PLAYA DEL CARMEN, Mexico – The grinding lifestyle of professional golf can produce a wide spectrum of emotions.
When things are going well, the hours spent on the range feel justified. Credit is given to the routine, to the preparation, and the schedule can float seamlessly from one event to the next.
But when the results dry up, the daily trips to the course simply seem like a burden.
It is in that latter mindset that Derek Fathauer found himself just a few weeks ago. While many of the top-tier players had been away from competition for weeks, Fathauer essentially had no off-season. A disappointing year on the PGA Tour necessitated a trip to Web.com Tour Finals, where his playing status wasn’t secure until the fourth and final event.
From there, it was off to the Frys.com Open, and the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open after that. The grind rolled right along, but the scores weren’t there, and deep down, Fathauer knew something was amiss.
So he took a break and did some soul-searching.
“The week before Jackson (Sanderson Farms Championship) I just kind of took the entire week off at home and actually went to my parents’ house,” Fathauer said. “Relaxed, didn’t golf, just kind of got away. Sort of something clicked, I think.”
A shift in attitude has paid immediate dividends this week at the OHL Classic at Mayakoba, where Fathauer now finds himself equipped with a 54-hole lead for the first time. After rounds of 65-66-66, he is one shot clear of Jason Bohn and three ahead of a group that includes Graeme McDowell and Russell Knox.
Fathauer comports himself with a carefree mindset, one that he explained extends to every athletic pursuit – except golf, where he invests himself in the end result, perhaps to a fault. He felt he was “fried out of (his) mind” after missed cuts in Napa and Las Vegas, and simply wasn’t having fun on the course.
“Just didn’t want to play golf,” he said. “It might have been the last month, just didn’t want to play, didn’t want to be here. It was just too much to handle. Just too much pressure I was putting on myself, and it wasn’t fun and it hadn’t been fun for the last couple of years.”
Fathauer’s talent has never been in doubt, as evidenced by his 2014 results that saw him win the Web.com Tour Championship and earn fully-exempt status on the PGA Tour. But that potential has yet to translate into low scores, as the 29-year-old netted just one top-10 finish last season.
That trend has reversed itself quickly this week, where Fathauer has strung together three straight sub-70 rounds for the first time in 59 PGA Tour starts.
The epiphany for Fathauer came when he began to separate his attitude from the total written on the scorecard.
“Tried to change my mindset instead of being so caught up in the outcome of the golf,” he said. “Like, I’m lucky to do this for a living, I need to enjoy it. I don’t need to take it so serious. That’s kind of the mindset I’ve had the last two weeks, and it’s kind of working.”
While Fathauer holds the pole position, his lead is far from safe on a course that is expected to yield more low scores amid soft conditions. His closest pursuer, Bohn, has been a mainstay on leaderboards already this season, with a pair of top-three finishes to his credit.
He also has some unfinished business here in Mexico, where he held the 54-hole lead a year ago. A disappointing final-round 74 followed, Bohn drifted back to a T-7 finish and he still has not won since the 2010 Zurich Classic.
“I remember I don’t want to do what I did last year on Sunday. I didn’t play very good,” Bohn said after a third-round 65. “Really I’ve got to embrace it. I just want to relax, have some fun, realize where I am. Hopefully knock on the door enough times, I’m going to get a victory.”
The chase pack also includes McDowell, who might be leading were it not for the opening hole at El Camaleon, which he has played in 5 over through three rounds. The other 17 holes have gone according to plan, though, and despite a year-long slump, the Ulsterman enters the final round with a chance to close the calendar on a high note.
“The takeaway is that the game’s in really good shape apart from two driver swings today,” McDowell said. “It’s kind of a work in progress, but it’s getting there.”
But the man to beat is Fathauer, who stands on the cusp of a breakthrough victory in a sport that he is enjoying once more.
“I think if I just go out and do what I came here to do, I’d like to see where it puts me at the end of the day,” he said. “Because if I just stick to my plan, I’ll be happy no matter what happens.”