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Watney understands intimidation factor

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ATLANTA – Nick Watney knows what intimidation feels like. He felt it during a practice round, of all places, at the 2005 Phoenix Open.

Watney was about to walk onto the first tee when he spotted Vijay Singh walking the same way.

Watney was a rookie. Singh was the No. 1 player in the world.

“Sometimes he’s not the most talkative guy if you don’t know him,” Watney said Wednesday on the eve of the Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club, where victory would bring him the $10 million FedEx Cup title.

Singh didn’t say a lot on that day, either, but he nodded Watney onto the tee box and quickly set the stakes: $80 for the winner, stroke play, Watney recalled.

“I had known the scope of his career – what he was doing at the time was much larger than [me],” Watney said. “I had won on the Nationwide Tour, but that was it. That was a little bit intimidating for me.”

Watney has come a long way since a rookie season where he missed more than half his cuts (including seven in a row at one stretch) and was more known for playing in the same group with 15-year-old Michelle Wie at the John Deere Classic (Wie beat him by six shots).

Since going to Qualifying School that December, where he tied for fifth, Watney has made a steady climb in confidence and results. He logged six top-10 finishes in 2006, won his first PGA Tour event in New Orleans in 2007 and took home two trophies, including a World Golf Championship, in 2011.

Watney says he has learned that no golfer is perfect – not even Singh – and that even the best in the world hit poor shots.

That perspective was critical to Watney this season, where he failed to win a tournament until claiming The Barclays at Bethpage Black after a putting tip from club pro Darrell Kestner.

Now, ranked third in the standings, Watney could be on the verge of the most meaningful victory of his career.

As for his long-ago battle with Singh? Watney doesn’t remember every shot along the desert, but the most important details have stuck.

“I think we were tied going to the last hole,” Watney said. “He drove it in the fairway trap and I kind of thought I had him. He hit it to like a foot and beat me.”

This week, at East Lake, Watney will be the one aiming for victory.