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Hawk's Nest: Golf's biggest underachievers

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Man, I cannot wait for the NFL Draft. Not because I care who goes where, but because no event in the history of America has gotten a more ridiculous amount of advance publicity. I love Johnny Football, but seriously, I’ve been Manzieled out since mid-January.

Every draft turns hope into a marketable commodity, but this year in particular, a couple of sports networks have turned hope into a six-month stay at the Bullfeathers Inn. Jadaveon Clowney goes from a 249-pound question mark to the next L.T. in a matter of hours. Mel Kiper is the King of Conjecture, and now there are a dozen or so knockoffs holding stopwatches and 150-proof opinions, leaving some of us to wonder when guesswork became such a lucrative industry.

At any rate, GolfChannel.com held its own draft this past week, a one-round affair that debuted on this website a couple of years ago. I’ve participated in both, picking 28th in 2012 and 31st this year, which must mean I lost in the most recent Super Bowl and flamed out in the playoffs after a 12-4 regular season in ’12.

Results of our latest talent dispersal will be published Tuesday. Let’s just say I didn’t help my ballclub by choosing Kyle Stanley in the inaugural shindig, so in honor of Stanley and Anthony Kim, the subject of last week’s Hawk’s Nest, I’ve compiled a list of the game’s 10 biggest underachievers.

Guys who should be better than they are. Guys who have been OK but not even close to great. Guys who didn’t have a prayer of being drafted this time around. In a meek attempt to discourage the nominees from being even angrier at me than they’ll already be, I’m presenting them in alphabetical order – not from most to least disappointing.

Enter at your own risk. I can assure you – I did.


Chad Campbell

It is easy to forget how good this guy was. A low-ball hitter with a pronounced right-to-left ball flight, Campbell could burn down a golf course when his putter got hot. He played on three U.S. Ryder Cup teams. He almost won a couple of majors: the 2003 PGA and 2009 Masters. As recently as 2011, he finished T-5 at the British Open.

And yes, he still competes. Every once in a while, Campbell makes a little noise and hops on a leader board – there were top-5s in Memphis and Greensboro a couple of summers ago. The fact that he only won four times, is, in the words of one longtime Tour caddie, “an absolute crime. The guy could be so good, it was almost scary.”

Having covered three of those four wins, I always got the sense that Campbell was pretty happy with whatever the game gave him. He wasn’t going to kill himself to be great, and he wasn’t going to lie awake at night amid stretches of mediocrity. If that’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for me, but he still makes my list.


Rickie Fowler

Two years have passed since his lone Tour triumph at Quail Hollow, which some will tell you was a long time coming in itself. Li’l Rickie has put himself in excellent position on several occasions, including a couple of final-round pairings opposite Tiger Woods, but his aggressive nature, particularly when firing at yellow-light flagsticks, has hurt him at crucial times on Sundays.

Then again, when you rank 193rd on the PGA Tour in putting, as Fowler does in 2014, hunting tucked pins doesn’t seem like such a dumb idea. He’s driving it eight yards longer and hitting a slightly higher percentage of GIR since he began working with Butch Harmon late last year, but when you sign your scorecard, it’s all about what you shot, not how you shot it.

Given that he ranked 24th in putting last season, it’s hard to imagine that Fowler will continue frittering away strokes on the greens. Until he regains his once-enviable precision in that department, however, the victory drought will continue.


Sergio Garcia

To leave him off this list would be an exercise in sympathy – a cop-out thinly disguised as ignorance of Garcia’s once-immense talent. When he arrived on the scene to a whirl of hype in the late 1990s, he drove it straighter than Woods and almost as long. Sergio’s short game turned more heads than Heidi Klum, and when he did struggle to get out of trouble, he was likely to make that 20-footer for par.

We all saw the future unravel, and while it is easy to dismiss Garcia’s chances of ever winning a major title, he is ranked eighth in the world. He has been doing a lot of things well again for a while, and he is certainly capable of beating any field on any course in any continent.

His eight PGA Tour victories and 17 international triumphs make him by far the most decorated player on this list, but in a world where perception has become reality, in a game where expectations can undermine even an estimable body of work, Sergio has plenty left to accomplish at age 34.


Ryo Ishikawa

If you had told me five years ago that this kid would still be swimming with the tadpoles – he entered last week 83rd in the world ranking – I would have recommended that you stay away from the liquor cabinet. Only through last fall’s Web.com finals did Ishikawa retain his 2014 big-tour card. A T-2 three weeks later in Las Vegas basically secured his status for ’15; he has since posted top-10s at Torrey Pines and Bay Hill.

Forgive me and anyone else who was expecting much, much more. The Bashful Prince arrived here in 2009 as the most heralded Japanese player ever. He made 15-footers with his eyes closed, hit the ball two miles high and was surprisingly long for a 17-year-old, 150-pound kid.

Ishikawa made the International Presidents Cup team that fall, but his performance on both sides of the Pacific has been alarmingly inconsistent over the last 3 ½ years. At the Hazeltine National member-guest a couple of summers ago, I befriended a Japanese photographer who shoots a ton of pro tournaments. He told me about a couple of personal issues that could have knocked the Prince off the fast track.

The fact of the matter is, he doesn’t turn 23 until September. There’s plenty of time for Ishikawa to get off this list and back on the bullet train.


