KAPALUA, Hawaii — Ted Potter Jr. will join Bubba Watson in Saturday’s third round of the Sentry Tournament of Champions, two left-handers who hail from the gulf coast of Florida, a nice pairing. They aren’t likely to talk much to each other, however. Oh, there’s no bad blood between the two good old boys. Just distance.
Potter is used to it by now.
It’s hard to have much conversation with any of your playing partners when you are mostly just looking at the backs of their heads as they saunter 50 yards ahead after every tee shot. That certainly will be the case today.
Potter ranks 199th in driving distance on the PGA Tour with an average of 274.6 yards using his homemade, sawed-off swing from his 5-foot-11 frame. Watson, a lithe 6-3, is making his 2018-'19 season debut, but he ranked ninth in driving distance in 2018 with an average poke of 313.1 yards produced by a bail-out whipsaw lash.
Do the math.
Then throw it out and know this figure: both won on the PGA Tour in 2018.
Potter earned his second berth to this winners-only event at Kapalua’s Plantation Course by winning the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am in February. He defeated Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson, Jason Day and Chez Reavie by three strokes. He started the final round paired with Johnson, who at the time was No. 1 in the world, and immediately nosed ahead when Potter three-putted the first hole. Johnson then showed him who's boss by unleashing a drive of 321 yards.
Potter stepped up and hit a good one. It traveled 273 yards. Both reached the green in two. Both made birdie. Potter shrugged.
“It didn’t make any difference to me,” he said Friday after posting an even-par 73 to post two-over 248 for the tournament. “He still had to hit the shots and make putts, and I can do that, too. I know what people were thinking. I'm always the underdog. But I know my game, and if I chip and putt well I can hang with anyone.”
But he has to do that when he doesn’t have the weaponry of most of his peers.
This is going to sound terrible, but Potter isn’t just an anomaly on the PGA Tour; he’s a misfit. Portly, slightly balding, and of medium height, the 35-year-old from Ocala, Fla., looks like the guy who should be changing the oil in your car, not driving one of this week’s courtesy vehicles.
Which ought to make him a hero to millions of men around the globe. “See, honey, this guy is playing at Kapalua. I’ll hit the gym tomorrow.” (Cracks open another beer.)
He is a soft-spoken gentleman, but—and this is important—a hard-bitten, grinder of a golfer who embraces the challenge of not only beating a golf course, but also the array of physical specimens that populate the professional level.
“Well, what other choice do I have?” Potter asked with a grin that doesn’t come naturally but instantly makes him look younger, softening his wide face.
Having turned pro at age 19 in 2002, Potter came up through the mini tours, which wasn’t glamorous, but it did feel familiar. After learning the game from his father, a golf course maintenance worker, starting at age 2, Potter figured out the rest on his own on public courses in Ocala. His first job after high school was working in a cart barn at Lake Diamond Golf and Country Club in his hometown. He started his long march to the PGA Tour by trying the Florida-based Moonlight Tour, one of several he sampled. In 2004, he reached the Web.com Tour and, well, got caught in a grinder, missing all 24 cuts.
“I’d just fall back, play more mini tours and keep getting after it,” he said with a shrug. “It’s just something I felt I could do. I mean, I know guys from back then I was sure who would make it [to the PGA Tour] that didn't, and then there were guys like me you wouldn't think had a chance.”
A natural right-hander, he has no swing instructor, no mental coach, no trainer. His main support team currently numbers two, which is his wife Cheri and their son Corbin. It will increase to three with a daughter due to be born in May.
He lives an outdoorsman's life away from golf. Hunting. Fishing. Thinking. He had plenty of time to think—and worry—when he stepped off a curb wrong and broke his right ankle in July 2014. He had to have two plates inserted with 12 screws and missed nearly two years of golf, which was its own pain for someone who loves the game, and he wondered if he could ever play at a high level again.
And then came the opportunity at Pebble Beach. Ranked 246th in the world at the time, Potter never before had slept on a 54-hole lead. He won the 2012 Greenbrier Classic in his rookie year, but had only two other top-10 finishes in 83 career starts before he stared down Johnson.
It just doesn’t seem to add up. Yet the scores say otherwise. He doesn't find it every week; Potter missed five cuts in a row after his win. But then he missed only three more cuts in his last 14 starts. When he's on, he'll fire something like the 17-under 271 he blazed at Pebble.
“I know what I am. I’m a grinder. Some of us just have to be grinders,” he said. “If you know who you are and you’re comfortable with it, then go play and see what you can do.”
Ted Potter Jr. sits 12 shots behind leader Gary Woodland entering Saturday’s third round. He’ll tee off with Watson at 8:15 a.m. HST with virtually no realistic chance of winning. But he’ll try like hell to the very end.
And that’s a guy who can never be beaten.