February 8, 2009–With all due respect to CBS' Jim Nantz, who proclaimed, "A California champion!", when Nick Watney drained his tournament-winning birdie putt on Sunday, we Las Vegas golfers are also claiming our newest hometown golfer. Watney moved to Las Vegas in the last couple years to be closer to Las Vegas' Butch Harmon, and now lives near Rio Secco Golf Club, where Harmon operates his golf school. And Watney credits a strong off season with Butch as a major reason for winning the Buick Invitational played at Torrey Pines in the San Diego area.
"Well, going into the off-season, Butch and I had a plan where he looked at all the stats from last year, and we sat down and made a plan to work on my biggest weaknesses over the winter," said Watney to the media in the press room, minutes after capping off his second career PGA Tour win. "Putting was a glaring weakness last year, and I've been working with Butch, worked pretty hard with Butch over the winter, and putted well all year, really. This is my third tournament, but I've putted well the first three. So definitely looking forward to the rest of the year."
The results have been very good for Watney early on in 2009 as last week he fired a career-best 63 at the FBR Open en route to the lead following the second round. He couldn't close the deal last week, but at the Buick, despite trailing by three shots with five holes to play, he made magic and won the event. A huge birdie putt on 16 that measured about 40 feet really got him rolling. He then got home in two on the par 5, 18th hole and won because John Rollins, who was tied with Watney heading to 18, made par after hitting his second shot into a greenside bunker.
"I played the U.S. Open here last year and actually three-putted that green (16) on Sunday with a back left pin," said Watney. "I had an idea that it breaks a ton right there. I was really just trying to hit good speed. There was pretty good slope about halfway through, and with about eight or ten feet I saw that it was on a good line. And then I wasn't sure if it was going to catch the front lip or not, but it did, and I'm very happy about that."
Las Vegas is home to more than 20 LPGA Tour, PGA Tour, and Nationwide Tour players, and many others have lived in what some call the Ultimate Golf City. Adam Scott also works with Harmon and attended UNLV, and defending U.S. Women's Open champ Inbee Park played high school golf in Las Vegas. And Natalie Gulbis lives at Lake Las Vegas Resort, home of Jack Nicklaus' Reflection Bay Golf Club. The area is also home to more than 60 golf courses. The featured Las Vegas golf course for this article is Reflection Bay, where five holes play on the water of the beautiful Lake Las Vegas. The Las Vegas golf course is a resort course and you can click now for official Reflection Bay information or to book Las Vegas golf tee times or Las Vegas golf packages at Lake Las Vegas.
Las Vegas golfer and resident Charley Hoffman had another solid week after finishing as the runner-up at the FBR Open. Hoffman finished in a tie for 7th. "I came in second last week and obviously another Top 10 this week and hopefully keep the momentum rolling next week for Pebble," said Hoffman, who grew up in San Diego." … I made some mistakes. The first two rounds I only had two bogeys, and in the last couple I had a triple and a double and a few other bogeys, so without the mistakes I'm right there." Hoffman also fine tunes his swing at the Harmon School, but works with Harmon protoge Shawn Callahan. Clcik now for a story about Hoffman and Watney working at the Harmon School.
Las Vegas residents Dean Wilson (T19) and Alex Cejka (T77) also made the cut while Las Vegas residents Chris Riley, Bill Lunde and Scott Piercy missed the cut along with former UNLV Rebel golfers Ryan Moore and James Oh.Riley was making his first start of the season after being sidelined with a stress fracture. He had a 14-foot birdie putt on his final hole that would have got him to the weekend, but he missed. “I didn't play very well at all this week,” Riley told the San Diego Tribune. “But it was the first tournament out. I feel good. I hadn't played in two months, so I need to start playing. It's onto Pebble Beach next week.”
For Watney, who attended Fresno State University where he played for his Uncle, the future is very bright. Watney won fives times as a senior at Fresno State. And he is now one of the best young players in the world, joining the likes of Anthony Kim, Sergio Garcia, Adam Scott and others who are in thier twenties and who have multiple wins. But Watney wasn't about to compare himself to others. "Well, that's for you guys to decide," said Watney, who recently was named by Golfweek as the 23rd best college golfer in history. "That's not why I play, to be mentioned in conversations or anything. I play to try to win trophies and stuff. I think it would be great to be mentioned in those circles with those guys. I respect their games."
