CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA | It’s not easy being a phenom.
Cameron Champ, all of 23 years old and still working through his first season on the PGA Tour, is learning all about it.
A year ago, Champ was another long-hitting kid out of college trying to build a career with more than his jaw-dropping power. Then he earned his PGA Tour card, won the Sanderson Farms Championship last October and was ordained the game’s next big thing.
“I had somebody ask me if he’s the next Tiger Woods. I said, ‘Are you kidding?’ ” – Sean Foley, Cameron Champ’s longtime swing coach who also worked with Woods for a time
Champ didn’t ask for it but there he was, looking out from magazine covers and hearing the fans rushing up around him on every tee to feel the jet wash from his next tee shot. He’s gone from quietly going about his business to being surrounded by noise.
“I had somebody ask me if he’s the next Tiger Woods. I said, ‘Are you kidding?’ ” said Sean Foley, Champ’s longtime swing coach who also worked with Woods for a time.
That’s how expectations can morph overnight.
Now reality has begun to sink in. Champ has not made the cut in a PGA Tour event since the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am in early February. He arrived at this week’s Wells Fargo Championship having missed four cuts and withdrawn once in his past five starts.
Call it what you will: golf or life or both. It’s a game where nothing – good or bad – lasts forever.
“It’s really close. It’s really just a learning phase. I got hurt (a disc issue flared up) and tried to play through that and kind of lost everything,” Champ said early Thursday afternoon following a first-round 72 at Quail Hollow Club.
For a portion of the first round, Champ’s name was on the electronic leaderboards scattered around Quail Hollow. He was 2-under par as he arrived at the demanding three-hole “Green Mile” finish. Then things went sideways.
Champ put his tee shot at the par-4 16th hole in the face of a fairway bunker, leading to a bogey.
At the watery par-3 17th, where the tees were up on Thursday, Champ yanked his tee shot into the water and saved bogey when he holed a 25-foot putt from the front.
He finished by pulling his tee shot at the par-4 18th onto a steep hillside, slashed his second well right of the green and rather than attempt the impossible by trying to get a pitch shot from a downhill lie to a pin with water behind it, Champ did the smart thing by playing away from trouble and accepting another bogey.
One of his playing companions, Kyle Stanley, played the same three holes birdie-birdie-birdie, a six-shot swing between the two at the end.
“I always remind myself that’s what you need to do. You can’t force it. If you do that, you get yourself in more trouble.”
– Cameron Champ
In the quiet of the Quail Hollow locker room after his round, Champ acknowledged patience isn’t always the strong suit among 23-year-olds.
“I always remind myself that’s what you need to do. You can’t force it. If you do that, you get yourself in more trouble,” Champ said.
Champ’s gift is his power that, even by today’s bombastic standards, is extraordinary. He can get away with hitting just 55 percent of his fairways because his distance offsets his inaccuracy.
To succeed long term, Champ must improve other aspects of his game. And he knows it. He ranks 212th on tour in strokes gained around the greens. From 50 to 125 yards, he’s 207th in proximity. In other words, the scoring shots are costing him shots.
Champ’s victory last fall tended to obscure the fact he had not been a big winner at any level. He had one college victory and one Web.com Tour triumph before winning the Sanderson Farms tournament in Mississippi.
He made the game look so easy for a time that expectations outraced reality. Foley has counseled Champ to stick with their process, building from one day to the next, looking toward the horizon.
It’s an approach that has helped another Foley student – Justin Rose – reach No. 1 in the world. It’s also similar to how Francesco Molinari has become the player he is today, sticking to a solid plan and believing in it. Last week at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans, Champ hit all 18 greens in regulation in the first round of the team event.
“It’s really close,” said Champ, who is still learning about his new life.
“Is he struggling? I’d say he’s learning,” Foley said. “We’ve seen it a million times.”
Cameron Champ plays a shot during the first round of the Wells Fargo Championship. Photo: Jared C. Tilton, Getty Images
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