shared the team title at the AT&T with Snedeker.
Snedeker’s caddie, Scott Vail, was asked about this confidence storyline, and he, too, moved cautiously. Snedeker, he said, is often called an aggressive player, but Vail shook his head.
“I don’t think he’s aggressive. I think he’s a smart player. He picks his spots,” Vail said. “He knows there are pins you can go at and pins you can’t.”
So if we could back up to Sunday’s final round at the AT&T, Snedeker led by two and had hit two superb shots at the dastardly par-5 14th at Pebble Beach Golf Links. With his third, he took dead aim at a hole location back left, positioned into an area that is about the size of a coffee table – a very small coffee table.
His ball tracked the flagstick, went a tad long, but just stayed on the green.
When a reporter raised his eyebrows and questioned the play, Snedeker shook his head. Yes, he hit the shot he wanted, the only shot you could play, he insisted. It was aggressive. “He had picked his spot,” as Vail suggested, and the reason was simple.
“I had 105 yards and a sand wedge in my hands. With that club and that distance, you take dead aim. You will make a mess of that hole more times by playing safe than not going at the pin,” he said.
Given that he won after having finished second two weeks in a row, who are we to doubt his confidence?
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CADDIES KNOW BEST: Tricia Westwood was talking about the swift progress her son Lee made in this game of golf. Having never played till he was 13, Lee Westwood within a few years was a scratch player and then started exploring future options in the game.
College in the United States was a real possibility – Augusta State, specifically – “but he didn’t like the idea of four years,” she said.
So Westwood turned pro at 20, and his parents concede they were concerned. What comforted them? Well, the words of Martin Gray helped immensely. Also from Worksop, England, Gray loved the game so much that he said to heck with being a coal miner; he was a caddie. He had a bit of experience behind him when he worked for a very young Lee Westwood.
“He’ll be a millionaire by the time he’s 23,” Gray told John and Tricia Westwood.
Safe to say, Gray read that beautifully.
• • •
TAKING A LONG SHOT: It brought back a flood of memories when Webb Simpson stood at half court with basketball in hands, eyes focused on the basket.
The only thing is, this wasn’t a Wake Forest gym where he used to try this sort of thing all the time. It was Jan. 27 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, halftime of a Lakers-Thunder game, and thousands of eyes and bright lights were all on the reigning U.S. Open champion.
Surely, he was nervous, no?
Simpson smiled, shook his head no, and laughed. “I used to practice this all the time,” he said. “It was like I was pre-destined.”
Of course, the fact that he was given the chance at all was pure happenstance. Simpson and wife Dowd had gone to the game on a lark, just to enjoy a night out with friends. When one of the friends noticed some activity about this halftime shot, he went up and volunteered Webb. Sure enough, he got the call.
“I didn’t even know anything about it,” Simpson said. But since basketball was a childhood passion, he wasn’t going to pass it up, either. After all, “It was worth $140,000 if I made it.”
OK, so that’s equal to about an 11th-place finish in a PGA Tour event, which wouldn’t get Simpson too excited, but this was a childhood dream being played out. He was pumped . . . and then so agonizingly deflated.
“He was so close. He hit the rim,” Dowd said.
Denied the grand prize, Simpson was on target with another chance. Nailing a 3-pointer to win two tickets to a Las Vegas hotel and a show, Simpson may have surprised the Lakers crowd, but not his colleagues.
They’ve seen the kid’s marksmanship under pressure before.
• • •
THIS ’N THAT: A par-5 of thoughts, observations and randomness:
• There’s just something about choosing to sit out a chance to play Riviera to prepare for a date at Dove Mountain that makes the head spin. Imagine Sinatra or Bennett saying no to Carnegie Hall so that they could play a few gigs on the Love Boat.
• On a lengthy list of what’s great about the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, here’s one: All three courses – Pebble, Spyglass, Monterey Peninsula – are set up at less than 7,000 yards.
• Right hand on Bible, here is the funniest thing seen in the five days spent traversing between Pebble Beach, Spyglass and Monterey Peninsula: It was a practice round at Spyglass and Vijay Singh was out as a single, accompanied by his caddie, trainer and manager – and five deer started to walk down the fairway with him. Where’s the camera when you need it?
• So Saturday on CBS, we get a quick glimpse of Phil Mickelson heading toward the beach left of the 18th hole, slipping on the rocks, nearly falling in an awkward manner, and yet we had to cut away to get back to the analysis of Huey Lewis’ golf swing? Am I missing something?