Official transcript of Nick Watney Press Conference: DOUG MILNE: We'd like to welcome the champion of the 2009 Buick Invitational, Nick Watney. Thanks, and congratulations. With the win you picked up 500 FedExCup points, you jumped to No. 2. I think you're 40-something points behind Zach Johnson. It was a great day for you. I know you're glad it's over and it ended the way it did. Just some general comments about the day.
NICK WATNEY: Well, I mean, I knew with this golf course and the conditions it was going to play tough. John and Camilo were both playing well all week, so I really just tried to be patient and give myself as many opportunities as I could, and luckily I was able to make some putts, and it worked out.
Q. Three behind with five to play. Are you surprised to be sitting here and going to the Masters?
NICK WATNEY: Well, I knew it wasn't over. My uncle always said that — I played for him at Fresno State, and he always told me and our team that it was never easy. Winning a golf tournament is never easy.
I knew we had some good holes to play, and I definitely didn't want to give up. I just tried to keep my head down and give myself chances, and I was able to make some putts.
Q. You could have had — you had a couple options what you could do with your second shot on 18, and of course you had to go first. I assume you just wanted to press the issue because it was kind of all or nothing, I guess, with 3-wood from 200 something?
NICK WATNEY: Yeah.
Q. Why did you decide to go that tack versus lay up with a wedge or whatever was running through your mind?
NICK WATNEY: Well, because I think in a tournament like this when it's really tight down the stretch, you've got to take it. You've got to grab it. John is a great player, very seasoned, and he wasn't going to give me anything. There was really no choice. I was just debating between 3-iron and a hybrid club. My caddie Tim and I, we decided that if I miss a 3-iron and hit it in the water, the tournament is over. That's why I took the hybrid. It flew long. It flew maybe ten paces long, but it was the right club to hit.
Q. What was the number there, about 240?
NICK WATNEY: I believe it was 235. I'm pretty sure.
Q. Where do you think that shot falls in your pantheon of clutch deliveries over the years? I know you won pretty comfortably at New Orleans, but that was gut-check time.
NICK WATNEY: I'll take a lot from this. Coming down the stretch, Camilo has been hot for a year now, and John obviously 63 or 64 earlier this week, so he's playing well. To come out on top, I'll definitely take a lot from this.
Q. Tim was also talking about how much you've improved your putting and how frustrating that had been last year and the process involved in that. What's that been like, and when did you start feeling you could make putts again?
NICK WATNEY: Well, going into the off-season, Butch and I had a plan where he looked at all the stats from last year, and we sat down and made a plan to work on my biggest weaknesses over the winter. Putting was a glaring weakness last year, and I've been working with Butch, worked pretty hard with Butch over the winter, and putted well all year, really. This is my third tournament, but I've putted well the first three. So definitely looking forward to the rest of the year.
Q. How much do you think it helped you playing in the final group today?
NICK WATNEY: I think you wouldn't rather be anywhere else, just getting to see it, see the action close, and to be in that situation. I mean, I think if you asked everyone in the tournament, they'd love to be in the final group. For me, even starting five back, it was a great place to be in the final three.
Q. Tim said that a lot of your putting was confidence, and we saw a difference today. What switches over so quickly — I say quickly. I mean, you worked hard in the off-season, but when did you become more confident?
NICK WATNEY: I think I become more confident every week, really. I said last week in Phoenix that — this gentleman was asking about what specifically I did. In actuality I'm trying to make things much more simple. Pick a target and hit it to the target. But then my caddie and I have been talking that every putt — like I made quite a few short putts this week, didn't have a three-putt, so every five-, six-, seven-footer that I make, I think my confidence grows a little bit, and the three-footer at the last will help, as well.
Q. Could you talk about the putt on 16, how much break that had?
NICK WATNEY: Yeah, I played the U.S. Open here last year and actually three-putted that green on Sunday with a back left pin. I had an idea that it breaks a ton right there. I was really just trying to hit good speed. There was pretty good slope about halfway through, and with about eight or ten feet I saw that it was on a good line. And then I wasn't sure if it was going to catch the front lip or not, but it did, and I'm very happy about that.
