PALM HARBOR, Fla. (AP) — A waist-high net stretches across the back of the driving range at Innisbrook, some 300 yards away, mainly to keep golf balls of some of the biggest hitters from disappearing into a lake that most people don’t even know is there.
Will MacKenzie was asked how far it was to the water.
“I don’t know,” he said Wednesday. “But some dude with a straw hat was just out here flying it over the water.”
Over the water or over the net?
“Over the water,” he said, enunciating each word. “It was sick. I said to myself, ‘Think I’ll just work on the ol’ wedge game today.’ If he has a short game, we’re all in trouble. Because it was pure.”
The dude in the straw hat is Alvaro Quiros.
He was on his way to the beach in Spain when he and his girlfriend stopped in a market. She tried on a straw Panama hat, playfully put it on his head, and Quiros liked the hat so much he has been wearing one ever since. It has become his trademark – that and his prodigious tee shots, skinny sideburns and a contagious smile.
The flamboyant Spaniard is wrapping up his first tour of America at the Transitions Championship, where he is making a name for himself.
After a first-round loss in the Accenture Match Play Championship, the 26-year-old Quiros was a fixture on the leaderboard during the CA Championship until he struggled on the back nine with his putting and tied for 13th.
Most of the European Tour members took a week off before returning for Bay Hill or the Shell Houston Open as a tune up for the Masters. Quiros is the only one who stayed behind to play at Innisbrook.
“Rookie mistake,” Quiros said.
He was not aware that top 50 in the world ranking – Quiros is No. 25 – made him exempt for the Arnold Palmer Invitational. He took an exemption to the Transitions Championship, instead, with no regrets. He loves the looks of the Copperhead Course, among the best in Florida.
As for those monster tee shots on the range?
“I was just trying to hit it straight,” he said.
For those unfamiliar with Quiros – or wondering how he got to No. 25 in the world – he qualified for World Golf Championships at Dove Mountain and at Doral by winning the Portugal Masters last fall and picking up his third career victory in January at the Qatar Masters, the strongest field on the European Tour this year.
It wasn’t his first time to a World Golf Championship.
When he was 16 and just starting to believe he might have a future in golf, Quiros won a junior tournament at La Canada, the public course along the Costa del Sol where he grew up, and first prize was a ticket to the first WGC event held at nearby Valderrama.
That was the year Tiger Woods made a triple bogey on the notorious 17th hole, was fortunate to get into a playoff, then defeated Miguel Angel Jimenez on the first extra hole as the Spanish Civil Guard stretched across the fairway to keep peace.
“If I had to be completely honest,” Quiros said with a smile, “I was pulling for Jimenez.”
No apologies necessary. The Spanish root for their own.
Quiros wanted to come to America much sooner, with dreams of a college scholarship. But no one offered a full ride, and the son of a gardener in Guadiaro could not afford to pay tuition. He remained an amateur and helped Spain to a runner-up finish in 2004 at the World Amateur Team Championship in Puerto Rico, and then turned pro.
The only setback was damaged ligaments in his left wrist. Quiros regained his form over the last year, however, and picked up a valuable asset when Irish caddie Dave McNeilly agreed to work for him, turning down an offer from two-time U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen.
“Maybe he is looking for a little excitement,” Quiros said. “And it is definitely exciting with me because he sometimes visits all the bushes on the golf course and sees part of the golf course he never would with Retief Goosen.”
Quiros can be wild, but his swing is explosive.
And in the short time he has been in a PGA Tour environment, stories already are spreading.
“I heard last week on the second hole, he hit it 30 yards over the green on the par 4. He was chipping back to the flag,” Kenny Perry said. “I drove it in the greenside bunker, but I can’t imagine hitting that far. Everybody in the locker room … that’s the buzz. When you hear the guys talking about it in the locker room, something’s up.”
Quiros is not sure what to expect this week on a tight course at Innisbrook.
“If I hit it straight, this will be fun,” he said, pausing to smile. “If I hit it straight.”
Sean O’Hair is the defending champion, winning last year at 4-under 280. The field includes Adam Scott, Jim Furyk and dozens of Japanese photographers who are at Innisbrook to chronicle 17-year-old Ryo Ishikawa, playing his second PGA Tour event.
Quiros also is looking ahead to his first trip to Augusta National, a course he has never seen – not even on television. He only knows the 15th, 16th and 18th holes from a DVD he watched of Seve Ballesteros.
His family never had the money to buy the TV feed to watch the Masters. That changed when he turned pro, and he could afford a satellite dish so his father could watch him in Europe.
So far, Quiros is putting on quite a show.