Flanagan's not Rickie or Rory, but he was

Nick Flanagan

Editor's note: Nick Flanagan won on the Nationwide Tour on Sunday on the third hole of a sudden-death playoff. This story was printed in Golfweek's print edition following the Wells Fargo Championship earlier this month.

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- What pulled the curtain down on a riveting Wells Fargo Championship was a fireworks display by a pair of meteorites who showed why the PGA Tour’s future is abundantly bright. Rickie Fowler and Rory McIlroy are 23-year-olds awash in color and talent.

But what also was folded into the four-day production at the Quail Hollow Club was a sober reminder that the game is not as easy as some make it appear.

Nick Flanagan once was 23 and a comet; today he’s 27 and grinding for his career.

Now 73-80 aren’t the sort of numbers that will make you take notice, but file what Flanagan did at the Wells Fargo under “baby steps.” After all, “the last few years, there were times when I thought I wouldn’t play another PGA Tour event.”

That’s a difficult statement to digest, if you match it against what Flanagan had accomplished years earlier. In 2003, the then-19-year-old Aussie became the first foreign-born winner of the U.S. Amateur since 1971. Just four summers later, Flanagan piled up three Nationwide Tour wins for a battlefield promotion to the PGA Tour. With that opportunity, Flanagan finished inside the top 20 at the Turning Stone and Viking events, a tidy little $122,029 earned for those eight days of work.

Plenty more where that came from?

If that was what Flanagan thought, who could blame him? Young and talented, he seemed ready for prime time, only in 2008 he played poorly in his first season on the PGA Tour. The fact that he’s still waiting for a second season is a testament to confidence and motivation being terrible things to lose.

“For a few years there, I didn’t know if I wanted to do it,” said Flanagan, who played the Nationwide Tour from 2009 to ’11 and has limited status for this year. “But I was doing it because I didn’t really know how to do anything else. That’s not really a good way to play, (so) I didn’t practice like I used to and didn’t do all the right things off the golf course.”

Fortunately for Flanagan, his roommate back in Jacksonville Beach, Fla., is helping him shake those bad habits. Jonas Blixt, a 28-year-old Swede who parlayed good play and hard work to get through Q-School and onto the PGA Tour, stands as a source of inspiration to Flanagan.

“He’s never in a bad mood. He practices hard, spends a lot of time on the range and has given me a lot of encouragement that I can get back out here again,” Flanagan said.

It won’t be an easy return trip, but Flanagan has at least rediscovered passion and motivation. He shot 66 in a Wells Fargo Monday qualifier to get into a 10-way playoff for the final two spots. It took until Tuesday morning and a sixth extra hole, but Flanagan survived. And guess whom he was paired with Thursday and Friday in his first PGA Tour tournament since 2008? Blixt, who genuinely was thrilled for his friend.

“He’s a great player,” Blixt said. “He just needs to get a break. His game is coming along, especially in the last few weeks.”

Ah, but the game didn’t come through at Quail Hollow. “From a lack of playing tournaments, a little bit of tension crept in,” Flanagan said. “You get over the ball and you kind of don’t remember what you’re doing. I need match fitness.”

Crazy, this PGA Tour business. At one corner, 23-year-olds Fowler and McIlroy stole the Wells Fargo show. At another, roommates offered an intriguing contrast to the unpredictable world of pro golf – the unheralded 28-year-old Blixt finished in a share of ninth and earned his best-ever check, $156,000, as he continued to make steady progress in his career, while Flanagan, who “doesn’t feel young” despite being just 27, struggled with his golf, but not with his motivation.

“It’s been a rough couple of years,” Flanagan said. “But I feel like I can belong out here again. It’s just a matter of getting the game and confidence back and wanting to do it – and I actually want to do it again, which is helping.”

He birdied his 36th and final hole but still missed the cut, so in a Friday twilight, Flanagan gathered his stuff and shook hands with Blixt – his roommate, his friend, his motivator. The Aussie’s car was pointed toward Jacksonville Beach, though his sights are set on the BMW Charity Pro-Am (May 17-20), a Nationwide Tour event that he won five years ago, back when the confidence was higher and the game a bit easier.

“Everyone knows he’s a great player,” Blixt said. “He should be able to get back.”

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