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Nick Watney capitalizing on 'amazing kind of lifeline'

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The final leaderboard from the Sanderson Farms Championship was littered with young talent – winner Sam Burns, Cameron Young, Hayden Buckley, Sahith Theegala.

And then there was Nick Watney.

The 40-year-old Watney’s co-runner-up finish on Sunday wouldn’t have been all that surprising a decade ago, when Watney was a top-10 player in the world. But that was then; now, Watney hasn’t won on Tour in nearly 10 years, since capturing the 2012 Barclays for his fifth career title, and he’s playing this season using his one-time career-money-list exemption (he was just eligible, too, as he started the new season right at No. 50).

Watney called the exemption an “amazing kind of lifeline.” After all, he’d finished No. 204 on last season’s FedExCup list, missing out on both the Tour’s playoffs and Korn Ferry Tour Finals (by four spots). At one point earlier this year, Watney missed the cut in 18 straight individual events – that discouraging streak actually began at last fall’s Sanderson – and a T-11 alongside Charley Hoffman at the Zurich Classic was the only bright spot during that stretch.

“I was in such a deep hole,” Watney said of last season’s struggles.

Looking to dig his way out, Watney returned to longtime swing coach Butch Harmon in July.

“He's seen me hit a lot of balls over a lot of years, so we kind of reconvened and he's amazing, and so far, so good,” said Watney, who finished his 2020-21 campaign with four made cuts in five starts, yet arrived at the season-opening Fortinet Championship last month ranked No. 732, the worst career mark since 2003, his first year as a pro.

Watney rekindles love for the game

Watney rekindles love for the game

Watney has clawed his way back before. A herniated disc in his back forced him to miss the majority of 2016, and the following year he dropped outside the top 500 in the world rankings. By the next year, he had fulfilled the obligations of his major medical extension and was back to being a top-100 player.

This latest task, though, isn’t injury-induced. Watney has spent considerable time working on his mental game, trying to re-adjust his mind to match his 40-year-old skills.

“Just trying to be really, really honest and authentic with myself,” Watney said. “[Sunday] on 16, I made a bad swing; I was kind of instructing myself what to do instead of just trying to hit the shot, trying to react. So yeah, I hadn't thought of it like I had a conversation because I was 40, but it was definitely necessary. And this is why I play golf, to be nervous and pull it off.”

What likely began as a nerve-wracking season, however, has changed for Watney, who tied for 30th in Napa before nearly breaking his win drought in Mississippi. He’s currently fourth in FedExCup points as he prepares for a home game this week at the Shriners Children’s Open in Las Vegas.

For Watney, he’s not looking back.

“There were definitely some lean times, especially last year, but I mean, I'm not trying to think about that any more,” Watney said. “I'm trying to continue to get better, and this was a great step this week and, yeah, I'm ready.”