Editor's Note: This story first appeared in the Sept. 8 issue of Golf World.
Perhaps you know Peter Malnati from the YouTube video of his shot from a greenside water hazard at the Web.com Tour’s event outside Portland, Ore., two weeks ago. After a long period of considering his options and trying various stances, Malnati made a big splash with his wedge, but managed to pop his ball forward only a few feet before it trickled back into the drink. “Are you kidding me?” a mud-spattered Malnati winningly exclaims. “All that for that?”
It's a nice snapshot of the 28-year-old, who is about as likable a professional golfer as there is (think a more talkative Steve Stricker). Malnati will be on the PGA Tour in 2016 by virtue of finishing among the top 25 money winners in the Web.com Tour's regular season (he was fourth, with a victory in Brazil in March). On the big tour, he will be popular with fellow players and fans, and a win or two would make him a golfer the tour could market to the masses.
Of course, Malnati is not without a sharp inner edge. He's a short hitter who must maximize other parts of his game to be competitive, a là a certain reigning British Open winner he admires. He's a close student of sport psychology, mentored by storied U.S. Olympic track-and-field coach Dr. Rick McGuire. Before hitting a shot, Malnati makes a point of verbalizing the specifics of his intended target, trajectory and curve. He keeps a daily journal that details his practice objectives, and since 2009 he has kept a blog (http://petermalnati.blogspot.com) that is "basically my journal that I share with people." Malnati intentionally creates external "accountability," which he believes increases his focus. It also makes him—to a remarkable degree for a tour pro—an open book.
Malnati's greatest skill might be setting goals and accomplishing them. This week, as the Web.com Tour's four- tournament Finals begin with the Hotel Fitness Championship in Fort Wayne, Ind., Malnati posted a photo on his blog of his "goal board." On it he wrote a "process" goal to "be myself and know that is enough," and an "outcome" goal of "WIN the Web.com Tour Finals." Doing the latter would dramatically improve his status on the PGA Tour next season, including exempting him into the Players Championship.
Malnati is devoted to the tenet that "we choose what we think," which he learned from McGuire while playing golf at Missouri (McGuire taught at the school). It's how he quells self-doubt in the face of having to hit hybrid approaches when others are hitting short irons.
"There are moments I really feel like I'm overmatched," Malnati admits. "Guys hit it higher and farther, and it seems like more solid. But I believe I work smarter through a systematic approach to my practice. When the heat is on and my goal is in sight, it gives me an edge."
Malnati's story of dedicated aspiration is what the Web.com Tour is all about. The objective of the tour is to move upward and onward as soon as possible—and not to come back. But if that's unavoidable, returning to the same competitive cauldron is the best training for the PGA Tour in the U.S.
That's more true since the decision in 2013 to eliminate qualifying school as an avenue to the PGA Tour, based on two decades of data that determined Web.com qualifiers are far more likely to keep their PGA Tour cards than Q school qualifiers. Today, some three of four players on the PGA Tour are Web.com alumni, while about 50 percent of Web.com players have played on the PGA Tour.
"I don't look at this tour as minor league," says Bill Calfee, Web.com Tour president since 1999. "It's more like expansion-team quality. A team sport league would invent new teams with this many good players. But there isn't more room on the PGA Tour. It just means the quality of our tour keeps going up."
There are moments I really feel like I’m overmatched. … But I believe I work smarter through a systematic approach to my practice. When the heat is on and my goal is in sight, it gives me an edge. -- Peter Malnati
The Web.com Tour generally features a more explosive style of play than the big tour. As a group, the mostly younger players are statistically longer drivers, and because finishing in the middle of the field, which affords a wonderful living on the PGA Tour, doesn't get it done on the developmental circuit, pin seeking is more aggressive. This year's leading money winner, two-time winner Patton Kizzire, is a long and lanky 6-foot-5 bomber.
Lean and small-boned at 5-foot-10, 160 pounds, Malnati averages only 288.4 yards (120th on the Web.com), with a clubhead speed of 107.6 mph, slow for a tour pro. He is working with instructor Mitchell Spearman to make his ball striking more consistent and powerful.
But Malnati is an excellent course manager, a good wedge player and a tremendous putter (third on his tour). Not surprisingly, his model is Zach Johnson. "I don't want this to come out wrong, but every skill Zach has, I have also," Malnati says. "He's just honed his more sharply than me at this point. To see him be so successful using his method -- he hasn't changed, he isn't playing someone else's game -- is very inspirational for me."
Malnati's background closely mirrors Johnson's. Growing up outside Knoxville, Tenn., Malnati was good at several sports but wasn't heavily recruited by collegiate coaches for golf. He says that at Missouri, where he earned a BA in communications, "I wasn't a very good college golfer." But he turned pro in 2009, armed with a hunger to improve and a passion for the game, and hit the mini-tours after selling shares of his future winnings to local businessmen. In 2013, with no Web.com Tour status, Malnati was able to Monday qualify his way into fields. In his seventh start, in Knoxville no less, he won, and a few months later had his PGA Tour card.
After such a sudden transition, his first experience on the big tour was a blur. Malnati's low status kept him from getting into many events, and he allowed all the newness to distract him from his regimen. He also lacked sufficient belief in his ability as he made just five cuts in 18 starts, forcing him to return to the Web.com Tour.
"I'd play with known players, and it probably evoked a bad emotion in me, where I felt I have to be perfect if I'm going to compete with these guys," he says. "Every single time I was able to get a short iron in my hand, I felt like well, I have to make birdie, I just have to. If I don't make birdie now, what am I going to do on the next hole where I have to hit hybrid into the green? And, oh, man, that was such a brutal way to play. I think that I enjoy golf more than most of my peers, for sure, but I almost made myself miserable.
"I won't repeat those mistakes," Malnati says. "I'm going to be very intentional about a few things, and one of them is about seeking out players that I'd like to take to dinner or perhaps get a practice round with—and Zach's No. 1 on my list."
Malnati is also looking forward to traveling with his wife, Alicia. A former All-Big 12 gymnast at Missouri who also holds a Ph.D in educational psychology, she caddied for her husband for several events this year, and despite being only a casual golfer, was a calming influence down the stretch in Brazil. "It was kind of like I was playing for her, which was liberating," Peter says. But when the summer grind finally wore Alicia down, Peter re-enlisted Brandon Winton, who was on his bag in his win at Knoxville.
"We had a blast, but it was always going to be temporary," Peter says. "We have loved the Web.com Tour. Of course, next year, the goal is to have a bigger blast."