Ask any PGA Tour player and 9 of 10 will tell you the PGA Tour can be a very lonely place, especially for rookies trying to adjust to life in the big leagues. Most guys travel with their significant others and families, which makes after-golf socializing rarer than you might think (unless you’re European, of course). But friendships forged on the Nationwide Tour, the minors, have created a strong bond between some players, making the transition easier right out the gate.
Take Jamie Lovemark (22), Keegan Bradley (24), Nate Smith (27) and Chris “Bobby” Baryla (28, who is still considered a rookie because he only made seven starts before taking a major medical exemption), for example. The four rookies, along with Lovemark’s babysitter manager, Ben Walter, rented an unbelievable house on the water in Honolulu for the week of the Sony Open.
Last Saturday evening after the second round of the rain-delayed tournament, they chowed down on a delicious dinner of steak, chicken parmigiana and pasta cooked by “Iron Chef” Ben. Then they kicked back on the couch, opened a few beers and watched sports. Typical guy stuff. When the ice cream arrived, they devoured three tins of Mint Chip, Chocolate Cookie Dough and Cherry Garcia in a matter of minutes, while sipping bottles of Stella and Coronas and chatting about their new favorite hobby, Twitter. Nate has yet to join, but Keegan is a recent convert, largely due to Lovemark’s influence.
“(My account) got verified last week, which was a huge step in my Twitter career,” said Lovemark with a wry grin last Sunday at Waialae Country Club. “I’ve got about 2,800 followers and I’m trying to get to at least 28,000 by the end of the year. I need some help.”
For some reason, I don’t think he’ll have a problem reaching that goal. Lovemark, a former USC Trojan All-American who signed an endorsement deal with Nike, finished first on the Nationwide Tour money list in 2010 and his road to the tour has been closely tracked. Lovemark was the third man in the three-way playoff with Rickie Fowler and Troy Matteson at the Frys.com in 2009.
Lovemark has also helped Keegan come out of his shell.
“Normally, I’m a wicked loner and I’m by myself,” said Keegan. “(Staying at a house with those guys) was a different experience for me. I stay a lot of times by myself. I just didn’t know these guys, as well. I became good friends with Jamie over the winter.”
Both guys live in Jupiter, Florida, along with Nate, who recently moved to the area.
“I wouldn’t have traded the house for anything,” said Keegan. “I got to know Nate a little better and I got to know Baryla. I already knew Jamie pretty well. We had a good time. I couldn’t imagine playing the first event without these guys and staying with them. It was really a smart move by all us.”
Added Lovemark: “The house we got was unbelievable but it was very enticing to go out into the water and hurt yourself pretty badly.
“I spent more time looking at the surf than at the golf course this week,” he joked. “I wanted to surf so bad. It’s been a while since I’ve been surfing. There was a huge swell that came in and I was sitting outside my place watching the guys. I really wished I was out there surfing, but I can’t afford to get hurt. I can see myself smashing my face into the works pretty easily.”
Nate was the only guy who got to play Sunday’s 36-hole marathon. Under normal circumstances, Keegan would have made the cut (he MDF’d and still made official money), but due to the rain delays and washed-out first round, the field was trimmed down to the closest number to 60 after the second round.
The Sony Open was a nice way to start the week for the rookies — the chill vacation-like atmosphere in Hawaii helped ease the nerves (and the pain of missing the cut).
“It felt like a Nationwide event, especially for the rookies — the Nationwide Tour and Q-school graduates,” said Lovemark. “(This) week (at the Bob Hope Classic) and the week after (at the Farmers Insurance) will be more intense with more people, more everything — it’ll just be a bigger production.”
“It’s a different feel and atmosphere to the tournament, especially with a lot of amateurs walking around,” Keegan echoed via phone on Tuesday night. “There’s a lot going on at this tournament. There are four courses with 128 pros and three amateurs to every pro. It’s very, very busy. It’s a little different than Sony, which was a very small place.”
Going into the Hope, Keegan reiterated his feelings on the camaraderie between his NWT buddies.
“My friendship with Jamie and Nate has helped me a lot out here, just these first couple of events (and the rest of the year),” he said. “We’ll go to dinner together, hang out. I spend less time thinking about the next day. I tend to get caught up with the tournament and it runs my life. It’s been nice having some friends out here. It’s good to play practice rounds and hang out with a guy of Jamie’s caliber.”
Before the tournament started, Keegan was looking forward to the pro-am format. On the Nationwide Tour last year, he posted a 61 in both the pro-am events. Obviously, it’s early in the five-day tournament, but currently Keegan is atop the leaderboard, four-under through 10 holes.
“Jamie’s got a great attitude,” said Keegan. “I think there are things I can learn from Jamie — he’s so relaxed, which is something I need to work on.”
The two often have friendly wagers during practice rounds. On Tuesday at the Palmer course, Keegan took $40 off Lovemark in the last three holes.
“Jamie will never turn a bet down,” Keegan said with a laugh. “Whether he’s playing really well or bad and you place a bet, he’s going to take it. It’s exciting because it can be for $1 or a little more, you never know with him.
“We both striped our drives on the 16 hole. I said, ‘Up-and-down for $20.’ I got mine up and down. After I made my putt, we both started hysterically laughing. He had a putt to tie me and he power-lipped it out and we started laughing again. On the next hole, a par 3, I said, ‘Up-and-down from the tee for $20.’ I knocked it to four feet.
“We did $40 birdies on 18. We both made par. He had 15 feet and he barely missed it. Again, I started laughing — it was light-hearted, but he was kinda pissed. I think he wanted to make it. But it’s not intense, it’s a fun, little game.
“I know with Jamie that if I say up-and-down for whatever, he’s going to do it. I don’t know why I even ask him, I should just tell him, we’re going to play $20 birdies here.”
Let’s hope the rookie optimism lasts because it’s incredibly refreshing. As Golf Channel’s Jerry Foltz says, often with beer in hand, “We train them well on the Nationwide Tour.”