Nick Watney is off to as good of a start to 2011 as anyone on the PGA Tour. In seven events this year he has earned five top-10 finishes, including a victory last month at the Cadillac Championship, where he fired a final-round 67 to defeat fellow up-and-comer Dustin Johnson by three strokes.
But if you saw him walking down the street you probably wouldn’t give him a second look.
In spite of this early-season success, Watney seems to be a bit of a no-name heading into the Masters this week. You will hear the folks on ESPN and Golf Channel talking about Woods, Mickelson, Westwood and Kaymer long before they mention Watney.
Go to the Masters official website and you’ll find streaming video of Tiger on the range and large sections of the website devoted to profiling Mickelson and Fowler. Buried down at the corner of the “Newsroom” page, you’ll find a link to Watney’s presser.
It’s almost as if the 29-year-old Sacramento native is a footnote to the event. The only people who believe Watney will be a big story this week are the folks at Bodog, who have him listed at 14/1 to take home the Green Jacket (behind only Mickelson, 6/1, and Woods, 8/1).
You can count your author as one who agrees with Bodog on Watney’s chances for success this week.
Augusta is a long course (7,435 yards) with tons of sloping fairways, large trees, tightly shorn greenside areas, and some of the slickest and most undulating greens of any course on the PGA tour circuit.
To win there one must hit it far, fairly straight, be able to get up-and-down, and most importantly, putt. This suits Watney’s game perfectly.
Watney averages 296.0 yards off the tee, which is plenty long enough and good for 16th on tour. The problem is that he hits only 58.55 percent of fairways. This lack of accuracy will be an issue this week, not so much because the roughs at Augusta are thick, but because the fairways are tree-lined and narrow.
Watney still manages to find the green over 57 percent of the time he drives the ball into the rough, but ultimately having to hit approach shots from the rough onto Augusta’s hard greens is less than ideal.
The good news for Watney is If he finds himself in the trees, he will be able to rely on his superior scrambling ability. Watney sits at fourth on tour in overall scrambling, getting up-and-down 69.37 percent of the time.
His game around the green is strong, but what is really impressive is what he can do with the flatstick. Watney is statistically the tour’s second best putter, averaging 1.687 putts per green in regulation and a staggeringly low 27.65 putts-per-round. It is his success on and around the greens that has helped him take the lead on tour in overall scoring average at 68.92.
These numbers are very impressive, but playing in the Masters is not like playing at other tournaments. The stakes are higher, and many a promising player has had his high expectations squashed by the pressure of playing in the world’s most exclusive tournament.
Of course, this isn’t Watney’s first experience at Augusta. He had quite a bit of success last year, finishing seventh at eight under par. Most impressively, though, was his final-round 65—tied with Anthony Kim for low round of the tournament. Watney’s final round success last year was no fluke, as this season he finds himself at third on the PGA Tour with a final-round scoring average of 67.60.
All the attention this week will be focused on Tiger (can he finally figure it out?), and Phil (will he be able to repeat?), and a litany of other higher-profile characters. You won’t hear much about him before Thursday, but Nick Watney’s terrific putting and short game—the two biggest keys to success at Augusta—separate him from the field.
He is playing the kind of solid golf that makes him a legitimate threat to take down the old favorites and make himself a household name.