The 2012 PGA Tour season is under way and its stocked deeper than ever with local talent.
Former USC Aiken All-American and North Augusta resident Scott Brown will make his rookie debut this week in Hawaii along with his regular playing partner Kevin Kisner, of Aiken, and Augusta native Charles Howell, a tour veteran.
Next week in the California desert, they will be joined by veteran Vaughn Taylor, an Evans resident via Hephzibah and Augusta State.
While all of them are ready to get to work, Brown is especially eager to head into new professional territory.
“It’s something I’ve worked hard for since I was 8 years old,” he said of the game he played for the first time at Goshen Plantation Golf Club when he was 3. “Putting in all the hours on the putting green and range, it finally paid off. It’s kind of a relief that I’ll be able to live a dream of mine.”
Along with Nationwide Tour pro Scott Parel – who missed getting his PGA Tour card by one stroke at Q School – Brown and Taylor swell the ranks of Goshen-bred pros to three.
“I feel like I’m in a fairy tale sometimes that I get to do this, and seeing another guy out there from Goshen is awesome,” said Taylor, who reclaimed his PGA Tour status through Q School last month to ensure his ninth consecutive season on tour. “I’ve known (Brown) since he was a kid and his dad played with mine out at Goshen. I think it’s pretty cool to see him out there now. I’m proud of him. He’s a hard worker and a good guy.”
The PGA Tour’s regional connections in 2012 include Swainsboro pros Blake Adams and Will Claxton as well as former Louisville resident Brian Gay. But here are previews of the core four from Aiken-Augusta:
After playing in every tournament on the schedule last season to earn his card through the Nationwide Tour, Brown wasn’t about to miss this week’s full-field opener in Hawaii.
“It hasn’t hit me yet where I’m going to be playing to be honest,” said Brown. “It’s kind of surreal right now. I’m sure it will hit me on the first tee in Hawaii and they call my name out. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to play against the best players in the world. I don’t know what to expect. I’m sure it will be an experience. But I know that I’m ready to get it going and looking forward to getting that first tee shot done and then go to work.”
Brown played all 26 Nationwide Tour events in 2011 during the 36-week span of the season, but he showed no signs of burnout by locking up his card with a runner-up finish in the final event to finish eighth on the money list.
“You have to do it on that tour,” Brown said. “You don’t start playing consecutive weeks until May and when you get there you kind to have to play because those are the bigger events money wise. One week on that tour not making any money and you start backing up so much. It forces you to play a little bit more.”
Brown, 28, hopes to play every full-field event he can on the West Coast to jumpstart his foray into the game’s highest ranks.
“For us guys coming off the Nationwide, you have to get off to a good start on the West Coast so you can make a schedule because if you don’t you’re kind of behind the 8-ball all year,” he said. “Just get off to a good start, go play golf and don’t worry about it. That’s the advice I’ve been given.”
Despite being a rookie, Brown has plenty of friends on tour he can lean on including Kisner, Taylor, Adams and Scott Stallings.
“I try to pick all their brains,” he said. “If you try to go through the experience without asking questions, I’ll probably be in the same boat as (Kisner) was this past year having to go back to Q school.”
The former Georgia Bulldog from Aiken struggled as a rookie in 2011, but after reclaiming he card at Q School he’s ready to make a sophomore surge.
“I don’t think the anxiety level will be as high to start off with,” Kisner said of his second season. “I know what to expect and what I’ve got to do to play well and won’t put so much pressure on myself. I know it takes only few good weeks out there of playing well to make money and that’s what I’m going to strive to do when I know I have it and finish well.”
It was not starting well that hurt Kisner the most last season. He fired rounds of 77-78 to finish last in the field at the Sony Open and made only two cuts in his first 11 starts through May.
