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Potter takes winding road to winner's circle

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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.