New PGA Tour Players Feel the Pressure

New PGA Tour Players Feel the Pressure

You can have Phil Mickelson’s second green jacket. For my money the most indelible moment of 2006 so far was Greg Owen’s impromptu, high-stakes hockey game around the 17th hole at Bay Hill, where the luckless Englishman three-putted from 40 inches to all but gift-wrap the title for Rod Pampling.

It was the quintessential golf-as-NASCAR moment: an awful wreck you couldn’t take your eyes off of. However, a close second in the early balloting for MWT (Most Watchable Tournament) was Chris Couch’s oh, so perilous victory in New Orleans, which was so full of high anxiety and smokeless chewing tobacco that until he cross-handed his final chip shot into the hole the working title was, “Thank You for Choking.”

What did these two finishes have in common? What’s the theme? It’s the most reliable plot line on Tour: A career grinder arrives at by far the biggest moment of his golfing life and fights a losing/winning battle with his nerves to squander/salt away his first victory on the PGA Tour, and, oh, yeah, $1 million, give or take $50,000.

In these fallow days in between majors, when Tiger is grieving, Phil is taking time off and Ernie and Vijay just don’t quite look like themselves, the riveting theater of the absurdly nervous first-timers is the Tour’s most reliable sell. Because when a first-timer gets into the last group on Sunday, it doesn’t matter what make of car or bank is sponsoring the tournament — it’s a major to that guy.

Aaron Baddeley winning Hilton Head on Easter Sunday was good copy, especially since he had to outlast Jim Furyk to do it. J.B. Holmes’s domination of course and field at the FBR Open was buzz-worthy, though it lacked the drama of a wide-eyed newbie trying to remember how to breathe. At the EDS Byron Nelson Championship last weekend his name was Brett Wetterich.

We don’t know much about Wetterich except what he revealed, quickie-bio style, in his press conference on Sunday. He lives in Jupiter, Florida, and practices at the Medalist, Greg Norman’s club, but knows none of Jupiter’s famous golfers. He lives in a townhouse amid a bunch of other townhouse owners who have conveniently become his buddies. “It’s probably a little rowdy out there right now,” he said.

Wetterich hits it long — about 310 yards with a 5-wood on the 18th hole on Sunday — but isn’t afraid to cry. After making a routine par to beat Trevor Immelman by one, he blinked back tears and attributed the emotion to thoughts of his late older brother, Mark, who died in a car accident while coming home from work in Chicago three years ago. Brett has his brother’s initials etched into his golf bag.

Immelman finished second for the second straight week after going into the final round with a share of the lead. In fact the 26-year-old South African took three-stroke leads into the back nine at both the Wachovia Championship two weeks ago and the Nelson last week, and lost both times. If you subscribe to the notion that a guy’s got to be in contention and fail a certain number of times before he breaks through (exhibit A: David Duval) Immelman is about to blow up.

“I’m playing the best golf of my life,” he says, and it’s hard to argue. He looks like a future star, with almost as much pop as Wetterich despite his small size. On the first tee for a practice round at the Masters with Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and Gary Player last month, Immelman hit last and flew everybody. He mock-flexed for the crowd, a victory for the little guy.

Now all he’s got to do is show some muscle between the ears. Perhaps some mirrored sunglasses would help. At the Wachovia he three-putted from 50 feet on the last hole to let Jim Furyk into a playoff, then lost the tournament with a drive into the right rough. His driver’s misses went both ways at the TPC Four Seasons Resort Las Colinas. That’s a sign of nerves, which is not a good sign considering one of Immelman’s playing partners on Sunday was his best friend on Tour, Adam Scott.

Lucas Glover, who looks like he might make the Ryder Cup team, was asked recently about nerves, and his most terrifying shot as a pro. It was, he said, his approach to the 18th hole at the 2005 BellSouth at Atlanta. Visibly shaking, he blocked it right, into the stands, made double bogey and missed a playoff. It was the second best thing that could have happened to him, because the next time he was in contention, in New Orleans, he didn’t get quite as nervous, and the time after that, at the Disney, he didn’t get nervous at all and won.

Immelman and Owen can only hope they’ll soon take a page from that playbook.

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