How tournaments from 2003 helped Nick Watney thrive in 2021

Nick Watney's peformances from decades ago helped set up his second-place finish Sunday night.

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Sixteen years ago, Nick Watney was a 24-year-old recent graduate from Fresno State who had played his way onto the PGA Tour. He was a budding talent who had earned his membership just like anyone else — full time status on the big show.

A career of ups and downs would follow, and perhaps you followed it yourself. The 2011 WGC win at Doral. His ascension to No. 9 in the world ranking. Numerous stints on the cover of GOLF Magazine. A precipitous drop outside the top 600 in the world, and then a sudden T2 finish this week. What is most interesting now is that every result from Watney’s entire PGA Tour career is important for his 2021-22 season, his 18th since turning pro, which started just weeks ago.

The $73,255 Watney earned in 2003 — with cuts made at the Reno-Tahoe Open and the John Deere Classic — was just as valuable to his 2021 as the four-week stretch this past summer where he netted zero top 30s. Because on the PGA Tour, all dollars made, from any year ever, matter for earning exemptions.

Watney’s recent few years have found him struggling, retreating back to work with Butch Harmon and plummeting to No. 660 in the world ranking. “Some lean times,” were his description of the last half-decade or so. But he’s still pegging it regularly on the Tour because of a Top 50 career earnings exemption he decided to use just weeks ago.

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Despite missing 18 consecutive cuts last season, Watney held on long enough to ensure he was 50th on the Tour’s all-time earnings list with around $28 million. Considering that Keegan Bradley trailed him by just $68,324 at the time, Watney was thankful for that T10 he notched in northern Nevada in 2003.

“That was, man, an amazing kind of lifeline,” Watney said of the exemption Sunday night. You never know when you’ll need exemptions, so they’re good to have. Watney has used them before, but none have helped out quite this well.

For the uninitiated, PGA Tour players’ accomplishments rank them on a priority list, and Watney’s exemption places him above many, many players who are ranked higher in the world. In other words, he had no trouble entering the Sanderson Farms this weekend, tying for second with Cameron Young, who sits much further down the priority list. It may not look fair on paper, but it’s an ode to the player Watney once was and the career he has amassed. And now that he’s backed it up with another near-victory, the exemption itself is completely validated, at least in the eyes of the PGA Tour. It also helped keep him from having to compete in Korn Ferry Tour Q-School, a battleground that requires great form to advance through.

Out of sight, out of mind in terms of Q-School. Watney’s Sunday result netted him $623,000, the most money he’s won in an event in more than three years. It’ll rush him up more than 300 spots in the world ranking and to 4th in the FedEx Cup. It’s way too early for that last figure to matter, but about 10 months from now, when Watney’s exemption is all used up, he’ll be thinking about his FedEx Cup rank. He’ll be thinking about that T2 Sunday, and perhaps even that T10 from 2003.

“This was the plan,” he said to wrap up his time with the press Sunday. “Use that [exemption], because I was literally number 50, and then play well and off we go.

“So, so far so good.”

Sean Zak

Golf.com Editor

Zak is a writer and host for various GOLF.com video properties and podcasts. Check out his travels on Destination Golf and his latest thoughts on the Drop Zone Podcast:

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