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Opportunity Knocks

Feb. 09, 2009
Feb. 09, 2009

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Feb. 9, 2009

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Opportunity Knocks

A late bloomer like FBR Open winner Kenny Perry knew exactly what a couple of rookie challengers were going through as they took another step toward long-sought success

THE PGA TOUR issport's ultimate meritocracy, where there are no guaranteed contracts and aplayer's worth is quantified daily by the numbers penciled on a scorecard. Butlife isn't always fair when it comes to making it to the Tour, and whether aplayer gets to chase the dream in the big leagues often has as much to do withluck and pluck as skill. The soldiers of fortune on the Sunday leader board atthe FBR Open were a reminder of how perilous the journey can be. ¶ The 54-holeleader, Kenny Perry, once went broke playing the minitours, and he was sodispirited with his playing prospects that he was strongly considering taking ajob in a friend's dry-cleaning business. Instead he borrowed $5,000 for onelast hurrah at Q school. Nearly $30 million in earnings later, Perry, 48, isone of the game's great success stories.

This is an article from the Feb. 9, 2009 issue

Battling Perrythroughout a taut Sunday at TPC Scottsdale was rookie James Nitties, 26, acocky, charismatic Aussie whose on-course insouciance belies a hardscrabblebackground. The son of a fishmonger, Nitties had had a hand-to-mouth golfcareer; at a long-ago amateur event he sold his driver to cover expenses, thenwon the tournament using a three-wood off the tee. Nitties turned pro in late2004 and in his third professional start finished second at the Australian PGA.A star was born, or so it seemed, but in the summer of '05 he was stricken withreactive arthritis. Already a lean 6'1", Nitties lost 40 pounds and spent amonth in a hospital. It took him nearly a year and a half to get healthy—todayhe manages the arthritis through exercise and a daily regimen of meds—and hiscareer got a boost when he was chosen as a contestant on the Golf Channelreality show Big Break: Mesquite, which aired in the fall of '07. Afterknocking around the Nationwide tour last year, Nitties finally earned his wayto the bigs via a strong second-place finish at Q school. Two weeks ago, at theBob Hope Classic, he announced his arrival with a 62 during the fourth round,though he was so far back he still missed the cut.

Nitties playswith the palpable desire of someone who's never been handed a thing, butanother Sunday protagonist radiated the same kind of desperate intensity.Playing alongside Perry, a stroke back at the outset of the final round, was30-year-old rookie Scott Piercy, and he, too, was trying to make the most ofhis long-awaited big break. For most of the 21st century Piercy had been a kindof cult figure, his street cred established in cutthroat money games in hisnative Las Vegas and some very low rounds during PGA Tour Monday qualifying,the Darwinian shootout during which five or six dozen dreamers compete for fourspots in that week's tournament. From 2003 to '08, Piercy successfullyMonday-qualified for 20 Tour events, and his heroics included an 80-footer towin a playoff that got him into the 2005 Western Open, at which he went on tofinish 40th. "I was saying for a long time that Scott was the best playerin golf without a place to play," says his lifelong swing instructor, TomCarlson.

Piercy's fortunesbegan to shift when he successfully Mondayed for the 2005 AT&T Pebble BeachNational Pro-Am. Here he picks up the story: "I wound up playing a practiceround with an amateur named Craig Johnson. He had a golf buddy in Florida whohad a bookie in New York...." Long story short: In '07 a syndicate of 20high rollers backed Piercy with the $180,000 buy-in at the Ultimate Game, thehucksters' tournament put on by Vegas casino czar Steve Wynn that paid $2million to the winner. It was there that Piercy's legend got a wider airing.Three strokes down standing on the 13th tee, he birdied five of the last sixholes to roar to victory. "The money let me breathe," says Piercy, whokept slightly less than half of the loot with the rest going to his backers."It meant I didn't have to keep playing hurt." Piercy took it easy forthe better part of six months to heal a banged-up left wrist, an injury he hadbeen playing through to put food on the table for his wife and two youngsons.

