SE: Watkins Tees It Up with the Big Boys

Aaron Watkins saw success on the Gateway Tour in 2006 before advancing to the Nationwide Tour

June 15, 2012

By Mark Janssen

Aaron Watkins says, “It’s just different. No matter how many other rounds of golf you’ve played, once you’re inside the ropes in a PGA event, the butterflies start.”

Now on the Nationwide Tour, Watkins enjoyed full PGA status in 2009 before losing his card in 2010. This year, he earned a qualifying spot in the Phoenix Open, and today he is a part of the United States Open at The Olympic Club in San Francisco.

Watkins is the first former Kansas State golfer to play in the U.S. Open since Jim Colbert did so in 1987, which was also played at The Olympic Club.

It’s an Open field that includes past champions Angel Cabrera, Geoff Ogilvy, Rory McIlroy, and yes, Tiger Woods.

One of 156 players that opened play Thursday, Watkins shot a 2-over par 72 to sit in a tie for 23rd, and he will play again today, teeing off at 10:15 a.m. (CT), in hopes of making the cut for the weekend.

Watkins’ top PGA finish was a tie for seventh at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans in 2009. Last year on the Nationwide Tour, he pocketed $130,950, and this year ranks 65th in earnings with $31,013 with a stroke average of 71.21.

At the Phoenix Open last month, the Mesa, Ariz., native shot rounds of 76 and 72, before missing the cut.

In comparing the bottom half of the PGA Tour with the top one-third of the Nationwide Tour, Watkins said, “There is very little difference, and the same from the Nationwide to the NGA (National Golf Association). You see a better short game and a few more made putts. But it’s hard to get to the next level, and then it’s maybe even harder to stay at that next level.”

Once at that next level, Watkins said, “There’s the tendency to want to play too much. I know when I was a rookie I was so excited to play, but the fact is your body can only handle so much travel and so much eating out. You get tired and you lose your focus.”

Watkins chuckles at his rookie season on the PGA Tour where his swing was the least of his worries.

“There are plenty of guys who have the capabilities to hit the ball, but they don’t have the mental game,” said Watkins. “Once you’re in that top group of players, it gets so intimidating. You’re still out there trying to hit fairways, greens and taking the fewest putts as possible, but you’re no longer just playing out there with the boys, or no longer just playing in front of family and friends.”

Watkins related his first visit to Torrey Pines and going in to register to play.

“I looked around and said, ‘Holy crap!’ Phil Mickelson was standing behind me. There was the guy I’ve been watching for 15 years,” said Watkins.

He added, “I remember walking across a bridge with Tiger (Woods). It was a feeling like I had never felt before. You can’t put into words how intimidating it is to be side-by-side with the best player in the world … a guy who was unbeatable. It may not sound like that big of a deal, but it’s a feeling that I will never forget. With the crowd, the cameras and the media, there are just so many factors involved when you play with someone like Phil or like a Tiger. Those are things you can’t prepare for. Those are things you just have to experience.”

After losing his card in 2010, Watkins said returning to the PGA went to the top of his bucket list.

“Other than my family, it’s my top priority,” said Watkins. “Once you get the taste of the PGA – and I’m sure the NBA or Major League Baseball – when you’re shipped back to the minor leagues, it’s a kick in the butt. It’s something I definitely want to get back to, but it’s a hard road back.”

ON TIGER: While on the PGA Tour when Tiger Woods was king, Watkins has also watched from afar in the last two years when Woods hasn’t been a factor in the majors, and at times has even struggled to make cuts.

With Woods facing his own challenges, Watkins says, “You have a group of younger players like Luke Donald, Rickie Fowler and Bubba Watson winning and start wanting to play him. That fear may still be there, but it’s not there to the same degree. The list of players who have a legitimate chance of winning tournaments is longer than it was five to 10 years ago.”

ON COLBERT HILLS: Aaron Watkins made the Colbert Hills Golf Club his home during his Wildcat years from 2000 to 2004.

With it being a 7,525-yard layout from the back tees, Watkins said, “It could be a professional course. It plays so different when the wind is blowing. The biggest issue is that in professional tournaments, you have big crowds and you need grandstands. Colbert is so hilly, it’s hard to set up grandstands.”

Not to mention hard to walk.

We hope you enjoy K-State Sports Extra. We would like to hear your comments and any story ideas for future emails, so fire them our way. Contact either Mark Janssen or Kansas State Assistant AD for Communications Kenny Lannou.