OCALA, Fla. – Golden Hills Golf & Turf Club was all but abandoned on Jan. 4. The thermometer was struggling to top 30. This was not the type of weather that causes snowbirds to flock to Florida.
One foursome of retirees sat in Golden Hills’ grill room, waiting for the frost to melt. A couple of employees chatted behind the bar, their services unnecessary in this nearly-empty room. Then there was the PGA Tour player in their midst.
The cold snap must have made Ted Potter Jr.’s upcoming expedition seem even sweeter. The 28-year-old would be leaving in two days for Hawaii. The tropical destination wasn’t the only source of satisfaction, though.
Potter was en route to the first PGA Tour event of his nine-year pro career, his tee time the result of inspirational perseverance.
Potter finished 13th this weekend at the Sony Open, the season’s first full-field event. He was the low finisher among the 24 rookies entered, in contention for a victory in his PGA Tour debut before bogeys at Nos. 14 and 17 and a par at the short par-5 18th. Yet, there is much to celebrate about that finish, considering the road Potter traveled to get there.
“I feel comfortable,” Potter said. “As long I keep doing what I’ve been doing and don’t let everything get overwhelming, I should be fine.”
Potter endured three punishing Nationwide Tour seasons, including arguably the worst season in the circuit’s history, before finishing second on last year’s money list. Even during the worst of his struggles, he dominated the Hooters Tour in a fashion reminiscent of Zach Johnson and Chad Campbell. It was a frustrating dichotomy.
Before last season, Potter had made only six of 55 cuts in three Nationwide Tour seasons (2004, ’07, ’10). He is second only to Campbell on the Hooters Tour’s career money list, with $646,117, though, and was that tour’s player of the year in 2006 and 2009.
While many of his peers funded their pro careers with lucrative endorsements and the backing of wealthy donors, Potter paid his way by working in a cart barn. He turned pro out of high school, even though he hardly had competed more than an hour’s drive from his home in rural Silver Springs.
Potter’s game might best be described as homemade. He doesn’t have a formal teacher. His torrid downswing is marked by an aggressive leg drive and pronounced head dip. He’s known as an aggressive player, especially on the greens, where he has no problem with running birdie putts some 4 or 5 feet past the hole.
“He’s trying to birdie every hole, that’s for sure,” said Russell Knox, a former Hooters Tour competitor and fellow PGA Tour rookie. “Anywhere inside 150 yards, he just flags it. At times, he’s the best putter I’ve ever seen. He just rams the ball in the hole.”
Potter’s aggressive play is in contrast to a humble demeanor. He’s the quiet, polite type. He didn’t move out of his parents’ home until last year. What was the point of paying rent or a mortgage when he spent most of the year touring the Southeast in his pickup truck, playing upwards of 35-40 mini-tour events?
Before earning his first Nationwide Tour card at the 2003 Q-School, just 18 months after graduating from Lake Weir High School, Potter was working in the cart barn at Lake Diamond Country Club . He quit in early 2004 to embark on his rookie season.
He clearly was overwhelmed by the instant promotion. Potter, then 20, missed the cut in all 24 Nationwide Tour starts in 2004, setting a tour futility record for most starts in a season without a made cut. He ranked last in driving accuracy (47.2 percent) and second-to-last in greens in regulation (53.8). He averaged more than 300 yards per tee shot, a testament to his grip-it-and-rip-it style. He estimates the season cost him $40,000 in travel costs.
It was more of the same in 2007, when anxiety over his past failures on the Nationwide Tour prompted a loss of confidence with the driver. Potter started the season with a 12th-place finish in Panama, but made just two of his next 19 cuts. Even in 2010, when he was coming off a dominant Hooters Tour season, he missed the great majority of his Nationwide Tour cuts.
Potter doesn’t dwell on those past struggles, though.
“I try to just keep that in the past,” he said. “I don’t want to bring up bad memories. I just focus on the positive.”