Potter Jr. shows his power to persevere
Editor's note: This story originally ran in February in Golfweek magazine, but has been updated with Ted Potter Jr.'s win on Sunday at Greenbrier.
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OCALA, Fla. -- Ted Potter Jr. never questioned his ability, even during his worst struggles. There was no introspection, no race to a swing coach or search for a psychologist. He just kept playing golf, touring the Southeast in his pickup, logging upward of 35 events per year, all in pursuit of one goal: the PGA Tour.
Potter, 28, finally made it, though the game punished him more than perhaps any of the Tour’s 26-man rookie class. After two victories last year, he won a promotion with a runner-up finish on the Nationwide Tour’s money list. That followed an extraordinary run on the NGA/Hooters Tour.
He'd made six cuts in his first 15 starts and pocketed $176,904 entering the Greenbrier Classic, where he won $1,098,000 for his victory. He'd missed five consecutive cuts coming into Greenbrier.
Potter dominated the Hooters Tour for several years, with 14 victories, two Player of the Year titles (2006 and ’09) and a rare accumulation of wealth on a mini-tour, amassing $646,117, the second-best total in tour history. Contrast that with flameouts on the Nationwide Tour: only six cuts made in 55 starts over three seasons (2004, ’07, ’10) before his 2011 breakthrough.
On the mini-tours, where he was more at ease, Potter was a different player. His feats – he won the 2010 Ocala Open by one stroke with an ace on the next-to-last hole – became legendary in golf’s minor leagues.
After finishing 148th on the 2010 Nationwide Tour money list, he began 2011 with no status. He Monday-qualified for the South Georgia Classic, then won it to regain his Nationwide Tour card and set in motion his climb to the PGA Tour.
Daren Robinson, director of instruction at Potter’s home course, Golden Hills Golf & Turf Club in Ocala, describes the quiet left-hander as “homemade.” The swing is as self-made as the man.
Potter didn’t grow up with formal lessons. He developed his game by playing, often with father Ted Sr. after the elder Potter’s shift as a golf-course maintenance worker. Ted Sr. could break par, and mom Dale, a Walmart worker, could break 80. They gave their son clubs before he turned 2. Young Ted, a natural right-hander, would flip the clubs over and swing left-handed to mirror his father.
Potter turned pro right out of high school and worked in the cart barn at Ocala’s Lake Diamond Golf & Country Club to save money for the Orlando, Fla.-based Moonlight Tour.
Potter’s swing has been refined and toned down, but his violent downswing, defined by a powerful leg drive that causes a noticeable head dip, is a remnant of an earlier grip-it-and-rip-it style that was ill-suited for pro golf’s highest levels.
“His golf swing, you wouldn’t look at it and think, ‘Wow, he must hit it good,’ ” said Nationwide Tour player Chris Wilson. “It’s not a knock on him. It’s a credit to his talent.”
His aggressive approach underscores a simple objective in a game too often made to be complex: Potter takes a direct route to the hole.
“He’s trying to birdie every hole,” said Russell Knox, also a PGA Tour rookie and former Hooters player. “He just rams the ball in the hole.”
Potter’s bold play is in contrast to a humble demeanor. “I’m just not a big social person,” he said, in characteristic understatement. Quiet and polite, Potter is visibly uncomfortable talking about himself. That introversion, however, made the Nationwide Tour a lonely place. Jerry Foltz, a Golf Channel commentator and former Nationwide Tour winner, doesn’t recall seeing Potter in conversation with any fellow players during those early seasons.
Asked to recount his path to the PGA Tour, Potter taps a finger on a table and a foot on the floor. He lived in his parents’ home until last year. Why, he reasoned, pay rent or a mortgage when most of the year he is on the road playing golf or, during a rare week off, hunting in Alabama on leased property?
“We’re just lucky he comes home every once in awhile,” his mother said.
Potter earned his first taste of big-time golf by earning a Nationwide Tour card at 2003 Q-School. He never had flown in a plane, and suddenly he was sent – right out of the cart barn – to one of the world’s strongest tours.
Potter missed all 24 cuts in 2004, setting a tour futility record for most starts without a made cut. He averaged 300-plus yards off the tee, but was last on tour in driving accuracy (47.2 percent) and second-to-last in greens in regulation (53.8). He did lead the tour in one category, though: double bogeys and “others.” The uber-aggressive style that worked on the lower levels didn’t suit the PGA Tour-style courses.
“His scorecards looked like a rainbow,” Foltz said. “They hadn’t invented colors for his scorecard.”
Potter estimates the year cost him $40,000 in travel expenses. He stayed afloat through modest endorsement contracts, savings from his cart-barn job and mini-tour earnings. A self-financed career has been a point of pride.
“I felt like I was an amateur pro,” Potter said, “just figuring out what I needed to do. I made it way bigger than it should have been.”
He earned another chance on the Nationwide Tour, but made only three cuts in 20 events in 2007. Anxiety about his past struggles prompted a loss in confidence in his driver. His third trip to the tour, in 2010, wasn’t much better: 11 starts, three made cuts.
Since then, he has slowed his swing to gain the control that had been lacking. Potter improved to sixth in driving accuracy on last year’s Nationwide Tour. Despite advances in technology, his tee shots sail about 20 yards shorter than during his rookie Nationwide Tour season.
Robinson, the instructor at Golden Hills, says that ability to persevere is vintage Potter.
“It would’ve been very easy for him to say, ‘I can’t play at that level. I’m going to go out and get a job and I’m done,’ ” Robinson said. “Ted followed his dream. When people are used to winning, and they’re not scared to be there . . . they’re not going to stay down forever.”