You’re taking a well-deserved week off before the U.S. Open after a tie for third at the Memorial and a 36-hole U.S. Open qualifier, which you easily got through. You must be relaxing at home with the wife and kids.
Yeah we have a birthday party on Wednesday for my 7-year-old son. It was crazy. We had the redneck Slip ‘n Slide. There were water balloon fights in the pool. We had a lot of fun.
You’ve had five top 10s this season, including three top-five finishes. It seems like you have kicked it into a different gear after taking your first win last year in Milwaukee.
The win definitely helped my confidence. It was good to see all the stuff that I’ve been working on forever with my teacher, Mark Wood, finally come together. At the beginning of this year I wasn’t converting a lot of birdie opportunities, but here lately I’ve started to make some putts. Basically from Hilton in April to the Memorial I’ve played on golf courses that I like and have had some good finishes in the past.
What have you and Mark been working on?
We always try to keep it pretty simple. When we get together in the off-season we basically write out a little card with everything that we’re going to work on that year. I don’t try to do anything other than focus on those two or three things. I think that’s why my ball-striking has become more consistent. Before I started working with Mark in 2000, I would go out to the range and find a Band-Aid and what worked that day. Now I feel like I have a better sense of what I’m trying to do and what happens when I hit a bad shot.
You made it through the U.S. Open qualifier on Monday in Columbus, but the two guys that beat you at the Memorial couldn’t get through.
For one, it just goes to show you how many good players are out there. Secondly, it shows what a crapshoot a one-day qualifier is. Those guys had obviously been playing well, but sometimes it’s hard to come back the next day and play well. Last year I missed the cut at the Memorial. I played horrible but I went out in the qualifier and shot 10- or 11-under.
Doesn’t it wear you out mentally and physically being in contention?
Yes it can. Rickie Fowler had been sitting on the lead all week. We had six or seven weather delays. All that takes a lot out of you. I think when that happens it’s hard to be focused in a qualifier held the next day, especially when you don’t get off to a good start. All your senses are heightened when you’re in contention, especially on a golf course like Muirfield where you have to be very careful around the greens. Sunday was a very difficult day with the wind, so your mind is going 100 miles a minute. It felt like we were playing 36 holes.
So Tiger is right when he says he needs more live rounds to regain his sharpness?
Absolutely. When I was kid my dad used to say anybody can play when they’re out with their buddies, but how are you going to do when the flag comes up and they hand you that scorecard on the first tee and you have to count every shot. It’s a different deal. And the grind of the PGA Tour. That’s what separates the guys who’ve been great for a long time from the rest of the pack.
But you’re not always grinding when you’re first off on Sunday morning and you’re 20 shots off the lead.
I’m always trying to work on something for the next week. If you’re off first, you’ve obviously not played your best, so they’re some things that you need to work on. So I play a little game with myself like trying to shoot my lowest score all week and try not to make a bogey. No one will probably notice, but you might find something in your game that will help you play better the next week. But there are times toward the end of the round when you know you’re going to miss the cut that you’ll try to get out of the way of a guy that you’re playing with who is playing well.
You played your college golf at Oklahoma State and you quit the team for a short time. What happened there?
I never thought I would play golf again. My heart wasn’t in it so I went to Coach Mike Holder and told him that my spot should be given to somebody who was more deserving. I turned my golf clubs in and for about three months I didn’t even have a set. But then after about three months I started to get that itch back and I thought I was going to have to transfer, but Coach Holder told me, “Well, I never kicked you off the team.” He took me back and the rest is history.
What’s the toughest thing about making the transition from a player who has one or two good weeks a year to a guy that becomes a consistent money winner year after year?
If the athletic ability is equal between two guys, it comes down to the mental aspects of the game. Once you get your game to the physical point and can hit all the shots, then it’s just the mental difference. When I was a kid I used to dream about being on Tour, but I never thought about winning. The main goal for me was to get there. So what do you do once you make it? I saw guys on the Nationwide Tour who had plenty of talent to make it on the regular Tour, but the mental picture of seeing yourself being in contention every week is not there in many players.
What’s changed about the courses and the equipment since you joined the Tour eight years ago?
The courses seem longer. The rough is higher in some places. The equipment has obviously gotten better. When you look at it honestly, some of the best courses that we play aren’t the longest.
What makes these guys hit it a million miles — the golf ball or the driver?
It’s a combination of both. When I look back, the set of clubs that I bought in the seventh grade — Jack Nicklaus MacGregor irons — I used until I got to college. There wasn’t a launch monitor and I wasn’t matching my ball with my driver. I used a driver that I hit well and I used it for years. But now everything is dialed in and you can really maximize what a player can do. Not only has the equipment gotten better, but also the ability to match people with what they should be playing.
I’m sure you’re excited about going back to Pebble Beach, where you’ve played in the AT&T every year.
I’m anxious to see how it plays this time of year when it can be firm and fast under U.S. Open conditions.
What will your week look like in terms of practice once you get there?
I play 18 holes on Tuesday and Wednesday, just like I would if it were a regular Tour event. I’ve played the course 40 or 50 times so I won’t overdue it with time on the golf course before the tournament starts. You can hit all the wedges in the world in practice, but the most important thing is executing them on Thursday.
What are some of your personal quirks?
I never mark my ball with nickels or carry them in my pocket. I mark my own ball. Some guys have their caddies mark their ball. I also fold my own pin sheet. My caddie has plenty of other things to do. That’s about as superstitious as I get.
What are you goals for the rest of the season?
I’ve never made the Tour Championship. To get in there I need to make top 30 on the money list. This would set me up for next year with the WGC events and the majors. It would also be a great honor to make the Ryder Cup team. I have a ways to go on the ranking — 16th — but I’m going to give it my best shot.