I’ve been around the game of golf since I was eight years old. But until this past Saturday, I had only walked a full 18 holes as a spectator once. It was with my late grandfather, who took me out to a tournament when I was probably 11 years old.
Looking back on it, he probably wanted to teach me about respecting the game, and how the players carried themselves on the course, as well as how they interacted with the fans.
Needless to say, I’ve watched countless tournaments on television. I've seen everyone from Tiger Woods to Phil Mickelson, David Duval to Fred Couples, and every player in between win golf tournaments.
But the one thing I didn’t know was how they carried themselves on the golf course.
Sure, you can watch them for all 18 holes on CBS Sports. But do you really know how they carry themselves when the cameras aren’t on them? Do you know how they react as they’re walking down the fairway to play their second shot, or while walking up to the green?
How do they interact with the fans? Do they acknowledge them at all? And do they toss golf balls to young kids who are watching them, wide-eyed, like they’re bigger than life?
At that age, they probably are.
As I came out to the Crowne Plaza Invitational here in Fort Worth, Texas, I wanted to follow around one golfer. He’s a former collegiate standout from Fresno State.
I’ve been watching his career since he was a sophomore at Fresno State, and I’ve seen the accolades he racked up during his time as a Bulldog.
Watney earned ten victories, was a three-time All-American, the Western Athletic Conference Player of the Year, and had countless top ten finishes.
He was as decorated as any golfer that Fresno State has ever seen. I knew he was going to be someone to watch once he finally turned professional.
He did so in 2003, after finishing his collegiate golfing career at Fresno State. Watney quickly realized that there was a huge difference between playing against players from other schools and playing against professionals.
Watney spent a year on the Nationwide Tour and he told John Berkovich of e-sports.com that, looking back, it was the best decision he ever made.
"I was glad I played in a few events and it was an unbelievable experience, but I knew I wasn’t ready," Watney told Berkovich . "Some guys get their card right away and get beaten up when they come out here. In those few events I realized for the first time how good the players on the PGA Tour really are."
Needless to say, it was a humbling experience for the recent college graduate. He learned countless lessons on the Nationwide Tour and he brought those lessons with him to the PGA Tour, becoming one of the circuit's up and coming young stars.
So, I knew where I wanted to be on Saturday as I made my way from my home to the golf course and put some thoughts together before I headed out to the first tee.
Little did I know, this day would offer more than I ever anticipated.
I was a little late getting out to the first tee as Watney and his playing partner were already half way down the fairway. I caught up to them and watched as Watney bogeyed his first hole of the day. Watney, who began his third round at six under par, didn't want to start his day like that.
By the fifth hole, Nick had made a little bit of a comeback, birdieing two of his next four holes, and had moved to seven-under par, just a few shots back of the leader.
Not only had he started to flash that famous smile that so many fans had grown accustomed to, but I noticed that some friends and family members had joined his gallery.
I kept to myself, not really wanting to pry or ask questions that seemed inappropriate at the time. But there was one family in particular that caught my attention. It was a son, 18-years old as I would later learn, walking the course with his father. I figured they were friends from back in Fresno, so I didn’t think much of it.
But something inside me knew there was more to this friendship than I was realizing.
So, as Watney finished up the fifth hole, I turned to the father and asked if they knew Nick from his days at Fresno State. The father shook his head, saying he and his son had just met Nick a few years ago at the 2008 Byron Nelson Championship.
As we walked up to the sixth tee, I began talking to the son, Cade Grimm, and his father, Mike. Cade began to tell me the story of how he became a fan of Nick’s and how Watney had gone out of his way to treat him and his family like they were long time friends.
Cade is a high school senior, set to graduate in a few weeks from Mansfield High School. He'll be headed to Baylor University in the fall. Ironically enough, he is going to be joining the golf team, and wants to become good enough to turn pro when his college days are finished.
It's the same type of dream Nick had when he left Fresno State.
Cade began watching Nick back in 2008, when Watney was playing at the Mercedes Championship. He watched Nick on television and was immediately drawn to his intensity on the golf course. “He looked so into it,” Cade said of Watney. “He looked intense and had that competitive fire.”
As I later found out, it was at a golf tournament in San Antonio that this friendship took an even bigger turn in Cade’s life.
After following one of Watney’s rounds, Nick invited Cade and his father over to their family’s home to watch what was left of the Red River Shootout between Texas and Oklahoma.
You can imagine that Cade couldn’t say "yes" fast enough. The 18-year old soon to be college student was getting to hang out with the golfer he wanted to be just like.
