Scott Piercy has rocketed up the World Ranking and finally, at 34, into the Masters
Scott Piercy is angry. He won’t swing until he’s ready. He stands over his ball in the 7th fairway and waits. Five minutes tick by. His playing partners fidget. Anytime you’re ready, Scott. But he won’t pull the trigger. I’m not playing, he tells himself, until the screaming inside stops.
It’s the final round of the 2008 Ford Wayne Gretzky Classic. Piercy, a 29-year-old Nationwide tour rookie, spent the first three rounds letting clubs and curses fly. “I was acting like an idiot, so angry at myself for not playing to my potential,” he says. After shooting himself out of the tournament with a Saturday 74, he decides to turn Sunday into an angermanagement experiment. “I refused to hit a single shot while mad. I even drew a smiley face on my ball, as a smart-aleck reminder.”
Eventually, it works. The anger subsides on number 7, and Piercy swings. He proceeds to birdie nine of the final 12 holes, shooting a 64.
Within two months he had won two Nationwide events and secured his PGA Tour card for 2009. “I realized the biggest thing holding me back was my attitude,” Piercy says. “It was a huge stepping stone. And yeah, I still draw happy faces on my ball.”
The sun is setting over Doral Resort on the eve of the 2013 WGC Cadillac Championship. Piercy sits in a clubhouse lounge, which has floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Blue Monster. He sports laceless Converse sneakers and moussed hair. He looks older than 34. It’s the eyes. Their surrounding creases convey a “man, I’ve seen some s---” weariness that you don’t see on the Rickie Fowlers of the world -- wrinkles acquired over the course of six years battling debt and doubt on golf’s mini-tours.
Nearby, Luke Donald is chatting with a reporter. One week earlier at the Accenture Match Play, Piercy throttled Donald, 7 and 6. Says Piercy, “I don’t want this to sound like ‘poor me,’ but every person who won that week got interviewed right then and there on the green. And I beat the No. 3 golfer in the world handily, and there’s nobody there to talk to me.” He waits a beat. “Then again, they probably weren’t ready for it to end on the 12th hole.”
Anonymity isn’t new to Piercy. When he swaps his sponsor-laden clothes for shorts and a backward cap, half the pros in the locker room don’t recognize him. He’s hard to categorize. Though he has rocketed up the World Ranking to 37th, he’s a top 40 hit without a hook. “I’m not a young gun. I’m not a marquee name. I’m not an iconic older player. Still, it’d be nice to get acknowledgement. But I’m not a big talker. I let my sticks talk for me.”
Lately his sticks won’t shut up. Since 2011 Piercy has won twice on Tour and banked about $5 million. Last year he beat a solid field at the RBC Canadian Open (which included 10 major winners) and punched his ticket to his first Masters.
“Not a lot of guys have Scott’s firepower,” says Brendan Steele, who played with Piercy on the Nationwide tour. “When he gets it going, he’s up there with Tiger and Phil. He could do some damage at Augusta.”
Indeed, Piercy has Masters-caliber muscle off the tee, thrives on Sundays (he ranked fifth on Tour last year in final-round scoring) and can go lower than the national limbo champion. It makes you wonder: Can he become the first Masters rookie since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979 to grab the green jacket?
It sounds like a Ron Shelton screenplay: A go-for-broke Hooters-tour nobody with two kids and a bum wrist, who owes $25,000 on his Visa card, tumbles out of his Fleetwood Expedition to win the largest single-event check in golf history ($2 million) on his fifth wedding anniversary. But that actually happened to Piercy in 2007, at Wynn Golf Club in Las Vegas.
Maybe he should have felt more angst during the 50-man, winner-take-all Ultimate Game event, because he’d been going nowhere fast on the mini-tours since turning pro in 2001. Pressure? What pressure? “I was free-rolling for two million bucks,” says the Vegas native. “That means playing with house money. For better or worse, I tend to play up or down to my level of competition.”
His most vivid memory from the stroke-play final against Ken Jarner? “I’m three down with six holes to play, and I thought, I gotta get something going. I get to even with three to play, and on 16 everything changed. Whatever you call it -- the zone -- it was like I was controlling the ball with my mind, placing it exactly where I wanted. There aren’t many times you feel that.”
Piercy won by three, and more than half of his $2 million haul went to sponsors, Visa and Uncle Sam. (“Not my favorite uncle,” he says.) The money gave Piercy and his wife, Sara, more than financial security and a dazzling FICA score. It gave him time to heal his body and mind. “I had sore tendons in my wrist, and I was mentally worn down from six years on the mini-tours, so I just rested. It started a chain of events that led to getting my card on the Nationwide tour and my ultimate goal of the PGA Tour.”