“The first four months were so difficult because I got off to such a terrible start and didn’t have any confidence playing all these new golf courses that are a little more difficult than what I was playing on the Nationwide Tour,” he said. “I was just thinking to myself, ‘Man, am I good enough?’ Once you start playing like you know you can you start thinking I’m really good and I can play with these guys. If I had gone out to Sony last year and finished top 20, I think the whole year would have been different. But even if I miss the first four cuts like I did last year, I think I’ll be in a better frame of mind knowing what I can do and what I have left.”
Kisner believes his early struggles last year were prompted by bad weather in the offseason that kept him from playing enough. But this year he’s coming in off a streak of made cuts from August through Q School in December.
“I missed one cut in last 11 tournaments, including Nationwide, and I kept building on the good play and it was cool to continue it through Q school,” he said.
Kisner, 27, will take a midseason break to marry his college girlfriend, Brittany BeJarnett, on March 17 after attending two other weddings for friends in the preceding month.
In a career that included two victories, a Ryder Cup and leading his hometown Masters Tournament on the weekend, Taylor hit a hard patch he couldn’t escape in 2011.
“I didn’t play well on Sundays at the beginning of the year and kind of let it snowball and couldn’t for whatever reason shake it,” he said. “I couldn’t get the confidence going last year and turn it around.”
Finishing outside the top 125 on the money list for the first time, the 35-year-old Taylor was forced to return to Q School to regain his card.
“It was a little eye-opening,” he said. “It was my first time back in a long time and I had to roll with the punches and play like I can play to get the job done. It was a good experience and I learned a lot from it and feel like I’m going to be a better player. Seeing the competition there, I realized maybe I’m a little better than I think I am and maybe it’s about time to start believing in it.”
While Taylor’s aversion to the Kona winds will have him starting a week later at the rebranded and reformatted event formerly known as the Bob Hope, he too is looking for a fast start.
“Need to move up in the reshuffle so you’ve got to play well early,” he said. “More urgency than normal. If you’re exempt, in the back of your mind you know I’m going to play in 27 events this year and cruise along a little bit.”
Taylor’s off-season included a flight from Q School directly to the Bahamas for his own wedding, which was attended by 90 guests including tour pros Dustin Johnson, Will MacKenzie, Marc Turnesa and D.A. Points.
“I don’t feel like I’m burned out heading into the season because the off-season was a little shorter than I’m used to,” he said. “I feel sharper and ready to go at the start of the year.”
Taylor also reunited with his caddie Trey Keepers before Q School after taking a midseason break during the peak of his struggles.
“I said let’s go get our card back and if we do the job’s yours,” Taylor said.
While his annual goal of qualifying for a Masters return remains, he won’t make it such a pressure-inducing priority this season.
“Living here, the Masters is always in the back of your mind,” he said. “But I just have to think that it’s a reward if you win one early.”
Coming of his best season in years, Howell doesn’t have any worries about qualifying for the majors to cloud his goals. He’s already in all of them as well as the WGC event at Doral for reaching the Tour Championship last season.
“It was nice coming off of a good year going into the offseason and it was nice to have a little bit of confidence from a good year and knowing I was in the majors, too,” he said. “Little things like that make a difference. There’s always a bit of anxiety starting every season and (trying to make) the Masters in the background looming over it doesn’t make that any easier.”
Howell enjoyed the longest offseason of his career and welcomed the birth of Charles “Chase” Howell IV on Oct. 26. Instead of playing tournaments he stuck around home and worked on his game instead.
“So spent more time on the course at home playing to bridge that gap,” he said. “I think it’s the best offseason of work that I’ve had.”
Typically a fast starter with numerous high finishes on the West Coast, Howell will play the first four events out of the gate before skipping Pebble Beach. Being in the Masters and Doral will force him to make some schedule adjustments on the Florida swing, including a couple of trips to his hometown to get reacquainted withAugusta National Golf Club.
But mostly the 32-year-old is looking to achieve the high goals he set out for himself after turning pro 12 years ago.
“Most golfers play their best golf in their 30s,” Howell said. “I do think my best golf is ahead of me. I have a better understanding of what I do. There’s still a lot of things I want to accomplish and I’d say in my 30s it better happen.”