FARMINGDALE, N.Y. – At its core, professional golf is a lonely game. Away from the jubilant cheers of the galleries, beyond the intrusive glow of the camera lens, there is just a player, his club and the ball. Even the most outgoing pros have spent countless hours at the driving range and practice green, perfecting their craft in estimable loneliness.
It becomes quite a paradox then, that when a golfer becomes so good, so proficient at beating those range balls into the empty sky or pouring putts into the cup from all places, we expect them to thrive in the spotlight. We chastise the colorless bores and celebrate the ebullient characters, forgetting that solitary routine is what raised them to this level in the first place.
Nick Watney is neither colorless nor a bore, but he’s hardly a character, either. He is introverted and introspective, the exact combination of personality traits we should expect from someone who has put those long, lonely hours of practice into his life.
It may only be coincidental that the soft-spoken Watney won The Barclays on Sunday in front of the most boisterous, rambunctious and – oh, let’s just call ‘em what they are – boorish crowds on the PGA Tour, but there’s a certain sweet irony to the result, as well.
Every time Watney speaks into a microphone, he gives off the impression of an eighth-grader performing his first oral report in front of the entire class. The brim of his cap pulled low, his speech measured and thoughtful, the Northern California native perpetually appears hopeful that somehow he could be transported from that very moment, answering a question about himself and his golf game, to the very action which got him into this predicament in the first place.
It should come as no surprise that amongst his first words in the interview room following his triumph, Watney sputtered, “I'm still kind of ready to play the next hole … I'm not really sure what to do right now.”
As nervous as Watney is when speaking publicly, he’s equally cool, confident and collected when letting his game do the talking. That was eminently apparent inside the ropes on Sunday. As the final-round pressure mounted, as other players charged and the situation became more stressful, Watney thrived in the moment, steadily hitting one green after another, his sweet swing speaking even louder than the frenzied fans.
It culminated in a 10-foot putt on the final green. Already knowing the victory was his, Watney titillated the thousands of spectators in attendance by slamming home one last birdie, the icing on top of a three-stroke victory that was a long time in the making.
Watney has largely been a forgotten man this season. From the years 2009-11, he earned precisely $11,048,808, seventh-most amongst all players and more than the likes of Bubba Watson, Zach Johnson, Jim Furyk and Hunter Mahan. During that same period, he collected three wins, surpassing Luke Donald, Matt Kuchar, Adam Scott and Ernie Els.
This year has been more of a struggle, though. Until this week, he hadn’t finished better than a share of eighth place; by comparison, he compiled four such results in his first five starts last season.
“I didn't strike the ball very well at the beginning of the season,” he admitted. “Probably the first three or four months of the year, really, I didn't hit it very well and I didn't putt as consistently as I did last year. Mentally, I definitely started pressing a little bit. You know, Thursday, Friday, Saturday rounds became really, really important to me. … You definitely want to play well, but there's so much more golf to be played, and I kind of lost sight of that. So it's been a bit of both, to be honest.”
Professional golf is indeed a lonely game, but there’s an addendum to that statement: It’s even lonelier when the swing feels awkward and the putts don’t drop, when the galleries aren’t cheering and the cameras aren’t shining their intrusive glow in your direction. That’s when those long hours become filled with doubt, the loneliness usurped only by uncertainty.
Watney has endured those times, battled through them to find success yet again. That’s where the sweet irony comes into play. All those long hours filled with reluctance, apprehension, hope and, finally, confidence are no longer part of that solitary routine, instead playing out in front of thousands of awaiting spectators, plus so many more watching from afar.
With success comes increased prestige, honor, riches and fame. It also brings more attention. It forces an introverted, introspective person like Watney to fumble for the right words while straining to answer questions about himself.
“I’m getting better,” he said. “I feel like I have a reason to be in here, so I’m getting there.”
He is speaking about his time in the spotlight, but Watney could just as easily be critiquing his own game. One led to the other once again on Sunday. He understands winning means having to find the right words afterward. It’s a trade he’ll gladly make every time.
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