DALLAS, TEXAS | Aaron Wise has been a winner his whole life. He started as a highly touted recruit out of Santiago High School in greater Los Angeles, captured the 2016 NCAA Championship as a University of Oregon player and was the PGA Tour Rookie of the Year last season.
Wise skipped the battling on countless mini-tours. He traded it for a quick ascension to the top 50 in the world on the strength of winning last year’s AT&T Byron Nelson and the runner-up finish at the Wells Fargo Championship that preceded it.
He was ready for his rapid rise. But he wasn’t prepared for what occurred in the immediate aftermath. Wise, suddenly engulfed with media attention, missed the cut in his next five starts.
“It just came at a really bad time,” Wise remembers. “Lot of media was on me. I was kind of that hot item, if you want to call it, out here, and then to go on and play bad with all that media around me, it was a tough time.”
The 22-year-old rebounded and reached the Tour Championship, but his tale underscores a valuable lesson on the PGA Tour. Achieving that first victory comes with the security of a two-year exemption – not to mention the financial windfall you receive from the winner’s check, better access to the top events on the schedule and subsequent endorsement deals – but there is often a downside to the perks.
For one, a player’s exposure typically increases after a victory. GGP’s Ron Green Jr. recently wrote about how Cameron Champ’s life changed drastically after he won the 2018 Sanderson Farms Championship just eight starts into his PGA Tour career. He started being placed in featured groups with bona fide superstars and the media requests inundated him. Champ almost would have been better off staying under the radar so he could acclimate to his surroundings.
Secondly, it’s human nature for a bit of the edge to wear off after you win. It’s validation for all of the long hours a player has spent practicing over many years. It’s the attainment of a lifelong goal. The urgency and focus it takes to compete at the highest level can erode, at least briefly.
As with Wise and Champ, this scenario plays out a lot. There have been 19 first-time PGA Tour winners dating to the start of the 2017-2018 season, and regression after their victories is a common thread. Andrew Landry has one top-20 finish in 30 starts since his 2018 Valero Texas Open victory. Satoshi Kodaira won at Harbour Town last year and hasn’t finished better than a tie for 20th in his ensuing 27 starts. Michael Kim has missed the cut in 16 of 21 starts since winning the 2018 John Deere Classic.
In many cases, these players had momentum before their victories. It’s a common sentiment in sports that winning breeds winning, but it’s not that simple in golf.
“You know, I look at so many cases where guys, you know, go in these little ruts but I’ve never felt like I was lost or that I was searching for my game. … I’m still playing golf for a living and on the PGA Tour, so it’s not all bad.” – Mackenzie Hughes
On the par-3 17th hole at Trinity Forest Golf Club on Thursday, Smylie Kaufman came to the tee and spent about three minutes repeatedly practicing his takeaway from the ball. Anyone who has played golf at a high level could spot his discomfort long before he sent his tee ball flailing 30 yards right of the flag. Kaufman finished dead last in this year’s AT&T Byron Nelson and has missed the cut or withdrawn in 21 of his last 22 starts, nothing at all like the player many thought he would become after he won the 2015 Shriners Hospitals for Children Open. Kaufman is competing on a major medical extension and injuries have played a role in his struggles, but he has openly talked about how media exposure and pressure heightened expectations too quickly after his win.
Playing in the same group was someone who could relate to his pain. Mackenzie Hughes won the RSM Classic in the fall of 2016, reaching 110th in the world and ensuring he would have his PGA Tour card through this season. The Canadian has missed 25 cuts in the past two seasons and fell as low as 425th in the world, although his recent runner-up finish in the Corales Puntacana Resort & Club Championship in the Dominican Republic has offered some hope that things may be turning around. Hughes talked candidly about how difficult it is to follow up a win, noting that another breakthrough performance can always be around the corner.
“I’ve won before, and I know that at any point, I can do it again,” Hughes said. “You know, I look at so many cases where guys, you know, go in these little ruts but I’ve never felt like I was lost or that I was searching for my game. James Hahn a couple years ago, Wells Fargo, he missed eight cuts in a row and won. That’s something I tell myself, too. And the fact that the season is still long, there’s no need to panic. I’m still playing golf for a living and on the PGA Tour, so it’s not all bad.”
Near the top of the AT&T Byron Nelson leaderboard, there is an example Kaufman can look to as inspiration. Matt Every, tied for second through 36 holes, had two victories and 17 top-10s during the 2012-2015 seasons. He went on to miss 48 cuts with five withdrawals in the subsequent three seasons, completely falling off the map during a time when he remained fully exempt. He lost his card last season and now splits time between the PGA Tour and Web.com Tour.
Interestingly, Every has more top-25 finishes on the PGA Tour this season (five) than he did in the last three seasons combined. With a respectable weekend in Dallas, he will just about lock up his PGA Tour card for 2019-2020.
Keith Mitchell recently won the Honda Classic, seeing his profile raised from relative anonymity to one of the ascending stars in the game. He has followed up his win with impressive top-10s at Bay Hill and the Wells Fargo, signs that his game and mental outlook are sound.
But when asked by GGP whether he views his victory as a release of pressure given the security that comes with it, Mitchell immediately shook his head. The results have been good, but it hasn’t come easily.
“I think I’ve been putting more pressure on myself to keep competing and keep winning,” Mitchell said. “That’s probably a negative, but I don’t ever like to get too comfortable out here because I’m only secure for another two years. That’s nothing in the long term.”
Of course, the struggle of following up a victory isn’t solely an internal battle. Golf on the PGA Tour is relentless. There is increasing parity and depth. The number of players who can win each week is large, meaning there will be plenty of guys who win once and then never return to that level of play. Comparing them against the victory isn’t necessarily fair. They are who they are, and that may just be a guy who hangs around 125th on the points list each season.
That still doesn’t change the perils of victory and the emotional cycle players go through after raising their first big-time trophy. When Wise was asked what surprised him most about being a winner on the PGA Tour, he told a story of his experience the past two weeks returning to the tournaments that helped launch his career a season ago.
In Dallas where he won, everyone knew what he had accomplished last year. The volunteers, the media, the players, the fans and practically anyone else with whom he came into contact. In Charlotte, where he had finished runner-up, he was just about mistaken for the parking valet attendant.
“I mean 80 percent of the people I talked to didn’t even know I played in the event last year,” Wise recalled. “Like, is this your first time here? I finished second last year, that’s not that bad.”
On one side is everything that comes with winning. On the other is a nice paycheck, valuable FedEx Cup points and a tip of the cap. The chasm is larger than we give it credit for being.
And how players handle the difference is one of their greatest tests.
Aaron Wise acknowledges applause on the 18th green after winning the 2018 AT&T Byron Nelson. Photo: Eric Gay, AP
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