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Nick Watney makes his first cut since March and credits a fix from famed instructor

July 29, 2022
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Nick Watney plays his shot from the 18th tee during the first round of the Rocket Mortgage Classic.

Mike Mulholland

DETROIT – Nick Watney said he felt relieved when he found out there was a flaw in his golf swing.

Go ahead and read that sentence again. Yes, he was relieved.

The day after missing his 12th straight cut on the PGA Tour at last week’s 3M Open, Watney flew to Las Vegas to see swing coach Butch Harmon. The legendary instructor almost immediately spotted the problem. Watney, who likes to draw the ball, had flared his clubface open at the top. That forced him to use his hands more aggressively to try to square the clubface. Not a recipe for consistency.

After a weekend in Vegas, Watney feels like a new man. Or his old self. Or at least a golfer he recognizes. “The ball is going where it’s supposed to go most of the time,” he said with a big smile Friday afternoon at the Rocket Mortgage Classic, where he was looking forward to not having to catch a flight home for the weekend.

Building on an opening five-under 67, Watney grinded out an even-par 72 on Friday at Detroit Golf Club, and at five-under 139 he made his first cut since he finished T-66 at The Players in mid-March.

Despite the recent struggles, Watney is 116th in the FedEx Cup standings, mostly on the strength of a T-2 in October at the Sanderson Farms Championship. Stopping the free fall—he was 43rd in the standings after the Players—will certainly help in remaining in the top 125 when the regular season ends at next week’s Wyndham Championship.

Watney, 41, said he was relieved by Harmon’s diagnosis because at least there was something he could work on. “If nothing was wrong and I was just playing terrible, that would have been kind of frustrating to me,” he explained. “But you go to Butch and he says, ‘Oh, wow, this is pretty messed up,’ you’re like, 'OK, good. Let’s fix it.' I mean, where do you go from there if everything looks fine?”

He thought about flying home to California for a day or two after his initial session with Harmon, but his wife Amber convinced him to go straight to Michigan. “She’s been great. I guess she knew what I kind of needed,” Watney said.

If he had putted decently on Friday, Watney might have climbed up the leaderboard, but he lost more than two strokes on the greens. The bright side is that he ranks ninth in the field through 36 holes in strokes gained/off the tee—compared to 197th on tour for the season in that category—and is in the top third of the field in SG/approach the green.

“I’m not very good at doing something different, so obviously it’s on me to do a better job of figuring these things out. I mean, 17 years out here, and I should have a better handle on it,” he said. “I work on things at home, and then go out to the next event and it’s been the same thing, and that gets to be pretty frustrating.”

Ranked 431st in the world, Watney is a five-time PGA Tour winner, but his last win came in 2012. He’s had his share of ups and downs since, but he appears poised to reach the playoffs for the first time since the 2018-19 season—a welcome development while playing this season by using his one-time exemption for being in the top 50 in career earnings.

All he could think about on Friday, though, was getting a chance to go out again on Saturday. Change is good.

“My game was pretty good at the start of the year, and then I got a little off, and a little off can get to be a big thing,” he said. “I think it’s good that it’s all behind me and now and I'm looking forward, and I want to see if I can maybe make a few more putts and climb up the leaderboard.”

Yeah, that’s better than climbing onto another airplane.