SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS | For ardent followers of golf, the name Roland Thatcher is probably rattling around the recesses of your brain.
Maybe it’s buried there because Thatcher made 152 starts on the PGA Tour, scaring the winner’s circle a few times. Or perhaps you remember the story of how Thatcher, fresh out of Auburn University, needed a par on the final hole of Q-School to clinch his card for 2002. He airmailed the green with his approach, hitting a cart path that catapulted his ball over the clubhouse roof, never to be found again. He made a triple.
Or it could simply be that no other golfer shares the name Roland or Thatcher, a name more worthy of a Shakespearean actor than a professional athlete.
No matter the case, the name has been lodged in a cranny somewhere. So, it comes as a surprise to learn that Roland Thatcher hasn’t been in a PGA Tour field since his last start seven years ago at the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals Classic, a tournament that no longer exists.
That is, until this week at the Valero Texas Open, when the 41-year-old from The Woodlands, Texas, Monday qualified with a 65. It had been so long ago that some in the gallery assumed it must be a different Roland Thatcher, however improbable that theory seemed. But this is the same man, a man who had played seven full seasons on the PGA Tour before tumbling to Web.com status during what should have been the prime of his career. He has made 85 starts on the Web since.
“Not that I didn’t appreciate my time out here before, but I forgot how nice everything is,” Thatcher said after opening with a 1-over 73. “I’m really, really soaking it up. There were certainly times over the last four or five years where I thought I would never have the chance to play one of these again.”
On a fairly benign morning in Texas hill country, Thatcher opened with bogey but was able to get a shot back on the par-5 18th, his ninth hole of the day, in style. His wedge shot flew the green into the back bunker, leaving him short-sided and visibly exasperated at his poor effort. He quickly redeemed himself by holing the bunker shot, sending the crowd into a frenzy.
That moment alone was worth all the work, particularly because he underwent reconstructive surgery on his thumb back in December of 2016. Thatcher thought his career may have been over for good at that point.
“It changed the way I played the game because my thumb never regained the mobility that it had before,” Thatcher explained. “I didn’t think I would be playing any golf, so to be in a tournament like this is really neat.”
Thatcher’s comeback to playing in a PGA Tour event is even more impressive when you consider that he recently took a job as an assistant golf professional at Bentwater Country Club in Montgomery, Texas, about 60 miles north of Houston.
So what keeps him motivated to continue fueling the fire when he knows the best golf of his life is likely in the past?
“I hoped my career had gone differently, but the fact that it has gone on as long as it has is impressive,” Thatcher said. “I’ve either underachieved or overachieved depending on who you ask … this could be the last one, so I’m going to enjoy it.”
Only a golfer can understand that perseverance.
“I had a lot of people texting me thinking I was in Augusta and follow-up texts going ‘Oops, sorry, didn’t realize you weren’t in Augusta. I would love to win this week and go to Augusta.’ – Graeme McDowell
In 2014, Graeme McDowell had just completed a five-year run of finishing each calendar year in the top 15 of the world ranking. At that point, the Ulsterman had collected 10 European Tour victories, 16 top-10s in major championships, a U.S. Open win and a PGA Tour victory at the RBC Heritage.
He would win again at the Mayakoba Golf Classic in 2015, but McDowell has otherwise endured a steep decline. The 39-year-old started this year ranked 238th in the world and felt embarrassed about the sad trajectory his career had taken.
There were a couple of low points McDowell remembers vividly. In 2017 at Hilton Head, McDowell remembers “being on the edge” with his longtime caddie Ken Comboy despite finishing in a tie for 29th. A few months later at the CJ Cup, McDowell had an even more sobering moment.
“My driving had kind of reached rock bottom,” McDowell recalls. “I was driving it awful, short, nowhere. I played with Tony Finau the first round and he just decimated me off the tee. I started to think to myself that I can’t compete on the PGA Tour driving like this. This is a serious problem.”
