PGA Tour Rookie Alex Prugh off to a fast start

March 9, 2010

Six for six in cuts made, Tour rookie Alex Prugh has already made a splash, and with his uncomplicated approach and a friend on the bag who has his best interests at heart, the Nationwide grad looks as if he’s here to stay.

“Don’t make no noise,” the caddie said.

His man, Alex Prugh, 25, was standing in the rough on the 9th at PGA National last Thursday, his ball almost at the base of the one cruddy little tree on the right side of the hole. Nobody was following them, really, but an AWOL ball always draws rubber­neckers, and now a half-dozen people were almost breathing down Prugh’s neck.

The rookie player and his rookie caddie, Zach Bixler, were at the Honda Classic. They played on the same University of Washington golf team, and now they have taken their show on the road. On the West Coast they made all five cuts, with three top 10s. Now they were trying to close out their first round on their first stop in their first swing through Florida.

Prugh, having started on 10, was playing his last hole for the day, and he was two under. A raw wind whipped over the condo roofs and the lagoons and the fairways, heading straight for Florida’s Turnpike. (Nobody can say PGA National, home of the
PGA of America, is hard to find.) When they stepped on the tee, the boys were thinking about getting in and getting to three under: 421 yards, wind off their right shoulder, left front pin. Perfect for Prugh, who with a strong grip takes it a little outside on the backswing, drops it in going down and smashes draw shots. (Prugh’s drop-in move is not as obvious as that of another golfer from the state of Washington, Fred Couples, but you get the idea.) Driver, wedge, one putt, lunch.

But Prugh’s last drive of the day was a lousy push job that finished under that cruddy little tree. (You should have seen the 130-mph second swing Prugh took off the 9th, at his empty upright tee.) Now, about five feet from where Prugh and Bixler were trying to make a living, an old man stood with a flapping plastic shopping bag. That’s when Bixler, wearing tennis shoes, tall black socks, long brown shorts and a couple of windbreakers, looked up from under the flat brim of his snow-white nature valley cap (caddie endorsement deal) and said, “Don’t make no noise.”

If you’re lucky, when you get on Tour, you’ll come out with a Bixler, a buddy who has nothing but your best interests at heart. This Prugh—you say it Proo, and the city he’s from, Spo-can—is lucky. His caddie, a pro himself, can beat him on any given Tuesday, and Bixler can read putts and imagine recovery shots and talk March Madness. The caddie will be in Prugh’s wedding, when the golfer marries a Spokane gal (Prugh’s word), Katie Penberthy, in September. As road buddies, Prugh and Bixler do fine. (Judd Apatow movies, Applebee’s restaurants, Hilton in its various hotel brands.) Last week they shared digs at the Doubletree just down PGA Boulevard from the course. Free cookies every night.

Prugh, who earned his Tour card by finishing 16th on the Nationwide tour last year, has no entourage. His caddie is his five-spits-per-fairway shrink. (Prugh is good for one or two.) His father, Steve, the head pro at the Manito Golf & Country Club in Spokane, is his de facto manager. Prugh’s brother, Corey, three years older and an assistant pro at Manito, is his swing coach. His sister, Hillary Prugh Carls, 31, is his lawyer. His mother, Susan, is his cheerleader and nurse. All in the family.

Steve played golf at Oregon with Peter Jacobsen, who remains a good friend. Jacobsen sent an e-mail to Steve the other day that said, “Tell Alex to keep playing well. No one ever turns pro to sign deals or worry about agents. We play to win! That stuff will all happen in time.”

During the West Coast swing, TV showed Prugh making swings here and there, and Ken Still, a member of the 1969 Ryder Cup team and a crusty son of the Evergreen State, got worried. So he called Steve and said, “He’s playing good—don’t let ’em change a damn thing.”

Prugh’s not looking to make any changes. He is your classic uncomplicated golfer: Hit ball, find ball, repeat. The little flash of anger on the 9th tee is typical of him: Get it out of your system fast, move on. Prugh is like Davis Love III (the son of a teaching pro) and Arnold Palmer (the son of a course superintendent). He grew up in the game and is steeped in it. The family lived a wedge shot from Manito’s 6th tee, and all three kids took to golf. (Corey played at Washington, Hillary at Montana State.) Alex got good trying to chase his brother and other elders. His mother remembers taking Alex to a junior tournament in Montana. Alex was nine, playing a 16-year-old. The starter asked Alex if he was nervous. Nope, he replied. “I don’t mind beating these big guys.”

Today he’s 5′ 10″ and 160 pounds, and not much has changed.
He majored in economics (Bixler did, too), and he’s a smart kid. If you’re looking for profound, you’re asking a lot—he’s a 25-year-old professional golfer—but he has his moments. In 2004, at age 19, Prugh was the first alternate for the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills. He flew into LaGuardia Airport and was waiting at the baggage carrousel for his clubs. Aaron Baddeley and Tim Clark were waiting for their clubs too “I saw them and thought, They’re regular people who happen to be very good at golf,” Prugh said the other day. “They were waiting for their bags, like everybody else.”

As a kid Prugh was never one to hang on every amazing thing that Tiger Woods did. “I was more into all that,” Corey says. “Alex was doing his own thing.” He’s a regular person who happens to be very good at golf. Six events into his big league career, he is undaunted.

He has had good training. In the summer of ’77 Steve played in the Dutch, German and Swiss Opens, among others. The son’s the same way, willing to get on a plane. As an amateur he played in Great Britain and Japan. Last year he won the New Zealand Open, a Nationwide stop, playing the final 11 holes in eight under par. In victory Prugh, draped in a colorful Maori blanket on a hot day, raised his trophy high and then headed to the airport, Bixler at his side.

On Saturday at the Honda, Prugh was paired with Chris Riley, a former Ryder Cupper. Riley liked what he saw. “He’s the same age I was when I got on Tour, and he has way more game than I did,” Riley says. “He’s not super long but plenty long enough. He’s a nice kid with a good head on his shoulders. Does he want it? When you’re 25 and you have no money in your bank account, you want it.”

Prugh wants it. He wants to buy a house in Spokane and call it home, no matter how much time he spends working on his game in Las Vegas. His goal for this year is to play in the Tour Championship. He still hasn’t qualified for any of the four majors. Nobody’s going crazy here. They know it’s a long, long road playing the Tour.

On Thursday, Prugh closed with a scrambling par, on a birdie hole. In the second round he made a bogey on the par-5 18th. In the third round he salvaged par there. On Sunday he closed with another bogey. He dumped his third into a greenside trap and after a bad bunker shot took two angry swipes at the sand. He finished in the middle of the pack (35th), but his bank account grew to $612,854, good for 25th on the money list.

“I have to learn to close these rounds,” Prugh said when he was done, signing balls for waiting children. Low energy? Tired head? What was it?”Nah,” the kid said. “Just bad shots.”.