Daniel Chopra, like Tiger Woods, is starting to click at Bay Hill

December 8, 2011

ORLANDO, Fla. – He's a member at Isleworth, has been making a swing change, has two young children, and hasn't been playing very well until this week's Arnold Palmer Invitational.

Say hello to Daniel Chopra, who fired an even-par 72 in perfect conditions at Bay Hill on Friday to go into the weekend at 2 under, just seven off the lead of Martin Laird (65).

What, you were thinking of someone else?

"The last few weeks I've hit it as well as I ever have," said Chopra, who wears his hair longer than he did in his prime three years ago, and without the bottle-blond hues.

Born to a Swedish mother and Indian father and raised by his grandparents in India, Chopra was the next big thing when he won the 2007 Ginn sur Mer Classic and 2008 Mercedes-Benz. And then he wasn't. He became the latest chapter of golf's oldest cautionary tale: By trying to get better, he got worse. Way worse.

Chopra disappeared like a certain other Orlando golfer, only it was unintentional and nobody really cared enough to look for him. He only got into the field this week because he is also a Bay Hill member, and Palmer throws a lifeline to Bay Hill boys like Chopra, Robert Damron and Dicky Pride even if they've gone so far off the reservation you couldn't find them with a GPS and a bloodhound.

It's a good thing, too, because Chopra looked ready for the broadcast booth. He'd missed the cut in his only two previous starts this year, once on the PGA Tour and once on the Nationwide. He was hitting so many balls that he hurt his back, and then his elbow, finally submitting to something called a spinal-decompression machine, which works by stretching him out like Silly Putty.

"The whole last two years was just horrible," he said. "Week after week after week, nothing good ever happened."

As is so often the case – think Ian Baker-Finch – the road to hell was paved with new swing thoughts. At the '08 Buick Open, Chopra shot 65-67-68 to go into the final round with a two-shot lead, only to cough up a final-round 75 that left him in a tie for 17th place. Rather than shake it off, he decided to turn his game inside out.

"You're never going to win every single tournament," Chopra said, "but if you're in the lead and you have a bad tournament, at least finish in the top 10. I was so disheartened. I had done that so many times under pressure; when I had a bad round I would just let it get away. I wasn't able to trust my technique, and I felt like I needed something that was a little bit more reliable."

Chopra commenced a total remodel under Jason McCarty of New York's Sebonack Golf Club and began a dizzying free fall, which was not alarming. As another Orlando resident, Tiger Woods, knows all too well, sometimes you have to get worse before you get better. But Chopra dropped to 103rd on the money list in 2009, and 176th in 2010. He and his wife, Samantha, had twins, a boy and a girl, now just over a year old, and while that was terrific it further complicated things professionally. His free fall continued.

After making eight cuts in 28 starts last year, Chopra called Mitchell Spearman, who lives and works in Orlando for part of the year. The first big plus: Chopra could call his new coach and be on the Isleworth driving range with him in just 30 minutes.

"Everything Jason told me was 100 percent dead on," Chopra said, "but in the end I just didn't understand how to implement it into my golf game. I got very, very technical and I wasn't allowing myself to swing a club and just free-flow it. I was always thinking about technique and positions, and you can't play golf like that.

"Mitchell's approach is just slightly different. In the end we got to the point where it wasn't technical. He said, 'I'm not putting you on camera anymore. I'm telling you, your swing looks different. Don't even think about that stuff. Just swing. You've made the changes. They're in there so stop thinking about them. Just hit the golf ball.'"

You get the feeling that other project, Woods (68 Friday, three under for the tournament), is starting to think the same way.

After he'd signed his card, Chopra ran into Palmer outside the Bay Hill locker room. Pride had carded a six-under 66 to get to one under overall. It had been a good Friday for the Bay Hill boys. Chopra and Palmer huddled briefly before Chopra went on his way.

Perhaps, he said, he'll go back to the blond. He's been getting requests, but Chopra says he needs to keep playing better before he busts out the peroxide. Maybe that's how you'll know when he's back.