- Last fall when he was struggling with his game, there were considerably fewer people watching him play. But he had made himself known when he became the first tour player to support NFL players who knelt during the national anthem.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — For the first time in his PGA Tour career, Peter Malnati teed off with the last group on Saturday. The 36-hole leader at Wells Fargo Championship, the world’s 673rd ranked golfer had a following during the third round that’s unfamiliar to him.
Last fall when he was struggling with his game, there were considerably fewer people watching him play. But he had made himself known to the golf-following public in late September when he became the first tour player to speak out in support of the NFL players who knelt during the national anthem.
“You wanna kneel for this?” one patron shouted at him at a tournament a few weeks later, making an apparent reference to fellatio. A 30-year-old white golfer, in a sport dominated by conservatives, was getting flooded with far more negative reactions than positive for lending support to his fellow Americans’ First Amendment exercise.
“Clearly, I was not dealing with…ah I need to stop because I’m going to say something bad,” Malnati told SI Friday after shooting three under par on the day.
On Sept. 22, President Donald Trump called NFL players who protested police brutality and criminal justice inequality during the national anthem “sons of bitches” at a rally. Two days later, dozens of players took part in protests of all forms. In the mid-afternoon, Malnati posted an eight-paragraph, nuanced statement to Twitter that asked what “American values” people stand for while adding that he “take[s] a knee for the flag that represents this administration.”
“The current administration in Washington has made it very clear they don't want the United States to be a nation that cares for those on the margins of society,” Malnati wrote. “Or a nation that celebrates freedom and equality. And they certainly don’t want it to be a nation of compassion and empathy."
“Maybe I guess you could say I disrespected the current president,” says Malnati, who still stands behind what he wrote eight months ago. “But my message was one of, ‘Hey let’s have some empathy. Let’s care for each other. Let’s not tear each other down and have some empathy.’ If you can read that message and think I’m a horrible person, I don’t have a ton of respect for that person.”
Malnati describes his life as a whirlwind for about a month after the post. He’s from Dandridge, Tennessee, and lives in Knoxville, both of which went red in November 2016. Though he had some positive conversations in the locker room with fellow players, the majority of feedback he received was negative. Two of his sponsors told him they supported his stance while another told him not to do that again.
Since October, though, it really hasn’t come up, much to Malnati’s disappointment.
“Unfortunately it has dissipated. And I say unfortunately because I feel like that’s how things are with our news cycle,” Malnati says. “My wife was a gymnast in college. So for two weeks Larry Nassar was the story. But then Trump did something stupid or something stupid happened and that’s not even a story anymore. And we’re not even talking about it anymore and we need to be because it’s still a problem. I feel like that happened too with my deal.”
Malnati’s message, by far his most viral, was hardly his first lengthy post online. Since 2009 he’s kept a running blog—first on Blogspot and now on WordPress—detailing his golf outings. Malnati had nine investors that helped fund his pro career at the beginning, and rather than call each investor with updates, he started a blog and gave them the URL to follow along. In his third post, Malnati described how he found out he had a flat tire just before leaving for the final round of his first professional tournament, jogged to Wal-Mart for a can of Fix-a-Flat and made it to the course in time to get 30 minutes on the range.
The posts are less frequent now. He doesn’t have investors to update anymore. But he plans to write soon after Sunday’s final round.
“I’ve been through some frustrating times with golf and I’ve obviously had some awesome experiences,” Malnati says. “So it’s cathartic for me to spill it all out.”
On Saturday the frustrating times returned. After missing the cut 10 times in 17 events this season, Malnati came into the third round as the solo leader. But he double bogeyed twice and finished +4 on a day (and –3 for the tournament and in a tie for 16th place) when Quail Hollow Club was for the taking. Twenty players shot 3 under par or better on Saturday with softer greens.
Malnati is 187th on tour off the tee, so the 7,600-yard track doesn’t fit him particularly well. He estimated he takes six-iron or higher on his approach on half the holes here, and his ball striking isn’t as good as most of the tour players. So he’s a big believer in his plan that dictates where he can land his approach shots that covers up the warts of his imprecise game.
He hasn’t had a top-25 finish since July and hasn’t seen a top 10 since January 2016. Malnati will have some work to do Sunday to break that two-year drought, but he’s going to trust what got him here.
“This week I came in and I have the word ‘process’ written on my glove,” Malnati said. “That’s kind of my focus. Just focus on my process and be at peace with the results.”