He resurfaced onthe Nationwide tour last year, having earned his spot through yet another tripto Q school. It was the first time he enjoyed status on any decent tour, andPiercy experienced a breakthrough year that included a scorching final-round 61to win the tournament in Wichita, Kans.

Ending up ninthon the Nationwide money list shot Piercy to the PGA Tour, and in just a monthhe has been a revelation, finishing 12th at the Sony Open and 19th at the Hope.At the FBR he just kept coming, making eight birdies in the first 13 holes onSaturday to open a four-stroke lead. He got a little tentative on the way in,making three bogeys to get passed by the hard-charging Perry, but by thenPiercy had already made a strong impression.

"I'll leaveit at this: He doesn't lack for confidence," says Tour veteran CharleyHoffman, who also makes his home in Las Vegas. "Sometimes Scott rubs guysthe wrong way out here. Actually, everywhere. But you have to have that beliefin yourself to be a great player."

Both rookies werepushed to their limits during the final round of the FBR. Nitties conjured aflawless front nine, making four birdies to take the lead at the turn, but hetook his foot off the gas at the wrong time. He made seven straight pars on theback nine before a sloppy bogey at 17 ended his bid. Piercy, too, playedfearlessly for much of the final round, with a birdie at the 10th hole givinghim the outright lead. But three straight bogeys followed, and he ceded thestage to Perry, the cagiest of veterans. Perry didn't have his best stuff, buthe managed his game and emotions well enough to cobble together a closing 69.Shaking off a 72nd-hole bogey, he trumped Hoffman in a playoff, the 13thvictory of Perry's late-blooming career.

Afterward bothPiercy and Nitties accentuated the positives. They are now well positioned forwhat is shaping up as a lively rookie-of-the-year race that also figures toinclude Webb Simpson, the sweet-swinging 23-year-old by way of Wake Forest whohad top 10s at the Sony and the Hope, and was tied for fifth at FBR through tworounds before having a rough weekend. Piercy and Nitties now have a great jumpon keeping their cards for next year—Piercy's tie for sixth was worth $194,250,while Nitties's tie for fourth came with $264,000. Nitties, especially, can usethe dough. He still lives at home with his parents in Cardiff, outsideNewcastle, and he drives a 1997 Mitsubishi Lancer.

But the value oftheir successful week in the desert can't be fully measured in dollars or FedExCup points. After such circuitous journeys, both of these rookies have finallyarrived. At the end of a nerve-jangling Sunday, Nitties tried to put into wordswhat he had learned. "It's sort of made me realize that I'm worthy ofplaying on the PGA Tour," he said. He could have been speaking for Piercy.It should be noted that 20 years ago Perry had a similar awakening.

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Phil Goes Pfffft

Phil Mickelson will have to wait another week torealize his "very high" expectations for 2009

SHORTLY AFTER finishing off a second-round 73 at theFBR Open, putting a merciful end to a miserable two days during which he wasseven over par and missed the cut by seven strokes, Phil Mickelson burst intothe clubhouse at TPC Scottsdale and was, surprisingly, the picture of goodcheer. Every handshake and high five was accompanied with the same peppysalutation: "Happy New Year!" Never mind that it was the penultimateday of January. The FBR was Mickelson's 2009 debut and the beginning of one ofthe most important seasons of his eventful career. Nursing a Diet Coke as hecleaned out his locker, Mickelson described his performance with an unprintableword that rhymes with gritty, but was quick to add, "This does nothing todampen my enthusiasm about this year. I'm excited about how I'm putting. I'mexcited about how I'm driving it off the tee. Obviously I need to put in somegood work this weekend, but I'm definitely looking forward to getting out thereagain at Torrey [for this week's Buick Invitational]."

