Potter takes winding road to winner's circle

By Jason SobelJuly 9, 2012, 1:19 am

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va. – It’s easy to get turned around on your way to The Greenbrier, Jim Justice’s 6,751-acre resort deep in the rural West Virginia foothills. Even the interstate route is a scenic route, and the scenic route, well, that’s a convolution of twists and turns, up and down and around mountains until the horizon parts and the palatial estate finally emerges into view.

If the journey sounds straight out of a John Denver lyric, there’s good reason, those country roads eventually taking travelers where they belong.

For this week, at least, the circuitous sojourn served as a commanding microcosm for the resort’s eponymous PGA Tour event. There were plenty of twists and turns, things got completely turned around and the leaderboard took a convoluted scenic route to the finish line until finally a champion emerged deep in the foothills.

During a week that started as a celebration of some of the game’s biggest stars traversing that very route to the resort, it quickly became apparent that this tournament would be taking the road less traveled. It began with Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson both curiously failing to qualify for the weekend rounds; it continued with reigning U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson parlaying a back-nine lead into a seventh-place finish; and it culminated with two unlikely upstarts, each ranked outside the top 200 in the world, duking it out in a playoff to determine the winner.

When the horizon parted and the winner finally came into view, it revealed a rookie named Ted Potter Jr., a soft-spoken ball-striking machine whose pastoral Central Florida roots have bequeathed him more rural than resort.

As if to further the symbolism of this week, Potter’s journey has endured a similar scenic route to success, often climbing some towering mountains that left him lost without a roadmap.

Take the 2004 season, for example. At the age of 20, Potter qualified for full-time status on the erstwhile Nationwide Tour – since renamed the Web.com Tour – where he spent the entire year spinning his wheels. Potter competed in 24 events during that campaign, failing to make a single paycheck and never once posting a score below 70.

“When you’re missing cuts every week, you get down on yourself,” Potter recalled after Sunday’s victory. “I mean, it’s hard to pick yourself back up. But the one plus side for me was, I was still young. I was only 20 years old. I knew I had a long road ahead of me … I just knew I had plenty of time and just be patient and it will come back around again.”

In the years since, Potter became a quixotic case of a player who couldn’t fit in anywhere.

He became a cult hero on the mini-tour NGA Hooters circuit, compiling a dozen victories in the half-dozen years between 2006 and 2011. Yet when he would qualify again for the PGA Tour’s developmental tour, he would again fail to find any semblance of success.

In 2007, Potter competed in 20 tournaments on the Nationwide circuit and made the cut on just three occasions. He earned his card back three years later and again struggled, making just three cuts in 11 starts.

He was officially in golf’s version of purgatory. Too good for one level, not good enough for the other.

That all changed last year. After posting four wins by mid-March on what was then still called the Hooters Tour, Potter was able to Monday qualify for the Nationwide Tour’s South Georgia Classic at the end of April. He won that week, earning full playing privileges once again, then punctuated that victory with another at the Soboba Golf Classic five months later, clinching his first career trip to the big leagues.

It should hardly come as a surprise that once again he failed to find an immediate comfort zone. Potter finished T-13 in his first-ever PGA Tour start at the Sony Open, but followed with missed cuts in nine of his next 14 appearances, with no result better than 30th place.

“I know I can play the game very well,” Potter said of his previous efforts. “I struggled the last few weeks, but I just tried to work on my swing and get it back to where it was feeling, where it was last year out on the Web.com Tour. So I got very close to where it was last year and it felt good. I had a lot of confidence going into this week.”

And it showed. He finished eagle-birdie on Sunday to shoot 6-under 64 and force a playoff with Troy Kelly. After a missing a short birdie attempt on the second extra hole that would have given him the victory, Potter converted a similar opportunity on the next hole hole to complete the circuitous journey from a guy who couldn’t make a single cut on a developmental tour to a PGA Tour champion.