He arrived on the big Tour in 2009, but after a strong rookie season he struggled throughout 2010 and for much of 2011. Then, in the third round of the 2011 Reno-Tahoe Open, something unusual happened: A struggling, winless journeyman ranked 308th in the world rattled off eight straight birdies and shot 61. No one saw it coming, Piercy included.
Somewhere, he found a higher gear, as evidenced by a moon-shot four-iron at the 18th on Saturday that sailed 280 yards and stopped six feet from the hole. “I mean, yeah, it was downhill,” says Piercy’s caddie, Darren Woolard, “but guys on Tour just don’t hit four-irons 280.” A final-round 70 was good enough to secure his first Tour win, though it didn’t come with a Masters invite.
Piercy wonders if divine intervention helped him raise his first Tour trophy. As he tells it, the year before, in 2010, a close friend’s wife became suddenly ill with a blood infection. Instead of having him drive nine hours from Reno to San Diego to see her, Piercy pulled some strings to get his buddy on a jet. His friend called the next day. “Scottie, she didn’t make it. But thank you so much for helping me spend those last three hours with her.” In 2011, after Piercy’s out-of-nowhere 61, the same friend phoned again, asking, “Do you think anyone’s watching over you?” Piercy felt chills. On the 72nd hole, his seven-footer for the win was -- he’s sure of it -- a right-to-left breaker. He mishit it left. “But somehow my ball broke right, which it shouldn’t have done. Who knows. Maybe I had an angel helping me out.”
Piercy and Woolard have been friends since they played junior golf together in San Diego. They like to bust chops. Piercy will pull off a Mickelsonian up-and-down and needle his caddie, “Don’t you wish you had that shot?” When Woolard sees reporters interviewing A-listers, he’ll say, “Well, I guess you’re not good enough yet.” If Piercy wants to roll the dice on a risky tee shot, it’s a small battle of wills.
Woolard: “I like three-iron.”
Piercy, snapping his fingers: “Driver.”
Woolard: “Yep, three-iron’s the play.”
Piercy, another snap: “Driver.”
When asked to explain his boss’s rise through the rankings, Woolard credits swing changes overseen by Jim Hardy that began sinking in a couple of years ago. “Scott got on Tour with an amazing work ethic, unbelievable talent and a bad golf swing,” Woolard says. “He had to develop a crazy-good short game, and now that he’s straighter, the sky’s the limit.”
For his part, Hardy sees Piercy as a new kind of journeyman, a term that suggests a player with a big heart and marginal talent. Says Hardy, “A journeyman is a champion playing with a popgun. Scott’s a champion with a Howitzer.” Hardy recalls a round at TPC Scottsdale in which Piercy decided to stretch one out off the tee. “His go-to drive is a 290-yard cut, but he just kills one 340. I asked him what his technical thoughts were, and he looked at me like it was the dumbest question. He said, ‘I just hit it harder.’ That’s pure athleticism that you can’t teach.”
Piercy saw and played Augusta for the first time in November (“I always said I’d never go unless I qualified”), and he no doubt envisions turning the Masters into That 60s Show. He likes to go low. Since the start of 2012, Piercy has shot 64 or better seven times, as many as Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy combined.
What would please him come Sunday afternoon at the Masters? “Winning,” he says, though he’s yet to crack the top 25 in five major starts. “With Augusta, if you’re on, you can get at it. If you’re off, it can kill you. Can I win? Yes. It’s just a matter of doing it. But I have the self-belief.”
On the topic of belief, Piercy opens up in a surprising, almost vulnerable way. “I’ve always had it, self-confidence. I believe in myself. I believe I’m going to beat you. I’m also quiet. I’m not a guy who goes out of his way to talk to you, because I’m here to do a job. A lot of people see that as arrogance. They think I’m cocky. I’m not. But there seems to be a wall that separates me. And if the fans knew me, more of them would follow me. I’m a normal guy. If they see a snarling-mad, not-smiling guy, it’s because I’m busting my ass to support myself and my family, and I sometimes get mad at myself for not performing to my ability. Who I am on the course is not who I am off it.”
It’s almost dark at Doral, with only enough light for a few photographs at the 10th tee. One shot calls for Piercy to showcase his happy-face Titleists, but no one brought a Sharpie. As if on cue, a couple of autograph-seeking kids walk by. They’re waved over and offered a deal: Borrow your Sharpie in exchange for a signature from a two-time PGA Tour winner about to play in his first Masters.
“O.K.,” says one of the kids, sizing up Piercy. Just one question: “Who is he?”