SHANGHAI – After spending nearly a decade as a caddie, one tough year wasn’t enough to keep Brett Waldman from another shot at trying to make it as a player.
Waldman gave up his job as the caddie for Camilo Villegas last year when he made it to the final stage of Q-school, giving him status on the Nationwide Tour. It didn’t quite turn out the way he had hoped. After making the cut in his debut in Panama, Waldman went six months and 14 tournaments before making another check.
He finished his first year at No. 193 on the Nationwide Tour money list with $6,958 - about half of what he used to earn in one week as the caddie for Villegas.
“When I was missing all those cuts in a row, I definitely was missing caddying,” Waldman said from his home near Dallas.
He decided to start over, and a bogey-free round of 68 in the final round two weeks ago was enough to make it out of the first stage of Q-school. He returns to the TPC Craig Ranch in two weeks for the second stage.
“I worked so hard to get my game in shape, and it didn’t come into shape until the end of the year,” Waldman said. “I just wasn’t in any tournaments. I was fully exempt, but only for 10 events, which was my own fault. I made one cut out of 10, and my status dropped by like 35 players. I was in events easily, and then I had a hard time getting in. Therefore, I had to Monday qualify or get an exemption.”
A year ago, Waldman felt as though he couldn’t pass up a chance at playing pro golf. It might be different this year if he makes it through to the final stage, but still has only Nationwide Tour status.
He made it through the year, but financially says he “took a pretty good hit.”
If he were to get his PGA Tour card, he would come out to the arena where he once only caddied. But to spend another year in the minor leagues might be difficult if he started getting phone calls from players looking for a caddie.
“Getting a good bag is always tempting,” he said. “Especially after a year like this.”
MIXING IT UP: For the first time since 2003, the majors were won by players who had never won one before. Throw in the World Golf Championships, and it’s evident that 2011 was the year of the breakthrough.
First-time major winners were Charl Schwartzel at the Masters, Rory McIlroy at the U.S. Open, Darren Clarke at the British Open and Keegan Bradley at the PGA Championship.
Luke Donald won his first WGC event in February at the Match Play Championship, followed by Nick Watney collecting his first world championship at Doral a month later. At Firestone, Adam Scott kept the streak alive by capturing his first WGC event.
Since the WGCs began in 1999, there was never a year in which first-timers won the majors and WGCs.
HARD KNOX: Russell Knox started the year with no status on any tour. He wound up at No. 12 on the Nationwide Tour to earn his shot in the big leagues, a spot he never imagined when he was toiling away in the north of Scotland and wondering if he belonged.
Knox recalls being selected to play for Scotland in a European junior event in Spain, where he saw Rory McIlroy as a teenager and played on the same team as Lloyd Saltman.
“I remember being on the range thinking to myself, ‘These guys are way better than me.’ Watching them hit it, the sound off the club was different,” Knox said. “That was my moment. I thought, ‘OK, I have to significantly improve from now or I might as well give up.”’
And so he went to work, earning a golf scholarship to Jacksonville University, working at a local golf course and doing well enough on the mini-tours that he could pay his own way as he kept his hopes alive.
Knox, who relies more on accuracy than length, got into the Transitions Championship at Innisbrook through Monday qualifying (he missed the cut), then headed west and tried to Monday qualify at a Nationwide event in northern California. He earned one of the spots, tied for second in the Fresh Express Classic to get status for the year, and won three months later in Chiquita Classic in Ohio.
The highlight was getting a letter from Arnold Palmer congratulating him on his win. Palmer’s design company built the TPC River Bend course on which he won.
“My dad is a huge Palmer fan, and he didn’t believe it,” Knox said.
Knox still has a hard time believing that the Scottish kid who once thought he wasn’t good enough will be teeing it up in Honolulu next year as a full member of the PGA Tour.
“It won’t sink in until I’m on the first tee and the heart is pounding,” Knox said. “I still can’t believe I’m going to have that. I can’t wait for the chance to see if I’m good enough.”
HIDDEN TIGER: Tiger Woods has gone two years without a win, and his fall from the top of golf has been illustrated by his failure to qualify for the Tour Championship in 2010 for the first time in his career, and his failure this season to even reach the FedEx Cup playoffs, giving him a forced six-week break.
This week presents another first in the worst kind of way. Even though Woods had no intentions of playing the HSBC Champions, this is the first time he has not been eligible to play a World Golf Championship. This from a guy who has won 15 of the WGC events.
Woods slipped to No. 56 in the world ranking this week. He has only two tournaments left this year, then as many as two events next year to make sure he doesn’t miss another WGC. Only the top 64 in the world ranking get to the Match Play Championship.
DIVOTS: Sam Saunders, the grandson of Arnold Palmer, advanced to the second stage of Q-school after being the medalist at one of the seven first-stage qualifiers. Among those who failed to get out of the first stage were former U.S. Amateur champion Byeong-Hun An and Kevin Tway. … J.J. Killeen won the Nationwide Tour money list with $414,273. It was the lowest amount to win the money title since Ken Duke had $382,443 in 2006. … The John Deere Classic, which had a $4.5 million purse, raised $5.29 million for local charities this year. … The Nationwide Tour Championship will return to the TPC Craig Ranch outside of Dallas next year. … Tom Lehman will have a chance this week to be the first player to be named player of the year on the Nationwide Tour, PGA Tour and Champions Tour.
STAT OF THE WEEK: Webb Simpson shot every round in the 60s at eight PGA Tour events this year. He won two of those.
FINAL WORD: “I used to fly coach and didn’t like it. And then somebody told me I should try playing better.” - Ian Poulter.