It wasn’t the most direct route to the winner’s circle, but here in the West Virginia foothills there are no direct routes anyway. Whichever road a traveler takes comes sprinkled with various twists and turns until the final destination emerges into view.

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Stenson one clear of loaded leaderboard at Bay Hill

By Nick MentaMarch 17, 2018, 10:10 pm

Four of the top 15 players in the world and two men with stellar amateur resumes will do battle Sunday to win Arnold Palmer Invitational. Here’s how things look through 54 holes at Bay Hill, where Tiger Woods sits five back at 7 under par.

Leaderboard: Henrik Stenson (-12), Bryson DeChambeau (-11), Rory McIlroy (-10), Justin Rose (-9), Ryan Moore (-9), Charley Hoffman (-8), Rickie Fowler (-8), Talor Gooch (-8), Ben An (-8)

What it means:  For the second straight day, Stenson (71) will go off in the final pairing with DeChambeau (72), after both players failed to separate themselves from the field in Round 3, shooting a combined 1 under. Stenson really should have a win at Bay Hill by now. He finished in the top-10 four years in a row from 2013-2016, with three top-5s. The closest he came to victory was in 2015, when he lost to Matt Every by one shot after being put on the clock and three-putting the 15th and 16th greens. If he’s finally going to close the deal Sunday, the world No. 15 will need to hold off challenges from three of the top 13 players in the OWGR – No. 5 Rose, No. 7 Fowler and No. 13 McIlroy – and two men who won both the NCAA individual championship and the U.S. Amateur – DeChambeau and Moore.

Round of the day: John Huh and Austin Cook both made the 1-over cut on the number and shot 66 Saturday to move into a tie for 18th at 5 under.

Best of the rest: McIlroy, Rose and Jason Day (-5) all signed for 67. McIlroy remains in search of his first worldwide win since he walked away from East Lake with the Tour Championship and the FedExCup in 2016.

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Biggest disappointment: Fowler was 11 under for the week but dropped three shots in his last two holes. He failed to get up and down from the front bunker at 17 and then had his ball almost fully bury in the lip of a greenside trap at 18. With only a small portion of the ball visible, Fowler took two to get out of the sand and two-putted his way to a double-bogey 6, dropping him to 2 under for the day and 8 under for the championship.

Shot of the day: Woods’ 210-yard 5-iron from the fairway bunker at the par-5 16th:

Quote of the day: "I'm going to have to shoot a low one tomorrow, and probably get a little bit of help. But my responsibility is to go out there and shoot a low one first." – Woods

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TT postscript: Many birdies, but not much momentum

By Tiger TrackerMarch 17, 2018, 10:09 pm

ORLANDO, Fla. – There were plenty of cheers for Tiger Woods during the third round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational, but there’s also still plenty of ground to make up on the leaders. Here are some thoughts and observations after walking and tracking on a steamy afternoon at Bay Hill:

• Let’s start with the good. Tiger birdied a third of the holes Saturday, including a 12-footer on the final green that nearly blew the roof off the place. On a day when he didn’t appear to be firing on all cylinders, it’s yet another encouraging sign that he’s able to put up circles by the handful on a course where he once dominated.

• There is, however, a reason that we’re not talking about a vintage Saturday charge from Woods. His six birdies were countered by three bogeys, including a wobbly effort on the second hole and another dropped shot on the 17th when his ball became plugged in a bunker. It added up to a 3-under 69, and at 7 under he trails Henrik Stenson by five shots heading into the final round.

• The unquestioned shot of the day came on the par-5 16th hole, where Woods found himself up against the lip in a fairway bunker. After initially pulling out a sand wedge to lay up, he went back to the bag and grabbed a mid-iron after deciding he had found a way to skirt the lip on the right side. His shot carried the grass face by inches before flying over a greenside creek and running out 15 feet behind the hole. While he failed to convert on the eagle putt, it’s a risk-reward shot that brought a smile to his face after the round. “I tried to pull it off, and I hit a good one,” he said.

