Originally created 03/31/03

Masters rookie Campbell talks, plays like a pro



PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. - The Tiger Woods of the Hooters Tour is coming to the Masters Tournament. Somewhere, Martha Burk must be hotter than a plate of buffalo wings.

Chad Campbell is not a household name - yet. He's not a PGA Tour superstar - yet. He's not even a PGA Tour winner - yet.

But rest assured that Campbell is an overnight success about six years in the making. After a sixth-place finish at The Players Championship, he's flying higher than Hooters Air.

As the No. 8 player on the current PGA Tour money list, Campbell secured a spot in this year's Masters. He's the only Augusta National rookie to play his way into a late invitation by virtue of being among the top 10 money winners through today.

"Is it for sure?" he asked just minutes after a final-round 70 at the TPC at Sawgrass earned him a check for $225,875. "I'm not assuming anything."

When you come as far as Campbell has, that's a good rule to live by. Golf comes naturally to him. His place in golf hasn't been quite as easy.

In 1997, Campbell became the Hooters Tour rookie of the year. The next year he was its leading money winner. And the next. He threepeated in 2000 with a season so dominant, he drew comparisons to Tiger Woods.

Campbell won eight of 16 events on the tour that year to take home $188,279 - more than $110,000 than the No. 2 player.

"That's not ideal, but it's nice to be dominating wherever you're playing," he said.

Yes it is. So Campbell stepped up to the Buy.com Tour, winning three times in 2001 to become the second player in the developmental tour's history to receive a battlefield promotion to the PGA Tour. He set the single-season earnings record on what's now known as the Nationwide Tour with $394,552 and was named the tour's player of the year.

"Just kind of step by step," said Campbell of his road to now. "I had trouble at first getting through Q-school. I finally did and played a year on the Nationwide. I felt like I belonged, at least out there. Obviously I played real well and was able to win three. Finally getting on tour is what I've worked for so hard my whole life."

Now, Campbell will have a place in the Masters along with his college teammate from UNLV - Chris Riley. Both will make their first appearance.

"It's what I've dreamed of all my life, to play in the Masters," Campbell said.

Campbell did it all in about five weeks. He finished tied for eighth in the Nissan Open, second in the Chrysler Classic of Tucson and tied for second at the Honda Classic. He entered the Players ninth on the money list. With such a high purse, anything outside the top 25 would not have been enough.

"It was tough," he said. "It was something you dream of all your life, and actually having a chance to do it is going to enter your mind. You try to block it out. This is a big tournament itself, so that kind of helped me stay in the present and not worry about what happens if I play good here."

With a bogey on the 10th hole, Campbell fell to 5-under for the tournament - right about the mid-20s on the leaderboard. With water looming on seven of the eight closing holes, it would be easy to start worrying about the trouble ahead and start pressing.

But Campbell stayed patient and let his game carry him. He posted three birdies, an eagle and a bogey over the last eight holes to save his place. He narrowly escaped water on the treacherous island-green 17th, then chipped in for his final birdie.

"That's the hardest shot in the world right there," Campbell said.

Now here he is, coming to Augusta with no expectations to burden him.

"Anything that happens there is going to be awesome, really," he said. "Just being there. Seeing it on TV, it's such an awesome place, I guess. It looks awesome, anyway. I'll be able to find out."

Just to get him acclimated, he needed to be broken in regarding the Masters basics. As the former Tiger Woods of the Hooters Tour, what is your position on the membership controversy at Augusta National?

"I've got no position," he said.

Spoken like a real pro. Welcome to the Masters.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.