The stats backed up his feeling. McDowell averaged 279 yards off the tee that year, ranking 174th on the PGA Tour. Unless the rest of his game was elite, that wasn’t going to cut it.
The realization turned out to be a key point in his resurgence. McDowell averaged 293 yards off the tee last year, a 14-yard difference that has been vital in his resurgence.
“That was a turning point from an equipment and technique point of view,” he said. “I realized I was doing a couple things wrong with the driver that I needed to fix, and I started working on that and from then I started driving it better.”
The transition has taken time, but it appears McDowell has rekindled some magic. He won last week’s Corales Puntacana Championship – on a long course where he needed his improved driving – in dramatic fashion to reach 133rd in the world, and celebrated with a little Dominican rum on the way home. The victory suddenly ignited dormant hopes that he can qualify for the Open Championship at Royal Portrush in his hometown. A win this week at the Valero Texas Open would get him into the Masters for the first time since 2016. He’s riding good form, opening with a 3-under 69 on one of his favorite golf courses.
“I had a lot of people texting me thinking I was in Augusta and follow-up texts going ‘Oops, sorry, didn’t realize you weren’t in Augusta,’” McDowell joked. “I would love to win this week and go to Augusta.”
Another major part of his comeback has been figuring out how to play well on Sundays. McDowell averaged 71.36 per final round last season, well into the bottom half of the tour. He’s still struggling this season on Sundays (71.13), but a closing 69 last week could be what he needs to get going again.
“To be honest with you, last year wasn’t a bad year,” McDowell said. “I just was turning fifths into 15ths, and 10ths into 25ths. I just had a bad knack of not finishing off good weeks. So I knew it was there, it was kind of bubbling under the surface, but I couldn’t let it out.
“In a funny way, going back to a second-tier event like Dominican last week where it’s just not a great field and you kind of have that built-in little bit of confidence, that helped me a lot. … it was great to kind of go through those emotions and feeling again of, hey, I can mess this up today.”
He put things together when he needed to, a sign that he may not be done being a factor among the game’s best.
If Thatcher has battled to start on the PGA Tour again and McDowell has found a way to win on the PGA Tour again, Jordan Spieth is up against a different animal.
For well over a year, the question has been asked whether it’s time for the three-time major champion to panic. He nearly won two majors in 2018, but he has slid to 32nd in the world and has no top-20 finishes since September. All of his recent stats have been alarming, although ranking 204th in strokes gained off the tee has been particularly worrisome. Not that the FedEx Cup is in the front of anyone’s mind this early, but Spieth’s ranking of No. 177 shows the state of his game.
The first round at TPC San Antonio offered some real hope for the first time in more than a month. Spieth did struggle off of the tee, missing all but five fairways, but he led the field in strokes gained approach to the green and was fourth in the tee to green stat. It’s an encouraging reversal.
“I struggled a little with the swing to start, just didn’t hit a whole lot of fairways,” Spieth said after Thursday’s 68. “But I kept the ball in between the beacons, didn’t hit it out of play, and therefore was able to kind of play bogey-free type of golf and take advantage of the par-5s.”
First rounds haven’t been the issue for Spieth. He has shot 68 or better on five occasions to open an event this season, but has an abysmal weekend scoring average of 73.1. It will be of great interest whether he can carry solid ball-striking numbers into the Masters, a tournament where he has four top-three finishes in five starts. Given that record, the real panic may come if he doesn’t contend next week.
To his credit, the 25-year-old doesn’t show many signs of frustration with his game. In a recent interview with the No Laying Up podcast, he went in-depth on his 2016 Masters collapse and the specifics of his current swing troubles. Even after his opening round at the Texas Open, he spoke calmly with the confidence of someone who is certain he will turn his fortunes around in the near future.
Jordan Spieth watches his drive on the second hole during the first round of the Valero Texas Open. Photo: Soobum Im, USA Today Sports
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