• Heading into what’s likely his final competitive round before the Masters, Woods believes one of the strengths of his sudden resurgence has been his ability to once again rely on feel rather than swing thoughts. “I’m just playing shots, playing the holes, playing angles, where to miss the golf ball,” he said. “All these things are becoming more intuitive.”

• Woods was largely optimistic after the round, explaining that in his mind he both played well and scored well. But the strokes gained numbers indicate he actually lost nearly a half shot to the field around the greens after going only 1 for 4 on sand saves. He converted a tricky up-and-down on No. 5, but couldn’t make mid-range saves on Nos. 2 and 17 and failed to get up and down for birdie on the par-5 12th after a birdie on the previous hole.

• Ever the numbers guy, Woods expected to be trailing by five or six shots after posting 7 under. The deficit is officially five, and while he still holds out hope of a ninth API victory he knows that a strong close may not be enough. “I’m going to have to shoot a low one tomorrow and probably get a little bit of help,” he said.

• Overall, it felt like a middling performance, and a round largely devoid of momentum. But that in and of itself is a testament to how far Woods has come in the last three weeks. Perhaps he’s become a victim of his own hype after a runner-up finish at Valspar turned him into the tournament favorite this week, to the point where anything short of a drought-breaking win will seem disappointing. But a largely solid 54-hole stretch that has him inside the top 10 heading into Sunday would have seemed like a Herculean achievement as recently as a month ago.

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Rose thrives in Tiger's group, shoots 67 at Bay Hill

By Ryan LavnerMarch 17, 2018, 10:05 pm

ORLANDO, Fla. – Justin Rose has played plenty with Tiger Woods over the years.

Saturday’s round was just … louder.

The Englishman had a feeling that the third round might be a little different when he was waiting to be introduced on the first hole at Bay Hill.

“Hurry up, Justin!” a fan hollered. “We want to see Tiger!”

That spectator was roundly booed, and Rose proceeded to stripe his fairway wood down the center. In fact, even with the decidedly pro-Tiger crowds, Rose barely missed a shot in shooting a 67 that put him just three shots back of Henrik Stenson.

“It focused your mind,” he said afterward. “I was definitely more nervous today – it took me a hole or two to settle into my round 100 percent, just because there’s more energy out there on the course.

“But for me, Ryder Cups and major championships, those are the types of atmospheres you’ve got to play well in and I enjoy it, so it focuses your mind.”

Rose beat Woods by two shots Saturday, 67-69, in their first Tour round together in five years.

“People are more into this comeback this time around, I think,” Rose said. “It’s fun to play out there, for sure.”  

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Lesson with Faxon gets McIlroy's putting on track

By Ryan LavnerMarch 17, 2018, 9:53 pm

ORLANDO, Fla. – Two tweaks have Rory McIlroy in position to earn his first PGA Tour title in 18 months.

The first was to McIlroy’s long game.

One of the game’s preeminent ball-strikers and most prodigious drivers, he has struggled over the past few weeks, including a missed cut at last week’s Valspar Championship.

The fix was “a feeling” with his backswing. He said that he’s trying to feel as though he’s making a three-quarter backswing, because when he’s too long he misses both ways.

“I’m just bunting it around,” he said with a smile, but actually he’s ranked first in driving distance this week.

The second fix was to his maligned putting stroke.

Ranked 124th on Tour in putting, McIlroy met with former PGA Tour player and putting savant Brad Faxon for a few hours Monday at the Bear’s Club in South Florida.

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“I didn’t really hit many putts,” McIlroy said. “It was more of a psychology lesson than anything else.”

The goal was to making McIlroy’s putting more instinctive and reactive, instead of being bogged down with mechanics.

It has worked so far. Through three rounds, he is ranked second in strokes gained-putting, gaining more than seven-and-a-half shots on the field on the greens.

McIlroy’s third-round 67 put him in the penultimate group, just two shots back of Henrik Stenson.

“I can’t really ask for much more,” McIlroy said.