Mickelson is nothing if not resilient. He proved thatduring the brutal 12 seasons at the beginning of his career when he couldn'twin a major championship, a drought that was the source of endless pressroomhazing. Still, it took some work to remain upbeat after his play at the FBR,where he had as many penalty strokes as fairways hit (three) during the firstround. For the tournament he made only three out of 10 putts of five to 10feet, according to ShotLink. "I am a little surprised at how I played,"Mickelson allowed, "given how my game felt coming in here."

In the week and a half leading up to the tournament,Mickelson put in man-hours with, alternately, swing coach Butch Harmon andshort-game Svengali Dave Pelz. "He's never looked this good heading into aseason," Pelz said the day before the FBR began. "Not only is his gamesharp, but he's also bursting with enthusiasm. He is really fired up to playwell." This was confirmed by other Mickelson intimates who in the weekspreceding the FBR regularly received jazzy text messages in which Phil gushedabout the state of his game.

It's definitely the right time for a Mickelsonrenaissance because he'll be 40 next year and is in need of a triumphant finalact to his career. Beginning with his breakthrough at the 2004 Masters andduring the ensuing two years, Mickelson was the game's most compellingperformer, snagging a PGA Championship and another green jacket. He roared intothe 2006 U.S. Open chasing history—only Tiger Woods and Ben Hogan had won threestraight major championships—but Mickelson has never been the same since his72nd-hole collapse at Winged Foot. The resulting malaise lasted into '07 when,hoping to right himself, Mickelson ixnayed his longtime swing instructor RickSmith, in favor of Harmon. A win at that year's Players Championship wastantalizing, but after Mickelson tweaked his wrist, the rest of '07 was awashout. Last year he was healthy but spent so much time trying to groove hisswing changes that his short game suffered, particularly his putting. Hefinished 118th on Tour in percentage of putts made from 10 to 15 feet, and 86thon 15- to 20-footers, lengths that he calls the key to scoring. The Masters andthe British Open were two of Mickelson's best ball striking weeks of the year,but shoddy putting kept him from contending at either. (In fact, he hasn't beena factor at a major since Winged Foot, which helps explain how Sergio Garcíahas taken away Mickelson's customary spot at No. 2 in the World Ranking.)

"The putting problems were a function ofneglect," says Pelz. "It just goes to show that even with his talentlevel Phil is like the rest of us—if he doesn't practice his short game andputting, his touch will suffer."

Near the end of last season Mickelson strapped onvarious putting contraptions and discovered that his alignment was off, causinghis putter to have an open face. The week after this revelation he squared hisputter and rolled his rock beautifully at the Tour Championship, finishing ashot out of a playoff. Pronouncing himself finally "comfortable" withhis retooled swing, Mickelson has continued to focus on sharpening his work onand around the greens. "I think this will be the year it all comestogether," he says.

Pelz is even more effusive. "I'm telling you, he'sgoing to have a monster year," he says with typical excitement. "Twomajors. That's what I'm looking for."

Asked about this bullish prediction last Friday,Mickelson offered his familiar puckish smile. "Well...." His voicetrailed off. Mickelson seemed to sense that it was unwise to sound overly brashon the heels of such a ragged performance at the FBR. "I will saythis," he said. "I have high expectations. Very high."

Time will tell if 2009 is indeed a happy new year forMickelson.

PHOTOPhotograph by Robert BeckFEELING THE HEAT To get his 13th Tour win, Perry (opposite) had to contend with Nitties (above left) and Piercy.TWO PHOTOSPhotograph by Robert Beck [Seecaption above]PHOTOPhotograph by Robert BeckJAM JOB On Saturday, more than 18,000 fans squeezed into the stands surrounding the par-3 16th hole at TPC Scottsdale.PHOTOPhotograph by Robert BeckOFF TRACK Mickelson MC'd by seven strokes.PHOTOPhotograph by Robert BeckAIMING HIGH Pelz says Mickelson, 39, will win two majors in '09, but Phil, who has won three in his career, won't be so specific.