Q. They made reference to this on TV, and pardon me if you've told this story 9 million times, but you had to walk on to play for your uncle. Where was the nepotism there?
NICK WATNEY: That's one of the things that I really appreciate that he did for me at Fresno State is that I had to earn everything. I was never a coach's pick. I walked on — I was playing as a red shirt my freshman year. I had to earn everything. I think partly for my relationship with the other players on the team but also just needing to work hard and earn it was a good thing.
Q. Were you not a hotshot high school guy, didn't get offers from anywhere else?
NICK WATNEY: I wasn't that big of a hotshot high school player. But as far as going to Fresno State, I mean, I wanted to go there pretty much ever since I started playing. I started playing golf because of my uncle and my cousin, so I got to play for my uncle and with my cousin for a year. So that was a big reason why I went there.
Q. When the putt goes in on 18 you gave kind of an abbreviated Tiger fist-pump. Were you conscious of not imitating him, or is that your personal style, more understated?
NICK WATNEY: Well, to be honest with you I'd like to imitate pretty much everything Tiger does. But that was not planned at all. I was more worried about the three-footer. I mean, I just hope the fist pump looked halfway decent (laughter).
Q. Just to make sure, the pin on 16 was in the same spot as it was on Sunday at the Open?
NICK WATNEY: Generally. I don't know if it was exact, but I'm pretty sure that the Sunday pin was back left, and that one was, as well. So it was in the general area, and the green is pretty slopy there.
Q. Were you in the same spot putting-wise?
NICK WATNEY: Not exactly, but I missed it because of the slope at the U.S. Open, so I kind of recognized it.
Q. What's it like to not lead a tournament until the 72nd hole?
NICK WATNEY: I mean, I think this is the — if you're going to lead for one hole, this is the time to do it (laughter). Camilo played obviously an unbelievable round on Thursday, and it was just our job to try to catch him. Luckily I was able to do that.
Q. When you made that putt on 16, how much momentum did you get going into those last few holes? Did you feel like you had kind of taken control — not control, but the momentum had swung to you at that point?
NICK WATNEY: It's tough to say that because we were tied right up until the last putt. But it was definitely a big swing in terms of I was trailing all day by — I don't know if I got closer than three until 14, I guess. So to all of a sudden be tied for the lead was kind of a jolt. But like I said, I think you've got to go out and get it, grab it. So I was definitely very excited at that point.
Q. For a guy who struggled with the putter last year, kind of the key to the round was two-putting from long-range those last two holes. How did you feel about those and how tough were those two-putts?
NICK WATNEY: 17 wasn't too bad. It was uphill and into the grain slightly, so you could go ahead and give that one a good rap. But 18, I think 18 — just watching this tournament over the years, you know, you have to get it over that slope, and it's going to get down to the hole — it almost feeds to the hole. 18 was pretty tough, and then with the situation, one of the tougher two-putts I've had. Like I said, I'll take a lot away from this tournament as far as putting goes.
Q. I mean, that last putt, normally it wouldn't be that tough. How tough was it given the circumstances?
NICK WATNEY: I think I did a really good job on that putt of staying in my routine. I read it. It was dead straight. There was even a heel print in my way. But John is too good to give him another chance, so I thought, this is it, and this is why you worked so hard, to have a putt like that. I feel like I hit a really pure putt.
Q. What's the difference in how you feel, this compared to New Orleans?
NICK WATNEY: You know, New Orleans was euphoric. This one, it's euphoric, but at the same time, I was almost in a trance. It was a very weird feeling. This one I'm really trying to soak it in. I'm still euphoric, but slightly different, slightly more gratifying because they say it's always tougher to win the second than the first.
Q. Is your uncle here today?
NICK WATNEY: No, he's not here. He text messaged me throughout this week. He's back in Fresno. But he wasn't able to be here.
Q. You mentioned earlier about not being a great high school player, walked on in college. At what point did you make the leap to where you thought, I can play professionally and win? There had to be a pretty big jump in there at some time.
