LAKE MARY, Fla. – There are bound to be tournaments like this. The weeks when the putter doesn’t cooperate, and the wedge shots don’t nestle close enough, and the driver doesn’t fly on line, and finally, after 54 holes, the harsh reality hits that it just wasn’t enough. Learning experiences, they say.
Matt Hill can’t quite accept that, at least not yet. He just signed his scorecard, and the closing bogey lingers still. On the course he wants perfection, every time. He figures he should hole the makeable putts, and his wedge shots should be tight, and every drive should be on a rope. “Today I probably got a little too frustrated,” Hill, 22, said, “and it hurt me a little bit.”
You probably remember Hill, the former Jack Nicklaus Award winner. He was college golf’s all-everything in 2009, when as a sophomore at N.C. State he won eight tournaments, including the ACC and NCAA titles. One of the greatest college seasons ever. In 2010 the Canadian won only once, and he didn’t hoist a conference championship trophy, and he didn’t even qualify for the NCAAs, but that didn’t stop him from announcing last April that he was foregoing his senior season to turn pro.
Few prospects possess the physical tools of Hill (6-foot-2, and arms for miles). With height comes great width, and with width comes great power, of which Hill seemingly has endless supply. He has The Look, too. On this day he’s nattily attired in a sleek green shirt and dark charcoal trousers. His black Nike staff bag has his name “MATT HILL” and main sponsor, RBC, emblazoned on the front. He looks like a younger, darker, hairier Stewart Cink.
While playing he’s reserved, reflective. He often stood on the edge of the tee box, rehearsing his swing, while his playing competitors, Billy Hurley III and James Vargas, chatted freely. Hill is much more expressive, however, after a sub-par shot. Slapping his pant leg. Mumbling under his breath. Clanking his club off his shoe. He got too frustrated, he said.
After a wild back nine at Timacuan Golf Club, Hill made a sloppy bogey on 18 to shoot 71 and tie for sixth, his third consecutive top 10 on the Hooters Tour Winter Series. That dropped shot cost him about $1,500 in prize money, but he’ll be fine. Sponsor exemptions await. “I didn’t play great today,” he said, “but you’ve got just to try and be as positive as you can, and you just hope things turn out the way you want.”
The contrast between he and the winner, Vargas, was too rich to ignore. This was Vargas’ second victory in three starts, and he pocketed a winner’s check of $12,462. “It was a full field this week,” he cracked. Life-changing cash, it is not, but it keeps Vargas going. He has no sponsors, and must pay his own way. So add in a few living expenses, he says, and the money goes quick. “This helps me pay off some bills,” he said. “My mom has a funny quote: ‘Until you get to the PGA Tour, you’re going to be in debt.’ Seems like that’s true.”
Few have more experience on the Hooters Tour than Vargas, 26, though perhaps that’s a dubious distinction. He’s been around long enough to realize there will be stretches of exquisite golf (like this), and stretches when he wondered when the next significant paycheck will come (last year on the Hooters Tour, he failed to record a top 10 until July). Learning experiences, he says.
“You just push yourself to the limit,” Vargas said. “Some weeks it’s enough, and some weeks it’s not. Add them up at the end, and hopefully you’re ahead.”
Refreshing perspective, particularly from a guy who unwittingly thrust his career into limbo last fall. On the Hooters Tour since 2007 – “I’m a veteran already!” – Vargas believed change was imminent, that finally he was ready for a promotion. It sure appeared that way, too, after the first stage of PGA Tour Q-School, where he shot 17 under and headed into second stage, at Southern Hills Plantation in Brooksville, Fla., brimming with confidence. Advance there, and Vargas would have been guaranteed at least partial status on the Nationwide Tour.
But he couldn’t put it together, a forgettable first round, as he struggled to keep pace amid the low scores. After his round Vargas turned in his card and left the scoring tent to clear his head. He walked no more than 15 feet, then paused, sick. He didn’t sign his card. Too late. Automatic DQ.
“That’s a mistake that I hadn’t made in my life and I probably won’t make again,” he said. “It was unfortunate, and it was tough for a couple of days, the thought of never knowing. If I played four rounds there and I don’t make it, I gave it all I had. So yeah, it’s a ‘what if’ thing.”
And so every offseason start helps. Extra cash to play qualifiers, an easy way to stay ahead of upcoming bills. For a few months, at least, he can play stress-free golf.
Next month Hill will play the PGA Tour event at Pebble Beach on a sponsor exemption. Vargas will travel the country, chasing Monday qualifiers on the Nationwide Tour, hoping one week changes everything. Some weeks he will play well, and some weeks he will not. These are all learning experiences, he says. One $12,000 paycheck at a time.