“Historically speaking, it’s always taken me a couple of years on any tour that I’ve been in,” said the third-year PGA Tour pro from North Augusta.
The cycle of Brown’s golf career has followed very predictable patterns.
In his senior season at USC Aiken, Brown won six tournaments and was named Division II Player of the Year for the three-time national champions in 2006.
In his second year on the eGolf Tour, Brown won twice and then three more times in a tour record-setting fourth season in 2009.
In his second season on the developmental Nationwide Tour, he posted five top-fives to earn his PGA Tour card by finishing eighth on the money list in 2011.
So it came as no surprise that after a rough rookie year on the PGA Tour, Brown broke through in season two with a 2013 victory in Puerto Rico that kept him right on his career trajectory.
“I kind of had a feeler year my first year and the second year got a little better,” he said. “So I’ve always kind of learned from mistakes and learned golf courses and things like that. I think it’s just the result of hard work and determination getting to where I’m at now.”
Where Brown is this week is in Kapalua, Hawaii, for the exclusive Hyundai Tournament of Champions – a 30-man field made up of PGA Tour winners from the previous year. He’s joined on the tee sheet this week by former Augusta State star Patrick Reed and former Georgia golfers Harris English and Russell Henley.
“These are the kind of tournaments you want to be in as a PGA Tour player,” Brown said. “The WGCs are a big deal and this one is a big deal. The top 50 players in the world play the best tournaments in the world and this is a stepping stone to get there. It’s a big bonus to start the year here and I feel blessed to have won to get to play a limited field tournament like this.”
Kapalua has traditionally been the PGA Tour’s season opener, but with the advent of a new wrap-around season, six official events already took place in 2013. Brown played in four of them, finishing third in the Frys.com Open, fourth in the McGladrey Classic at Sea Island and 16th at Mayakoba in Mexico. The $565,225 he’s already banked is more than half his entire take last season, and it currently has him ranked 15th on the tour’s season-long FedEx Cup points list.
“It’s nice to get two top-10s early,” Brown said of the head start. “I’m super confident I’ve gotten off to a good start. I put some hard work in after the old Fall Series events, the new start to the year. Pretty excited to start the new year.”
Brown is a long way from where he was at this time last year. After missing 16 cuts in 24 starts his rookie season in 2012, Brown barely retained conditional status with his 148th-place finish on the money list. So when the season started, the only places he was certain he would get to play before summer were Pebble Beach (expanded field) and the opposite event in Puerto Rico – where he’d made his first career cut and finished tied for fifth in 2012.
“I made a joke to my caddie that Puerto Rico was going to be like my major,” Brown said. “I prepared for it the most. Fortunately enough I came out on top and pretty much changed my life forever.”
Brown won in Puerto Rico by a stroke over Fabian Gomez and Jordan Spieth. While the victory didn’t qualify him for his hometown Masters Tournament, it earned him a two-year exemption through 2015.
“This is kind of a free year for me, technically speaking, so I can kind of go out and freewheel it when I get into contention,” he said. “I can play for a win instead of a good finish to try to secure a card or something like that. Which is a big deal. That’s what the best players in the world do, they play for the win and not position on money list. That’s what I’m learning as I get more in my career. You’ve really got to take advantage of good opportunities. When I get in contention just let loose and play some good golf.”
Brown showed that already in his two top-10s this season. He shot 64 on Sunday in the Frys and 66 at McGladrey. Both showed his fearlessness when in contention.
“I was close at both of those and didn’t quite pull it off,” he said. “But if I keep putting myself there, that’s what I’m really trying to do. The best players seem to put themselves there more than everybody else and are consistently up near the top of the leaderboard. Your chances are obviously a lot better if you put yourself up there more often.”
Brown is taking this opportunity seriously. He consulted last year’s Kapalua winner Dustin Johnson for tips about succeeding on the Plantation Course, and heeded his advice to go early and play as many practice rounds as possible. He arrived on Maui a full week early and hoped to catch all the different winds that make Kapalua so unique.
“From first look at it I kind of fell in love with it,” Brown said of the course. “Some long holes and some drivable holes. It’s a really good mix and fun to play.”
Brown won’t be intimidated by some of the bigger names in the field. Having graduated to the tee times in the winner’s category on tour, he’s gotten used to playing with players like Matt Kuchar, Hunter Mahan and even Phil Mickelson.
“Being in that arena with the players who win quite often I’m getting more comfortable in that situation,” he said. “That’s a big deal just getting comfortable out here and playing in the spotlight with big players.”
With the luxury of setting his own schedule for the first time, Brown will hit 2014 with a heavy load trying to fulfill another milestone – qualify for the Masters. The only event he plans to skip on the West Coast is Phoenix, where he didn’t play well in 2012.
“If I told you (the Masters) wasn’t in the back of my mind I’d be lying to you,” he said. “Obviously it’s always been a dream of mine. Every kid’s dream is winning the Masters but my dream has really been about playing in it.
“I’m in a position where I pretty much have to win one to get in. That’s the good thing about this year is that I can cut loose and if I get in that position I can kind of just go after it. It if happens it happens. Playing a lot early, obviously the reason is I would love to play in the Masters.”