NICK WATNEY: That's tough to say. I mean, I think that I consider myself a fairly competitive person. I started playing golf when I was 13, and I kind of thought I wanted to do it. I think maybe I was too stubborn to realize it's pretty tough, or a lot of people don't make it or something like that. When people would ask me what are you going to do if golf doesn't work out, I'd say, "I'm going to try to make golf work out."
As far as the leap, I think I've had a pretty steady rise, no big leaps or anything. I've just got to continue to work hard and keep improving.
Q. Your caddie Tim got pretty emotional when we were talking to him. He was pretty happy. Can you describe your relationship and maybe explain why this meant so much for him?
NICK WATNEY: Well, this is the start of our sixth year together, working together. He puts up with me, a lot of — not times like this. Golf, unfortunately, you don't win nearly as much as you lose, so he's stuck with me. I'm just so happy. He did not change at all today, and it was just very, very gratifying. I feel like he's more than a caddie, he's a friend, and it's very special to have him out there.
Q. You're on the short list of guys in their 20s who have multiple wins now with the Kims and the Villegases and O'Hair, Sergio, Adam Scott. How much difference do you think there is, if any, separating you from some of those guys who are a little more famous? Do you belong in the conversation?
NICK WATNEY: Well, that's for you guys to decide. That's not why I play, to be mentioned in conversations or anything. I play to try to win trophies and stuff. I think it would be great to be mentioned in those circles with those guys. I respect their games very much, but I don't think that's for me to say. I mean, all I can do is continue to work hard and try to improve.
DOUG MILNE: Before we let you go, you talked about 18 and 16. If you could just run us through some clubs and yardages on your other birdies, 6, 8 and 13.
NICK WATNEY: Okay, 6 I had to lay up, and John and Camilo both went for the green. I hit a lob wedge from 80 yards about 12 feet, and that was a real big putt just to get a little bit of momentum and keep it in sight.
No. 8 was an 8-iron. I believe the yardage was 173. I'm not exactly sure. But that was also a big momentum thing because I had made bogey on 7. That was a big shot.
13 was a pretty good two-putt. I knew Camilo was making birdie, John made eagle, so that six-footer was big.
16, Camilo went first, hit a 6-iron. I switched to a 5 and hit on the back fringe and was able to make that.
And then 18, two-putt.
Q. Just curious, being in Fresno, which is kind of betwixt and between here and the Bay Area, did you ever come down here because clearly there's nothing in the neighborhood? What did you do as a kid to soak up the circus here?
NICK WATNEY: Well, I actually grew up in Dixon, which is near Sacramento. I went to college at Fresno. But I've been to the AT&T quite a few times, and also the U.S. Open at Olympic Club. But I never made it down here for this tournament.
Q. No three-putts during the week. You obviously had some tough ones to make. When you were at your worst last year putting, did it seem almost unimaginable to not have three-putts, just every week there would be a few here and there?
NICK WATNEY: Yeah, it was very frustrating year. I mean, I hit the ball decent, hit the ball well enough to — I hit the ball much better than my results. In terms of putting, it was a very frustrating year, and they would always come, one three-putt a round, and I was not definitely not in here talking to you guys. No three-putts is a very big deal to me and something I'm very proud of.
Q. Your uncle is whose brother?
NICK WATNEY: My uncle is my dad's brother.
Q. 13 especially in California is a little bit late to get started. Did your dad not have any golf background?
NICK WATNEY: Well, my dad plays recreationally, but my sister and my dad, whatever season it was, we were playing. If it was baseball, basketball, we were swimming for a while, soccer. Whatever season it was, we were out of the house, no sitting around in our house. I just kind of played all kinds of sports. And then I went to visit my uncle one summer, and he took me out to the golf course and just kind of got more exposed.
Q. Where was this?
NICK WATNEY: In Fresno.
Q. Was he already coaching?
NICK WATNEY: Yeah.
Q. Which course was your first?
NICK WATNEY: Which golf course was my first time? I can't remember.
Q. Can you give us a score for the first time or did you blank that out of your memory?
NICK WATNEY: I didn't make a score my first time. A lot of X's.
DOUG MILNE: Nick Watney, congratulations.