Anthony Kim

Feeling no need to reiterate what I wrote here last week, Kim’s two-year disappearance has proven to be one of the game’s biggest and saddest losses. In 2008 and into ’09, he had all the makings of a special player, seemingly capable of scoring at will. His ability to stuff short irons was unmatched on the Tour, and he drove the ball well enough to get six or seven wedges per round on some courses.

At this point, his return remains on long–term hold. Even if he were to resume playing, say, next month, it’s hard to imagine him performing at the level that made him so popular six years ago. Kim was battling myriad injuries and struggling with his form before a torn Achilles knocked him out of action in mid-2012.

Perhaps he’ll surprise all of us someday. Stranger things have happened. Just not very often.


Jeff Overton

Some guys are really hard to figure out, even in retrospect, and Overton is one of them. In 2010, he finished sixth in the FedEx Cup derby and came as close to winning as a guy could get without actually hoisting a trophy. Overton was a rightful member of the U.S. Ryder Cup team that fall and won a pair of matches in the Irish mud.

At that point, it’s not like he just disappeared, but Overton has certainly been much harder to find. From a world ranking in the mid-40s that August, he has fallen to fluctuating spots between 150th and 200th. He still makes a decent number of cuts and doesn’t have to pinch pennies at the grocery store – a solo fourth in New Orleans last week was Overton’s best finish in almost three years.

That’s the point. Maybe the native Hoosier was just a hot golfer in ’10, playing over his head during a summer when he seemed to be on the leaderboard every week. He finished a career-best 25th in putting that year, but Overton has always been very proficient on the greens. He actually missed more fairways in 2010 than he has in any season since.

Maybe he doesn’t belong on this list. Or maybe he does and can do something about it.


Ian Poulter

He has yet to win a stroke-play tournament in the United States (130 career starts) and has never qualified for a Tour Championship in nine full seasons. Poulter does have two WGC titles: the 2010 Match Play and 2012 HSBC Champions, a late-season event in China that numerous top-tier players chose to skip.

Much like former Yankee killer Colin Montgomerie, Poulter’s ability to perform under Ryder Cup pressure has been astonishing. And just like Monty, he’s had a very difficult time winning in America. Just three of the 24 rounds Poulter has played here in 2014 have produced a score in the 60s.

As many serious golf fans surely have noticed, IJP’s skill set is much more suited for tough-course competition than birdie-fests. He is a self-made grinder – Great Britain’s version of the anti-prodigy. Although his driving accuracy has suffered a bit in recent years, he still owns a quality you can’t measure: the ability to perform his best when he has something to prove.

With all that in mind, Poulter isn’t the first Euro hero to struggle in the U.S. In a twist of metaphorical irony, however, he’s perhaps the toughest not to notice.


Kyle Stanley

It makes no sense. You blow a three-stroke lead on the 72nd hole and lose in a playoff, then come back the very next week and win in very similar fashion to the parameters that framed your defeat. A terrific collegiate golfer (Clemson) who had gotten off to a very fast start as a pro, Stanley wasted even less time turning his most ignominious moment into a gritty, glorious positive.

So the sky was the limit until the sky began falling, and now, Stanley is a competitive non-entity. He has made four cuts in 11 starts in 2014 – his best finish is a T-52. There was a burst of renewed promise last spring, capped by a solo third at the Memorial, but Stanley proceeded to miss six cuts in his last eight starts.

One needn’t look very hard to find the reason for Stanley’s swift downward spiral. His putting has been off-the-charts bad since he qualified for the big tour in 2011. In his first two years, he drove it a mile and hit enough greens to remain a factor. As his ball-striking numbers have deteriorated, his inability with the putter has become far more significant.

You end up 176th in the world ranking, which is where Stanley resides now.


Bo Van Pelt

There isn’t a tour pro on earth who isn’t surprised that Van Pelt remains stuck on one official victory, which occurred in 2009 at the defunct stop in Milwaukee. We’re talking about a guy who finished 33rd or better in the all-around stat every year but one from 2004 through 2012. A player without any glaring weakness and a multitude of strengths.

Few players can boast a more well-rounded skill set, but beyond the lone victory, Van Pelt has just three runner-ups and six third-place finishes in 354 career starts. Only once has he come close to losing his card (2008), and for an extended stretch just prior to the FedEx Cup era, he was a virtual lock to pocket $1.5 million and land somewhere around 51st on the money list.

It’s good work if you can get it, real good work if you can do it. I don’t know Bo well enough to wonder if he wishes he’d won more, but if he does, he’s doing that wishing in a very comfortable chair inside a very large house.


Nick Watney

An ill-advised tweet from Harmon, his longtime coach, ended their relationship last May, but to say things haven’t been the same would be an overstatement. Watney’s career has been marked by lengthy periods of substandard play. He won twice in 2011, for instance, and entered the FedEx Cup playoffs atop the regular-season standings.

In 69 starts since, Watney has just one victory and 10 top-10s, most of which shouldn’t be confused with a serious foray into weekend contention. He appeared ready to break out of his funk during last summer’s playoffs, but in 11 starts this season, his best finish is a T-24.

A couple of Internet bloggers have attributed the demise to his signing with Nike at the start of 2013, but as I’ve said and written many times, blaming it on new equipment is the easy way out. Perhaps Watney doesn’t have the internal drive to become one of the world’s best golfers. That would put him in the same category as, oh, a couple of dozen other immensely talented players.