SHEBOYGAN, Wis. – Dr. Morris Pickens knows Ryder Cup pressure.
He’s had clients use the intensity of the biennial grudge match to reach new heights, and others who buckled under the smothering pressure of making the team. The diminutive southerner knows better than most the game’s most intense exhibition can be cathartic or crushing, which is why he stood behind Whistling Straits’ first tee late Saturday at the PGA Championship eyeing Nick Watney intently.
“I’m really interested to see what he does today,” Pickens said.
Watney, at 16th on the points list and something of a long-shot for a captain’s pick considering an empty cup resume, answered Pickens’ curiosity in waves, pacing a threesome that included one player who had been there before (Jim Furyk) and another who is easily headed there (Matt Kuchar).
Watney birdied five of his first seven holes, one-putted seven of his first 11 holes and is three shots clear of the field after a warm, windy day.
Don’t want to say Watney scorched the faux links layout, but when he finally signed for his third-round 66 it was easy to imagine that somewhere Pete Dye was architecting more bunkers, more fescue, more everything for the lakeside gem.
A win will earn Watney a spot on Corey Pavin’s Ryder Cup squad when the deadline to qualify strikes midnight on Sunday. Another solid round should all but guarantee him a captain’s pick.
And why shouldn’t it?
The way things are shaping up for “Pavin’s project” a man nicknamed “Rube” because of his resemblance to the salt-of-the-earth “Major Leagues” character would be a perfect fit.
Watney has been here before. When the Presidents Cup came to Harding Park last year, the closest thing to a home game for the Sacramento native, he faded following an early-season victory at Torrey Pines, finished 14th on the points list and never got the call from captain Fred Couples.
It’s the type of baggage that makes Watney’s plight this week a study in compartmentalization, if not competitive blinders. But if Watney was feeling the Ryder Cup pressure it would have taken a Sodium Pentothal chaser to drag it out of him.
We spotted the affable northern Californian before his practice round on Tuesday and the conversation focused exclusively on his beloved San Francisco Giants.
“I think we peaked too early,” he smiled at the time.
Not that Watney is indifferent to the gnawing thoughts that people like Pickens get paid healthy sums to make go away.
“In a situation like this you have four options,” Pickens said. “You can play your emotion at the time, you can play the leaderboard, you can play the event and you can play for another day, like the Ryder Cup or rankings.
“(Watney) smiled at me when I told him that (and said), ‘I played all four of those last Sunday.”
Good stuff, particularly from a 29-year-old slow starter who attended a small college (Fresno State) and need two full years on Tour before he found his way and his first title (2007 Zurich Classic).
But then his “Rube” moniker doesn’t dovetail with the lengths to which Watney has gone this year to improve.
At AT&T National he picked up veteran caddie Chad Reynolds, who made his bones on Vijay Singh’s bag. He added Pickens to the team at the U.S. Open and has been trending in the right direction ever since with back-to-back ties for seventh at AT&T and the Open Championship.
“I have played pretty nice from (AT&T National) on. I didn't finish too well at the U.S. Open,” Watney said. “I felt like I was playing well, just making a few mistakes here and there and this week thus far I've kept it pretty tidy.”
For Pickens Watney’s PGA plight reminds him of another client who sweated out a last-minute spot on an American team. At the 2006 PGA Championship Zach Johnson began the week on the Ryder Cup bubble (10th), missed the cut but still made the team and used a solid week at the K Club to catapult himself to a Masters title.
First, however, Watney has to make the team, and deal with all the voices that brings.
“They know, intellectually, what they have to do, but it’s just hard to do what you’re supposed to do,” Pickens said.
This week Pavin said he would make his picks “from the gut” not based on points. Or maybe he meant he wanted gutsy picks. If that’s the case, Rube is your man.