January 8, 2008

He's a Real Quick Study

Historically, top rookies have struggled after Year One. Brandt Snedeker hopes to change that

Snedeker showed his putting prowess when he broke through at Greensboro in 2007.

Snedeker showed his putting prowess when he broke through at Greensboro in 2007.

Perhaps only Dinah Shore or Grantland Rice made more of an impression on golf than their fellow Vanderbilt alum, Brandt Snedeker, the 2007 PGA Tour Rookie of the Year. Everyone knows, however, that a man who can putt -- really putt -- brings a bucket of water to douse a fire while others carry it in a colander. Can street names and florid prose be far behind?

Barely 27, Snedeker has SPF 50 skin and a shock of hair that looks like it was shipwrecked on a desert island. Even without the turned-up collar, his look earned him the nickname "Miller Time," after Johnny. Blessed with the constitution of a can of Red Bull, words tumble out of Snedeker's mouth so fast they hardly have time to scrape up against his Nashville accent. A native son of the Music City, he does everything allegro, from storytelling to swinging a golf club.

"He's fast and animated," says one of his buddies on tour, Johnson Wagner. Snedeker enjoys playing for people, and it shows. "He's a very charismatic person. He definitely moves fast. He swings fast. Everything about him is fast."

And, just a couple of years ago, he was on the fast track to nowhere. Suffering a cracked rib in the middle of the 2005 season, Snedeker missed the second stage of qualifying school by two shots after making a 9 in the final round. This is the sort of thing about which most players reminisce with the same fondness someone with an eye patch has for the ice pick that caused the injury. Snedeker's response was to seek immediate assistance, and he found it in instructor Todd Anderson at Sea Island, Ga. Snedeker's faults were obvious. On the backswing his hips moved toward the target and his upper body away from it. He had to flip his hands at the bottom to catch up. The fix was to turn more on top of his right leg and rotate through the ball. Snedeker went from hitting a somewhat erratic draw to fading the ball, and even gained a little distance in the process. He put a new putter in his bag -- the same model he used in high school -- and won twice on the Nationwide Tour, then once last year on the PGA Tour. Because of his impressive short game, "He's one of those guys, when he's hitting it good, he's going to be in contention," says Anderson. "When he's on, he's really on. He's just got that stuff you can't teach."

In an effort to keep the Boss of the Moss title (held for all those years by Memphian Loren Roberts) down home in Tennessee, Snedeker was 15th on tour in putts per round, a statistic that looms ever larger as his ball-striking improves. He takes no offense at the "good field, no hit" reputation of a man who relies too heavily on a magical touch on the greens. In fact, just the opposite. Like Tom Watson, the player whose swing he grew up admiring, Snedeker revels in the outrageous par. "I take more pride in making a 30-footer for par than a 30-footer for birdie. I don't know why," he says. "I'd rather be known as a bad ball-striker and great short-game player. I feel like you can learn to be a pretty good ball-striker. I have not seen a whole lot of people who were bad putters turn around and be a great putter." And, honestly, who shoots 27 for nine holes on Torrey Pines' North Course -- or any course, for that matter -- like Snedeker did last year if they can't hit it a little bit?

Snedeker's older brother, Haymes, played golf at Mississippi and is a lawyer and part-time judge in Fairhope, Ala. His father, Larry, is a Nashville attorney. With two lawyers and a golf pro in the family, that left his mother, Candy, as the only person making an honest living. She owned a pawnshop, originally called Pawns Unlimited, and Brandt spent his weekends as a youth there behind the counter, getting the kind of education money can't buy.

"It was completely off the wall every day," he recalls. "Somebody tried to bring a six-foot boa constrictor and pawn it. Laid it on the counter clear as day."

Being Nashville, the shop seemed to gravitate toward jewelry and music. "Steve Earle came in there for a while when he was down in the dumps," Snedeker says. "We had a couple of his gold records on the wall. There were people who pawned their wedding ring the same time every month just to get by. It was funny to hear the stories, people trying to get an extra twenty bucks or fifty bucks out of you. My mom's favorite: Some guy brought in a ring, and it had a big amethyst and two crowns on either side. 'Man, this is the Pope's ring. The Pope blessed this ring.' She gave him an extra whatever it was. Still got it to this day. She still claims it's the Pope's ring."

There was one musician who pawned his drums maybe 30 times, by Snedeker's recollection, over a three- or four-year period. It got to the point the guy would just haul the cases down to the basement, and Candy would give him the money. One month, the drummer didn't come back. They went downstairs, opened the cases and found them filled with rocks instead of drums. "You learn real quick," Snedeker says and laughs.

Just before he went to Australia in November, Snedeker became engaged to Mandy Toth, the girl he met his junior year in college. Mandy, Candy, Vandy. "Yeah, I got a problem," he says and smiles again. Since he is a big Discovery Channel fan, snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef was as much a thrill to Snedeker as nearly winning the Australian Open. He lost to Craig Parry by one shot after calling a penalty on himself when he accidentally caused his ball to move in the rough with five holes to play.

Being tagged as the PGA Tour's Rookie of the Year hasn't necessarily been a harbinger of great things. Since 1990 only four of the recipients increased their money winnings their second year -- and two of those were Ernie Els and Tiger Woods. But when you're confronted with a young man who learned early on in life that the very instrument a band relies on to keep it's place can turn into a box of rocks overnight, you've got to like his chances.