The PGA Tour’s roster of USC Aiken golfers will swell to three players next season, but not without a little 11th-hour drama for Scott Brown’s former teammate Roberto Diaz.
While 2013 Pacer graduate Matt Atkins had no reason to sweat his comfortable top-20 standing on the Web.com Tour money list last Sunday, Diaz endured hours of tension before securing the 25th and final guaranteed PGA Tour card.
“I don’t think there’s any words that I can say of how I feel,” the 30-year-old Diaz said after a missed birdie putt by former Georgia golfer Keith Mitchell on the final hole at Pumpkin Ridge meant the ex-Pacer would finally get his card. “I mean, it’s a dream come true obviously. It was a long afternoon. I can tell you I have no nails, nothing.”
Back in Aiken, longtime Pacers coach Mike Carlisle sweated it out via texts with one of his former all-Americans.
“I was communicating with him before, during and after the tournament,” Carlisle said. “He’s quite elated. It was fun to watch and glad to see something good like that happen to a good guy and he gets a break.”
Atkins said Diaz was the most excited at the ceremony when the 25 players were presented their PGA Tour cards for 2017-18.
“Oh my gosh that was crazy,” said Atkins, whose April win in Mexico led to his finishing 19th on the money list. “I can’t even put myself in his shoes and the emotions he probably felt that entire day. I saw him at the ceremony and he was so relieved. It was out of his control because he’d finished his round a couple of hours before that and he was just left there to wait and see.”
While both Atkins and Diaz will try to improve their status over the next four weeks in the Web.com Finals, they are eager to get started as rookies on the PGA Tour.
“I’m very excited,” said Diaz, who made seven of his last eight cuts to keep himself in the top 25. “I think it’s going to be an experience like no other. I just know now that the hard work just starts and I have to work harder and I have to be more aggressive and more realistic about where I want to be. This is just one step towards where I want to be.”
“This is the goal of all professional golfers,” Atkins said. “I’m not sure it’s really sunk in yet because I still have four of these Web.com Finals events left before the PGA Tour season starts. It will probably sink in when I start playing full time on the PGA Tour.”
Along with veteran Brown, USC Aiken will have the most players of any Division II program holding PGA Tour cards next season. It’s a big deal for Carlisle’s program, which won three consecutive NCAA titles from 2004-06.
“I think it shows now the parity in college golf and you have Division II programs that turn out good players,” Carlisle said. “There’s a lot of players that when they’re coming out of high school they don’t get the attention of Clemson or Georgia Tech or Georgia or Wake Forest, so they develop at a little different pace. I think it was pretty much that way for all three of those guys we’ll have on tour next year.
“When it comes down to it, when they get out of school they have 14 clubs in their bag and a bunch of shiny white new golf balls just like everybody else. So it’s pretty equal.”
Both Diaz and Atkins developed at different paces to reach this point. Diaz turned pro in 2009, and he’s slowly worked his way to this point after four seasons on the Web.com Tour.
“I’m not a young guy like I was at USC Aiken and there’s a lot of things that I need to be proud of and lot of people I have to thank,” Diaz said. “At the same time I think I’ve grown a lot as a player. It was more difficult than I thought. I think that I have a pretty good example in Scott Brown. I think he made it look easier than it actually was.”
Carlisle thinks Diaz will benefit from the long climb.
“Real quick growth sometimes isn’t sustainable,” Carlisle said. “In his case he’s worked hard and grown slower and got to this point now and will value it greatly because of the time and effort he has put in.”
Atkins proved a quicker learner. Forced to return to the first stage of Q school after making only three cuts as a Web.com rookie in 2015, he threatened to graduate in 2016.
“My first year out here on paper didn’t look good, but it was a weird year because I felt like I got better as a golfer and played better than I did in previous year on the mini tours,” Atkins said. “Sometimes the results don’t always show themselves for awhile. I felt confident in my game and that there was no way I wasn’t going to qualify for the tour again. The second event in second year I came in second and that kind of jump-started me. I realized I didn’t have to play perfectly to win out here.”
Atkins has Monday qualified twice for fall events on the PGA Tour and made the cut both times. Diaz has played in five PGA Tour events including this year’s WGC in his native Mexico and the U.S. Open. He’s missed the cut three times as a sponsor exemption in Mayakoba.
Both can’t wait to grow their experiences.
“The places that you’ve seen on TV and where winners have hit it and putts have been made, I think every week is going to be a new experience that is going to mark my life for a lifetime,” Diaz said.
Said Atkins: “I think every event to me is going to be something great and I’m looking forward to playing in any event I get into. There’ll be some learning experiences of how to travel and bigger markets and so many more fans coming out to events. I think I’m prepared for all those changes.”