Watney moving in right direction to top of list of rising American stars

nick watney
Getty Images
The next step for Nick Watney is a major one, because the majors are about the only place where he struggled in 2011.
By
Doug Ferguson
Associated Press

Series: PGA Tour

Before going into the final round of the AT&T National with a share of the lead last summer, Nick Watney checked in with his swing coach, Butch Harmon. Neither of them had much to say.

It was handled in a short text message.

“Butch always says one of his strengths is to not say anything if there’s nothing to be said,” Watney said. “So he just said, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing and we’ll talk again today.”’

There wasn’t much to be said on Sunday, either.

Watney, equipped with a solid game and the experience of a World Golf Championship title earlier this year, completed a command performance on the weekend at Aronimink with a bogey-free round of a 4-under 66 for a two-shot victory over K.J. Choi.

First came a three-shot swing on the second hole to dispatch of Rickie Fowler, the first big threat. And when Choi made a late charge to catch him, a two-shot swing on the punishing 15th hole sent Watney to places he had never been.

He moved up to No. 10 in the world, and took over the lead on the PGA Tour money list and in the FedExCup standings for the first time in his career, before finishing the season ninth in FedEx points, third on the money list and 12th in the world ranking.

“That’s very special,” Watney said of his world ranking. “That was one of my goals at the beginning of the year, to try to get in the top 10. That’s really, really cool. But at the same time, I can’t rest on that. I’m very, very pleased, but I feel there’s still work to be done.”

Harmon watched the AT&T National on tape delay from his home in Las Vegas, although he knew the outcome before it ended. Harmon regards Watney like a son, and he had to hold back tears when his pupil won the WGc-Cadillac Championship at Doral in March.

Told of Watney’s comments about the text, Harmon just laughed.

“When he’s playing well, it’s best to just leave him alone,” Harmon said. “I learned that from my dad. ‘If ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ And he’s a long way from broken. That win at Doral [at the WGC-Cadillac Championship last March] gave him a lot of confidence. It was an elite field. And he learned from his mistakes.”

Doral was only one win, but the way Watney won made it feel worth far more in confidence.

In August of 2010 at Whistling Straits, Watney had a three-shot lead going into the final round of the PGA Championship and staggered home to an 81.

Then about six months later at Doral, he was tied for the lead on Saturday until hooking his tee shot into the water on the 18th. In the final round, Watney came to the 18th with a one-shot lead and facing one of the most daunting tee shots in golf. He striped it down the middle, fired at the flag and finished with a birdie.

“Yeah, I think that was worth more than just a good tee shot on the last hole. That meant a lot,” Watney said. “And I drew on that today, just being nervous and being able to have some positive memories of pulling off a good shot under pressure.”

Most of the pressure Watney felt in his final round at Aronimink came on the greens.

Despite seizing control early with his birdie on No. 2, he had to hole a 20-foot putt to save par from the bunker on No. 4, then made a 12-foot putt for par after being in the bunker on No. 7.

About that time, Choi was starting to hit his stride and Jeff Overton was making a move three groups ahead of them. Watney hit a solid shot on the par-3 eighth -- a hole that yielded only two birdies in the final round -- only to see it go over the green. He putted weakly up the slope, 18 feet away, then holed yet another big par putt.

“That was big not to drop a shot after hitting a good shot, and keep momentum heading to the back nine,” Choi said.

Choi birdied three of the first five holes on the back nine to catch Watney, but the South Korean found trouble in a bunker on the 15th and made double bogey. Watney was short of the green on the 503-yard hole, but lagged his putt from 75 feet and got away with par.

When he blasted a drive down the fairway on the par-5 16th, leaving him a 7-iron to the green and a simple two-putt birdie, the tournament was effectively over.

“I’m overjoyed,” Watney said. “K.J. played great golf, and he kept coming and coming, and that makes it even more rewarding.”

The next step for Watney is a major one. The majors are about the only place where he struggled this year. He never broke par at the Masters and was 18 shots behind, and missed the cut at the U.S. Open. He also missed the cut at the British Open before rebounding to tie for 12th at the PGA Championship.

Time to call Harmon? Not really.

“The best thing was he was really down on himself after the U.S. Open,” Harmon said. “I kind of gave him a kick in the butt. I told him, ‘You can’t go play it over again. It’s done with. Go forward. You know you’re playing as well as you have in your life, get moving.’ And he did.”