• Nine amateurs received exemptions into the Kraft Nabisco Championship. Nine! I mean, what do they do, give out party favors and hats, too?
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BACK IN THE GAME: The chance to do some more television with Golf Channel was there, but what made more sense to Billy Andrade was what he knows best: golf.
With an eye on the Champions Tour (he will turn 50 on Jan. 25, 2014), the four-time winner turned down the microphone and dusted off the golf clubs. He took a sponsor exemption into the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am and got in three rounds before missing the cut. Undeterred, Andrade said he’s committed to working his game back into shape, having played in just six tournaments since mid-2010.
Of course, this being the toughest year ever to secure sponsor exemptions, Andrade is more than willing to do whatever he has to do – which means the Web.com Tour. There are Georgia tournaments in Valdosta and Athens not far from his home that are sensible targets, as is the one at TPC Potomac at Avenel Farms, site of one of his PGA Tour wins. Andrade said he’ll also go through with efforts to try and get into PGA Tour stops as a sponsor exemption or via the past-champion’s category.
“Wherever I can get in,” he said.
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A BONUS: He said the “Vision 54” concept taught by Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott has helped his game. Russell Knox never realized it could help his living arrangements, too.
But the Scotsman said he couldn’t believe his good fortune for the West Coast swing, having become friendly with a couple – Sari and Brian Ewing – who offered him living quarters in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. Knox, 27, met Sari Ewing at a “Vision 54” clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Settling in Rancho Santa Fe – at least for the early tournaments so he wouldn’t have to travel back and forth to his adopted home of Jacksonville Beach, Fla. – added a bit of symmetry to Knox’s life, because his father was born in San Diego before moving back to the United Kingdom as a youngster. What came with this setup was the chance to play at The Bridges, and Knox couldn’t believe that good fortune.
“That’s why I stay there all the time and don’t go home,” he said, laughing. “I’m almost like a member. I feel bad; they’ll start asking me to pay dues.”
Having finished 143rd on the money list a year ago, Knox has some status, but he has played in only two events: a missed cut at Sony and a T-28 at Pebble Beach. But he won’t let the stop-and-go routine get him down.
“I came (into Pebble) with a lot of confidence, playing nicely. I’ve just got to play good when I get the chance.”
• • •
WHERE HAS THE TIME GONE? Hard to believe, but Ryuji Imada is 36. Honestly, wasn’t he just playing college golf last month?
That he’s without full status on the PGA Tour also is difficult to grasp, given that he seemed to have gotten into a pretty good rhythm in recent years.
The year he won his only tournament (the old AT&T Classic at Sugarloaf near Atlanta), 2008, the onetime Georgia standout placed 13th on the money list, with more than $3 million in earnings. He had been top 125 for five consecutive seasons when he missed in 2012, however, and because he fell to No. 181, it really put him into a tough category: past winner.
Imada got into the Sony event in Honolulu and also the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. But he’s like a healthy list of notable names – Joe Durant, Heath Slocum and Rich Beem among them – who soon will be heading to Panama and perhaps even Colombia, the Web.com Tour their only place to tee it up these days.
“I’m trying to take it day by day,” Imada said after finishing T-40 at Pebble Beach. “Obviously I’d like to play well, but that’s not any different – I was trying to play well last year and the year before. All you can do is give your 100 percent and move on.”
The worst part is never knowing quite when he’ll play, being at the mercy of those phone calls that sometimes don’t come till Tuesday.
“I just commit to everything and if I get a call, I’ll be there.”
Without a steady schedule he can plan on, how does Imada handle things? Well, his first child is only 16 months old, so there’s one quality benefit. But mostly, “I sleep late and play golf in the afternoon.”
Not the morning?
Imada shook his head. “Two o’clock tee times are great,” he said.
• • •
SHORT SHOTS: Who knows what this means, but even though he played on three different courses at the AT&T, Patrick Reed birdied the second and 18th holes each day. . . . Give credit to Patrick Cantlay for being a quick study. Saturday at Pebble Beach, he played Nos. 13-14-15 in 5 over; the next day, he went 2 under on those same holes. . . . Si Woo Kim, the kid with PGA Tour status via his T-20 at Q-School last fall who can’t use it because he’s not yet 18, played in his first tournament of the season at Pebble Beach. He got a sponsor exemption (those are allowed), but missed the cut at 75-72-72. Kim will turn 18 on June 28, by which time the re-shuffle will have pushed him further down the list .