Cameron Champ made winning look easy at the 2018 Sanderson Farms. Nearly a year later, he knows better
The hype train travels quickly, especially in today’s social-media environment. See: Wolff, Matthew; and Morikawa, Collin. Not that high praise for the two rookies is without merit or substance. Both of the former collegiate stars have been impressive in their play, winning almost immediately after reaching the PGA Tour. Keeping the wheels on the track, however, is something else.
See Champ, Cameron.
It was only a year ago that Champ was the next Next. He gave us plenty of reason to have the conversation. He had a name (and look) fit for Madison Avenue and, more important, the game to go with it, winning the second tournament of the 2018-’19 season, the Sanderson Farms Championship, in just his ninth PGA Tour start. He did it with a swing that turned heads of fellow pros. That’s what happens when, as an amateur, you routinely pump it 20 yards past Rory McIlroy, as Champ did in a practice round during the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills.
It wasn’t just that Champ was blowing it by everyone, either. It was how he was doing it. There was no miles-long backswing, like John Daly. Champ wasn’t leaping off his feet, like Justin Thomas. With a narrow stance and feet planted, Champ unleashed low butter cuts, creating a ball flight that belied the prodigious power he was producing.
In four days last fall in Mississippi, Champ got results, too, going from the tour’s reshuffle category to fully exempt member thanks to a four-stroke victory at the Country Club of Jackson. He followed it in his next four starts with three more finishes no worse than 11th, validating if not adding to the hype.
Then, reality arrived.
Rarely is the road so smooth for seasoned players used to navigating it, never mind a rookie suddenly thrust into the spotlight while still trying to learn new courses each week not to mention the rigors of treating a game like the job it had become. Over his next 19 starts after a T-11 at the limited-field event Sentry Tournament of Champions at Kapalua, Champ missed the cut 10 times and withdrew once.
“Expectations,” Champ says when asked as he gets set to defend his title this week in Mississippi what the most difficult thing was for him in his first year. “Whether you realize it or not, they’re always going to be there.
“Once you get to a certain point—and Matt and Collin are going through this now—it’s all new. You’re suddenly playing in featured groups, have a lot of people following you, you’re dealing with crowds and comments. It’s not anything I ever played in.”
The first time the 24-year-old, who won just once during his college career at Texas A&M, noticed it was the week after his victory in Jackson, when he found himself paired with Jordan Spieth for the first three days of the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open outside Las Vegas. Champ acquitted himself well with rounds of 69-65-66, compared to Spieth’s 66-68-71, but the vibe of the new world he suddenly found himself in was different, and it was palpable.
The roll wouldn’t last long.
While adjusting to his new existence, Champ suddenly found himself dealing with injury, too.
The week before the Arnold Palmer Invitational, the slender and sinewy California kid noticed some tightness in his back. Nothing unusual, he thought, having dealt with back issues while in college. Except this time it lingered. He played anyway and missed the cut. Then, toward the end of a range session a day later at Bay Hill, he suddenly found his body locked up after hitting a drive.
“It went into a full body spasm,” Champ says of the episode. “I never felt anything like that. I had pain in my chest from my back being so tight.”
Champ pressed on, teeing it up his first Players Championship a week later, but he opened with a 78 and was two over par when he withdrew midway through the second round. It was another month before he felt healthy again.
But that wasn’t the only source of Champ’s struggles. The mental side of the professional game had started to take its toll, too.
“Everything was going right, and I wasn’t thinking about much,” Champ said of his early success. “The majority of the fall, I played some of my best golf, gave myself chances to win, and being in that position was a great accomplishment. But everything was being thrown at me. I thought I was handling it the right way, but I was putting more pressure on myself. I was putting more expectations on myself and getting more frustrated than usual on course.”
He is hardly alone in that arena. Golf has seen other Cameron Champs through the years: Charles Howell III, Justin Rose, Rickie Fowler, to name a few.
When it came to leaning on someone, Champ turned to the coach he has had since he was a teenager, Sean Foley, who is as much life coach as he is swing coach.
“He gives me good perspective,” Champ says.
Champ comes from a biracial background. Foley is a white Canadian who is 20 years older and went to a historically black school, Tennessee State. Long before then, Foley had an interest in black writers, artists and musicians.
“Guys could play bad before and be anonymous. Now you can’t,” Foley said. “When [people] drop you, they drop you. You go from champ to chump [in their eyes] and from next great thing to smoke and mirrors. It’s tough. You’re trying to inspire someone to be patient when there’s a daily referendum on their performance from being the hottest thing on tour, and you start playing iffy because it is so different. The key is trying to understand yourself more. That’s everything.”
It helps to have a good short game, too, which is why Champ recently hired putting coach John Graham. Last season, Champ ranked 123rd in strokes gained/putting. But that was hardly the only deficiency in his game. He was also 188th in strokes gained/around-the-green and 161st in strokes gained/approach, the latter a product Champ says of a two-way miss with his driver for much of the second half of the season.
“The fact he can fly it 350 doesn’t make it easy to be able to hit a soft wedge from 100 yards,” Foley said.
To that end, Champ’s goals heading into the 2019-’20 season include continuing to round out his game and being more consistent with his results. How to get there? He’s hoping that it’s opposite of his journey the past 12 months.
Said Champ: “It’s a lot simpler than a lot of people make it out to be.”
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