Since then, Cade has made sure that he makes it to all four rounds of whatever tournament his favorite golfer is playing in here in Texas. He told me he was hoping Nick would be playing in the Byron Nelson last weekend, but was excited to see that he had committed to playing at the Crowne Plaza Invitational in Forth Worth.
During Watney's third round at The Colonial, I watched as his caddie made sure to acknowledge both Cade and his father, Mike, and even jawed a little bit with Cade for showing up late.
It makes a regular kid, a fan, feel like he’s important. A feeling not often expressed by a lot of other golfers on the PGA Tour. I’m sure other fans that have had their brush with some of the “good guys” here on tour. But how many of them have actually gotten to spend time with their hero?
That’s the kind of person Nick is. He comes from a small town, growing up just outside of Sacramento, and has become one of the up and coming stars on the highest level of the sport he loves.
Not only that, he knows what it feels like to watch his favorite golfers, and has in turn given that experience to another young man.
I’ve often said that athletes aren’t role models. But Nick Watney has made me realize that there are exceptions to that rule.
So, Nick teed off on Sunday afternoon to begin his final round here at The Colonial. It wasn’t a great day for the 29-year old, who three-putted on the par three ninth hole for a bogey, then hit his second shot on the par-five 11th hole out-of-bounds, ending up with a double-bogey that all but ended his chance at a Sunday charge.
As I followed him around the course, I got a chance to talk to his fiance, Amber, and his future father-in-law, Rusty, about the kind of person that Nick is, both on and off the course.
As I talked with Rusty, I asked him to describe Nick's attitude between the ropes. His answer, “focused”.
Rusty did admit, though, to wanting to see Nick be more aggressive and take a few more risks. Off the course, Rusty said Watney is as big a sports fan as anyone.
“Nick loves sports and he’s a heck of an athlete. He loves to play basketball and he loves to throw the football around.”
Amber also talked about how focused Nick is on the course, but she also told me that he’s just like anyone else off the course. “He wears t-shirts, plays video games, and is a complete sports nut,” she told me.
She even told me that Nick is close to a few players on tour and keeps in touch with them by playing Mario Kart online.
Amber admitted that it would be tough with him being gone so much on tour, but now that she recently graduated from the University of Texas at Austin, she travels with him full time, and has really enjoyed it.
I asked her if he gets noticed at the airports and she told me, “after all of the television exposure at Dural, he was noticed a lot more than he had been before.”
She also told me that he was a little “shell shocked” at people recognizing him off the golf course, but doesn’t mind taking the time to sign autographs.
It was interesting watching his reaction to the fans rooting for him on Sunday. Fans were hoping he would make a run to the top of the leaderboard.
When he would hear someone yell, “let’s go Nick,” he’d just look up enough to acknowledge them and then put his focus right back on the golf course. It wasn’t that he didn’t appreciate it, but it seemed that he was still wondering how people knew about him, or even that they were out there watching him, and not some of the more high profile golfers that were still out on the course.
That’s just the kind of person he is.
He’s no different on the course than he is off it. He’s just as humble and as willing to be himself to his fans as he is to his family once Watney's day is over.
After a three-putt on the ninth hole, he looked up at me just after he teed off on ten and said, “oops,” with that same kid-like smile that you just can’t help but be drawn to.
He and his wife Amber boarded a plane on Sunday and headed for Columbus, Ohio for Jack Nicklaus’ Memorial Tournament at Muirfield Golf Club. He’ll play his practice round on Wednesday and tee off for the first round of the tournament sometime on Thursday.
For Nick, this is just another tournament in the long journey still ahead of him. Besides that, he has another journey that will be a big chapter in his life.
In just a few short months, he will become a husband to his fiance, Amber. It didn’t take me long to be impressed with her.
There’s no question Watney will look back at The Colonial and wonder, “what if.” But those thoughts will be long gone come Thursday morning. His focus will be on what he needs to do to have a good day and keep himself in contention for all four days.
Who knows, maybe this up and coming PGA Tour star will touch the life of another young fan at the Memorial Tournament, just like he’s touched the life of young Cade Grimm.
Oh, and by the way, Cade might just be the next big golfer to watch as he begins his career at Baylor University.
I’m not making the biggest and boldest prediction in history. But for those of you who know him, and have played alongside this young man, you know that he has a talent that can flourish if he keeps at it.
After all, Grimm's favorite golfer has already wished him the best of luck at the next level. Believe me, that’s an email that is probably already printed and framed in the Grimm home.
So, for those of you that have a chance to get out to the Memorial Tournament in Dublin, Ohio, make sure you find Nick Watney. Watch this young star and watch how he carries himself on the golf course.
You never know. You may just become a fan, yourself.