SHEBOYGAN, Wis. – After a shaky start, one click pushed Nick Watney over the edge.
The 29-year-old leader after 54 holes of the PGA Championship squandered an early three-stroke lead but was still tied when a photographer’s camera snap on his backswing on the par-3 seventh unnerved him and sent his tee shot wayward into Lake Michigan.
“I made a birdie on No. 6, which kind of, I was tied for the lead at that point,” he said. “Number 7, a guy clicked me on the backswing, I hit into the lake, made a triple and it was pretty much over after that.”
Watney went on to card bogey or worse on five of the next eight holes and finished with an 81, the highest score ever by a 54-hole leader in PGA Championship history dating to the start of stroke play in 1958.
“I was leading by three shots going into Sunday of a major. For me as a player I need to take as much as I can from that,” he said. “I definitely got way ahead of myself.”
Watney, known by his college buddies as “Rube” after a character in “Major League II” because he’s so polite to seniors, was the only golfer who had a chance to fire in the 60s for all four rounds heading into Sunday’s play.
He passed 70 before finishing the 15th.
The only drama left in his day was watching a rules official walk up when playing partner Dustin Johnson grounded his club on the 18th that cost Johnson a chance at a playoff.
“I was totally shocked, I thought he was coming to me about it with the way my day was going,” he said. “It’s worse to be in Dustin’s situation.”
Sports psychologist Morris Pickens believes Watney will bounce back quickly and only needed to point to Watney’s playing partner, Johnson, who had a similar struggle after being the 54-hole leader at this year’s U.S. Open.
“I’m just going to tell him about perspective,” Pickens said. “Hey there’s golf. There’s pressure and there’s fun pressure. It’s not like you’re waiting on test results because your wife or your husband may have cancer. That’s uneasy pressure. This is, ‘You had a bad day at work.”’
A terrible one with his family watching.
Watney’s parents, sister and girlfriend, Amber Uresti, were following him during the day and by the turn, all Uresti wanted to do was try to comfort him.
“There was nothing I could do. I just wanted to give him a big hug,” she said. “It’s hard to watch when you see things not falling his way. It’s just not easy.”
Watney’s new caddie, Chad Reynolds, kept pushing him to stay positive and eventually the two-time winner on tour broke through with birdies on 16 and 17 to finish at 4-under 284. He was actually feeling better about himself when Johnson’s day turned bitter.
“It’s the first time he’s ever truly been in contention at a major. That’s another step forward. Hopefully that’s the way he’ll look at it,” Pickens said. “Just like a team that goes to the Super Bowl and then they don’t get it done, they come back the next year and they know more.
“I won’t say he’ll win the next time he gets in this position, but he’ll know more.”
Watney admitted he was nervous on Sunday morning, but ready for the challenge of Whistling Straits. It quickly turned sour.
“I was really looking forward to getting out there and I didn’t handle it as well as I would like,” Watney said. “It’s a major, and you definitely want to shoot as low as you can.
“I shot a million.”