Consider them leaderboard lagniappe. These are the fresh-faced Tour pros who defy odds and conventional wisdom and nerves to climb from near obscurity to near stardom with what seems like a single revolution.
They are Tour staples, like azaleas in April and five-hour pro-am rounds, and they will begin their climb from obscurity this week at the Sony Open. The years first full-field event is ripe with potential and soulful Steve Marino tops any list of PGA Tour prospects.
Marinos swing is a tad more upright than your off-the-shelf Tour pro and his on-course demeanor is more Jerry Seinfeld than Jerry Kelly, but the results have been unmistakable. He earned over $1 million and played three of the four FedEx Cup playoff events his rookie year (2007) and defied the sophomore slump last year, missing just five cuts during a Herculean 32-event campaign and finishing 34th in earnings.
Statistically, the highlight of 2008 was a runner-up showing at the Mayakoba Golf Classic. Sentimentally, the Kodak moment came more than four months later when he led after the first round of the AT&T National and he remained in contention throughout.
At that point in the season I wasnt playing real well and wasnt expecting much, so to play like that was pretty exciting, said Marino, who grew up in the Washington, D.C. area. That was the best part of my year, getting to go out and perform in my home town in front of all my friends and everyone.
On the course, the 27-year-old brings a potent combination of style and substance. The above-average ballstriker recorded the seasons third-longest drive in 2008 ' a 424-yard bomb during Round 4 of the Valero Texas Open ' and had more birdies (440) than anyone else on Tour.
The only missing element on an ever-expanding resume is a Tour title. In Mexico he came within a stroke of eventual champion Brian Gay and he posted five other top-10s. Many contend the only thing standing between Marino and his first Tour tilt are a few good breaks on Sunday and more reps in contention.
He has an insouciance about him. Hes habitually nonchalant. Youd want him to be your college roommate, said Mike Dunphy, player development manager for Cleveland Golf/Srixon. Hes not going to get all wacked out about anything.
Marino also concedes that a hectic 2008 schedule probably didnt help. In two years Marino has played 63 Tour events, which is manna from heaven for events in need of potential star power but not the best recipe to stay fresh. Consider, by comparison, thats the same number of events Tiger Woods played in 2004, 05, 06 and 07.
Im going to try and play a little less so I can be a little fresher, said Marino, who estimates hell play about 25 events in 2009. Ive realized theres a point of mental fatigue. You dont realize it but your mind is not ready to perform.
That shouldnt be a problem this week for Marino. His last event was the Childrens Miracle Network Classic in November and he went nearly a month without touching a golf club. When he did return to work, Marino ' a self-described feel player who normally prepares for the season by standing on the practice range at Bear Lakes Country Club in south Florida hitting countless buckets of golf balls ' focused on his short game.
I wanted to get back to more of a feel so I spent a lot of time chipping and putting, he said. Nothing real exciting, just playing games with myself and focused more on a practice routine. Id never done that before.
Talent, meet tenacity.
Each year those little-known climbers spring atop leaderboards seemingly from nowhere. The odds are good this years Cinderella began his climb on the chipping green at Bear Lakes.
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