ORLANDO, Fla. – With sandy blonde hair whipping from beneath his visor and a boyish smile that recalls a modern day Opie Taylor, Brandt Snedeker hardly looks like a world-beating professional athlete. That’s exactly what he is, though – or at least was, until a strained intercostal rib muscle forced him to miss the last five weeks of action.
When last we saw Snedeker, he was triumphing at Pebble Beach, his victory coming on the heels of a pair of runner-up finishes. Those results easily vaulted him into the unofficial position of World’s Hottest Golfer, a title he’s since relinquished to two-time champion Tiger Woods.
In sports, that’s referred to as getting Wally Pipp’d, after the long-ago New York Yankees first baseman who sat due to injury only to never return when Lou Gehrig stole his job. If you’d like a more current analogy, try former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith, who was replaced by Colin Kaepernick and barely saw the field again during the team’s Super Bowl run.
Unlike Pipp or Smith, of course, Snedeker isn’t reliant on a coach’s decision to get back in the game. So he’ll take to the course at the Arnold Palmer Invitational this week in hopes of winning back the honor from the guy who is also defending champion.
Just don’t expect him to make it a priority.
“I could care less about getting it back,” Snedeker said of the unofficial title. “I just want to get in position to have a good weekend again. I am not playing anywhere near as well as Tiger Woods is right now. So we can answer that question and get that out of the way. He's playing unbelievable golf.”
That doesn’t mean he isn’t interested in pulling off an unprecedented Reverse Pipp here at Bay Hill.
“I'd love to see him on Sunday afternoon and see how I stack up against him,” Snedeker continued. “He's playing unbelievable. He's sharp right now. I've got to develop that again. Hopefully, I might be able to do it in the next couple days. I feel like my long game is where I want it to be, it's just a matter of getting my short game and mental acuity back to where I can save shots and think around the golf course the right way. That comes with repetition; you can't conjure it up. So we'll see how it goes this week.”
On Tuesday, Snedeker admitted the rib injury was bothersome during the final round at Pebble Beach, but he was able to fight through it during the day. It was his second such affliction in as many years, to go along with two hip surgeries in 2011 and a broken collarbone five years earlier.
He’s now been issued a clean bill of health, which, in a way, makes him even more nervous.
“The good news is I'm completely healthy. The bad news is I'm completely healthy,” he deadpanned. “I don't know why it keeps happening. I was kind of hoping that something would creep up that would lead me to see why this keeps happening and nothing kind of came up. So just kind of have to chalk it up to bad luck, I guess, and get back healthy.”
That’s an easy checklist: 1. Get healthy; 2. Get back to the level at which he was previously playing.
Snedeker certainly sounds optimistic about ticking off all the boxes in the near future.
“I have very high expectations,” he said. “I think that I'm very confident in what I'm doing. I'm fresh. I'm probably the freshest guy on the PGA Tour right now because I haven't played in five weeks, and I'm probably one of the few guys that is really excited about the next stretch of golf. So I feel great about it.”
“If he comes out and does great, yeah, that’s what he’s supposed to do. If he doesn’t, he’s got rust,” explained his instructor, Todd Anderson. “So I think it’s a win-win either way. If he comes out and hits the ground running, it’s like he never missed a beat and if he doesn’t play well, he’s been out for five weeks and he’s trying to get back into it.”
Known universally as one of the world’s best putters – if not the best – Snedeker maintains that it will take longer for his flatstick to return to form than anything else.
In fact, Anderson insists that his swing is just as grooved as it was during his title run at Pebble Beach.
“As far as mechanically and the way he’s hitting the ball, I think he’s hitting it equally as well,” he said. “It’s just a question now of making that transition from practice to competition. I think it’ll take a little while to get the competitive juices back, kind of like at the beginning of the year, but he’s hitting the ball good.”
If it all comes together this week, Snedeker could regain that unofficial title of World’s Hottest Golfer. If it doesn’t, that’s alright, too. Like he said, he’s less interested in unofficial titles than another official one.