When Nick Watney pushed his drive on No. 12 during the final round of the AT&T National, his ball smacked a fan in the middle of the forehead on the fly and then bounced roughly 25 yards back into the fairway. The spectator didn’t even flinch, insisting he was fine. Uh, buddy, you just got hit in the head by a golf ball that was traveling at a hundred-plus miles-an-hour!
Watney may have been the luckier one in the situation, though. Had his errant drive not taken a favorable kick after thumping the fan, Watney would have likely had a tough shot out of Aronimink’s heavy rough. Right after that happened, I thought to myself, “He’s going to win.”
You see, as much as golf is about skill, it takes good breaks to close for a victory. Sometimes you need the favorable bounces and you definitely need to have a little bit of luck out there. K.J. Choi, a formidable opponent, started the day one-shot back of Rickie Fowler and Watney. After rolling in a 30-footer for birdie on No. 14, Choi tied Watney for the lead at 13-under. Unfortunately, on the following hole, an errant drive and a couple of mishit shots led Choi to card a double-bogey, dropping him back to 11-under.
“It wasn’t (KJ’s) day,” said Steve Underwood, who usually loops for the injured Tim Clark and filled in as KJ’s caddie for the week. “”It was Nick Watney’s day.”
He may have been uttering the thoughts of his boss, who is a strong believer in God’s will. Maybe it just wasn’t in his plans for KJ to win this weekend — which coincides with the Fourth of July, the national day of the United States.
Now I’m not a religious person, so I’ll just chalk it up to fate. After all, it was rather fitting for Watney, the All-American player, to hoist the trophy, just outside Philadelphia (even though golf is a worldwide sport and the PGA Tour membership is very international).
KJ, who smiles whether he finishes first, second or last, looked genuinely happy for Watney as he congratulated and embraced him on the 18th green. In the ten years that Underwood has known Choi (he caddied for him in the early 2000s), he says Choi is the only player he’s never once seen slam a club out of anger or show any semblance of a tantrum. He’s a class act, even in the agony of defeat.
“I was very impressed playing with Nick Watney,” said Choi during his post-round presser. “On the front nine, three times, he had 15, 20-feet putts to make par. Good putting and everything. He makes it, fantastic. He is a wonderful player. He did a very good job playing.
“Nick Watney just played too well today. He played like a champion, so there was really nothing that I could do.”
Watney, who shot the course record, 62, on Saturday, continued his flawless play, making few mistakes and no bogeys in his last 27 holes. He looked comfortable, executing beautiful shots under pressure. On the way to his second victory this season — he secured the biggest win of his career in March at the WGC-Cadillac Championship — Watney made his closing four-under 66 look almost effortless.
He credited his stellar putting (that’s what it usually comes down to, right? — but on Aromimink’s tricky greens, it’s important to place your approach shot on the same shelf as the pin, otherwise, you’re left with a 45-foot and happy to walk away with a two-putt). Last week at the Travelers Championship, Watney struggled on the greens, but he switched putters in between tournaments, and apparently that did the trick.
“If somebody would have watched me putt last week, they wouldn’t believe that I would be sitting here with you guys,” said Watney in his post-round presser.
It sure has been an interesting ride for Watney in the past year. Sometimes the most painful meltdowns serve as the best learning experiences (exhibit A: Rory McIlroy).
Watney held the 54-hole lead going into the final round of the PGA Championship last year at Whistling Straits. He blew up under pressure, posting 81 on Sunday, which included birdies on the final two holes.
“Definitely the moment got the best of me, and I performed very badly,” Watney said of that experience. “But I really feel like I learned a lot that week, especially Sunday.”
His victory at the AT&T National makes him the third multiple winner on the PGA Tour this season, along with Mark Wilson and Bubba Watson, but of course, there’s always room for improvement.
“I wouldn’t say I’ve figured it out,” he said. “I think it’s just kind of my journey. I’m just really trying to work hard and kind of assess my game and work on the weaknesses. I feel like it’s a process, and I just need to keep working hard and hopefully keep winning.”
Watney has begun to grasp thriving under pressure and enjoying the ride.
“I just want to keep improving, keep putting myself in this position,” he said. “It’s a very addictive feeling to be out there and under the gun, and to be able to hit good shots and putts is why I play, really. I want to keep working hard.
He also wants to finish strong at the remaining majors of the year.
“We’ve got two majors to go, so hopefully I can put myself in a good position in one of those tournaments. I think I’ve learned from the first two that I maybe placed a little too much importance on the Masters and the U.S. Open.
“I’m going to enjoy this and then go to the British and try to do my best but maybe take it a little easier on the bad shots and whatnot.”
With the win, Watney will move to a career-best No. 10 in the new world rankings published on Monday.
“That’s very special,” he said. “You know, that was one of my goals at the beginning of the year, to try to get in the top 10. That’s really, really cool. But at the same time I can’t rest on that. I’m very, very pleased, but I feel there’s still work to be done.”
See you at Royal St. George’s.
(AP Photo/Barbara Johnston)