Wetterich takes his biggest step as 11 first-timers tee it up at Tour Championship
By Jerry Potter, USA TODAY
ATLANTA — When Brett Wetterich gets to the first tee at East Lake Golf Club on Thursday for The Tour Championship, he won't be shaking so much that he'll have trouble getting the peg in the ground.
He's almost a decade past that time in his career, when, in 1998, as a 24-year-old mini-tour player from Florida, he qualified for the U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. He was playing the Golden Bear Tour, a collection of tournaments in South Florida named for Jack Nicklaus, when he made his first start on the PGA Tour, shooting 78-80 to miss the cut in America's national championship.
"When I was playing the Golden Bear Tour," says Wetterich, explaining his anxiety, "they didn't have fans lining the fairways like they had the U.S. Open."
If anyone in The Tour Championship field has reason to be nervous, perhaps it's Wetterich, who has forged a career for himself in professional golf simply because there was nothing else in life that he could do.
"It was pretty much pro golf or nothing," says Wetterich, 33. "I wouldn't have lasted a day in a 9-to-5 job."
A year ago, Wetterich was 132nd in earnings and headed back to qualifying school, hoping to move up high enough to get steady work on the Tour. He made the most of the situation, finishing 26th to get full exemption for the season.
In May he won the EDS Byron Nelson Championship, then played his way onto the U.S. Ryder Cup team that lost to Europe in Ireland in September.
On Sunday he tied for second at the Chrysler Championship. It was his second runner-up finish of the year, and it helped him qualify for The Tour Championship with $2.9 million. His career earnings entering the season: $786,237.
"It wasn't until last year that I felt like I actually belonged on the Tour," says Wetterich, who turned pro in 1994. "The first two or three times I tried to play I was looking around at guys I'd only seen on TV."
Wetterich is one of 11 first-time players in this year's Tour Championship, an event created to reward the top 30 money winners and put an exclamation point on the season.
Some years that turns out to be a question mark at the end of a sentence that asks, "Who are these guys?"
For every Tom Watson, who won the inaugural championship in 1987, or Curtis Strange, who won in '88 to become the first player to earn $1 million in a season, there has been a Jodie Mudd ('90), Jim Gallagher ('93), Billy Mayfair ('95), Chad Campbell ('03) and Bart Bryant ('05).
The field this year is depleted by the absence of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, the Nos. 1 and 3 players in the world. But even when the biggest stars are in the field, they have to play well to win.
In '95 Greg Norman was the leading money winner, but Mayfair won at Southern Hills in Tulsa. In '03 Vijay Singh was No. 1 in earnings, but Campbell won at Champions in Houston. Last year Tiger Woods was No. 1, but Bryant shot four rounds in the 60s, including an opening 62, to beat Tiger Woods by six strokes here at East Lake.
"If you're in The Tour Championship," Mayfair says, "you're playing well that year. Anybody who tees it up there can have a chance."
When Campbell won, in his first start, he felt comfortable because the tournament was in his native Texas on a course he knew. He shot 61 in the third round to take the lead and shock the field.
The victory made him the first player to earn his first Tour victory in The Tour Championship. Three years later he still struggles to explain it.
"The only thing I can come up with is that when you're a rookie in the tournament, you're excited to be there," Campbell says. "You've already had a good season. You don't have anything to lose."
New talent takes its place
For world-class players such as Tiger Woods and Mickelson, a Tour Championship might be just another trophy. For others it can be the highlight of a career.
"It was for me," says Mayfair, who has struggled since earning the last of his five victories in 1998. "There's a lot of media coverage. I remember the day after I won in Tulsa I was sitting in the airport waiting to catch my flight, and people were reading about me in the newspaper."
Confidence is often the main reason players make the field. Of this year's 11 first-time players, only Tom Pernice Jr. and Brett Quigley didn't win this season.
Pernice entered last week's event afraid he wouldn't make The Tour Championship field after missing the cut the week before. But he earned $22,790 at the Chrysler Championship and grabbed the final spot, 30th on the money list, $10,106 more than Jose Maria Olazabal.
"It's like a Christmas present come early," says Quigley, who had his best season with 10 top-10 finishes. "At the beginning of the year I'd never even thought about playing here."
His goal then was to win a tournament, and he still has a chance.
"Winning this week," he says, "would be the ultimate."
Two major championship winners are in the rookie class. Geoff Ogilvy won the U.S. Open in June, and Ben Curtis, the 2003 British Open champion, broke out of a long slump to win the Booz Allen Classic and the 84 Lumber Classic.
J.J. Henry held on to qualify at 28th, earning $2.1 million, and says he has something to prove this weekend.
"I'm excited to be here," he says, "but at the same time I'm not excited just to be here. I want to play good golf."
Wetterich always was a good golfer, but he was never the premier player at any level. He grew up on the West side of Cincinnati, an area that gave Pete Rose to the sports world.
"I don't think they mention me up there with Pete," Wetterich says of Cincinnati sports fans.
He played most of his amateur golf in Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky. But when he finished high school, there were no offers from any of the major colleges in the tri-state area. He chose Wallace Community College in Alabama, where he stayed for one year.
His real training came in the Golden Bear Tour, and it was here that he met Gary Nicklaus, son of Jack and once an aspiring pro player.
"I couldn't put myself in position often enough to win," says Nicklaus, explaining his exit from tournament golf to a management position with his father's company.
Wetterich had similar problems, but he kept putting himself in contention until he finally broke through.
"Brett has all the tools," Jack Nicklaus says. "He's scary long. When you can hit the ball long, it's a tremendous advantage. The top players on the money list — Tiger, Phil and Vijay — hit it a mile."
He's the longest driver in the field this week with an average of 307.8 yards, and he drove the ball 300 yards or longer 45.5% of the time. Yet, the difference in winning and losing is in the short game — chipping, pitching and putting.
"He's a streaky putter," Jack Nicklaus says. "When he gets his putter going and the short game going, he can compete."
Wetterich is unusual in that he's a popular guy who lacks confidence. At the Ryder Cup some of his teammates called him "a big goof."
"He's a redneck at heart," Nicklaus says. "He loves to hunt and fish."
"Everybody hits bad shots," explains Jack Nicklaus, "but when Brett hit one, he'd say, 'Oh, I've made a double bogey; I'll never win.' He had to learn that if he went to the next par 5, drove it long and made eagle he was right back where he was before the double bogey."
Wetterich says he still beats himself up occasionally, but he's getting more comfortable.
"I always knew I had the ability to win," Wetterich says. "I just didn't have the confidence."