First, Franklin Langham had to find himself. Now, he finds himself back where he belongs and looking to resolve unfinished business.
"I like to think I'm better," said Langham, 36, after two humbling minor-league seasons spent regaining his status as a card-carrying PGA Tour golfer.
For a player once ranked as high as 55th in the world, who has clawed his way back to a current ranking of 377th, being "better" might seem like a figment of his imagination.
It's actually a state of mind. His 2004 Nationwide Tour season indicated Langham's golf game is as solid as it has ever been. His confidence - salvaged from a self-inflicted purgatory of 2003 - is approaching the level of his high-water season in 2000.
That year, you might recall, Langham arrived. With three runner-up finishes and seven top-10s on the PGA Tour, he earned $1.6 million that qualified him for the Tour Championship and the Masters Tournament. He was starting to reassess his modest goals, thinking Ryder Cups instead of making cuts.
Just three years later, Langham admits worrying that the PGA Tour was drifting out of his reach.
"I wasn't sure," he said after earning only $75,000 on the Nationwide Tour in 2003. "I sure didn't want to exit on a down note. I felt I had some good golf left in me."
Maybe things would have been different if Langham had taken a break when he first started experiencing elbow pain near the end of his dream 2000 season. But the chance to finally play the Masters, near his hometown of Thomson, was too enticing . He postponed surgery for cortisone shots and went full speed into 2001.
He made the cut at Augusta National and played just well enough to keep going longer than he should.
"I really got myself behind the eight ball," he said.
With his success sliding as his swing compensated for his painful elbow, Langham shut it down after missing the cut at the 2001 PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club and went to California to have elbow surgery followed by seven months of rehab. Playing the PGA Tour on a medical exemption in 2002, he missed more cuts (14) than he made (11), losing his card and his confidence.
"It really mentally beat me up," Langham said. "I essentially lose my job after getting to a place that I felt I belonged."
Playing on the Buy.com Tour was one thing when he was a young professional whose most prominent rsum item was being a 1991 Walker Cup teammate with Phil Mickelson and David Duval. It was something else entirely the past two seasons on the Nationwide Tour when he'd spent six years stationing himself among the PGA Tour's elite.
"I thought this is the worst thing in the world," Langham said. "It's a blow to you and my play reflected that."
Langham's game bottomed out, relatively speaking, in 2003. He was going through the motions. Needing help with his confidence before repeating his mistakes in 2004, Langham called up psychology professor Gio Valiante, who had earned recent praise as a catalyst for turnarounds by Davis Love III, Justin Leonard and Chad Campbell, among others. Langham was searching for a "fresh approach."
Valiante immediately sized up Langham. He was not remotely the same golfer, mentally, who spoke toward the end of 2000 about knowing how Tiger Woods feels, saying "when you're on top of your game, you can let it fly."
"He had two years of failure and a lot of mental habits to break," Valiante said. "He was in a downward spiral."
Valiante likened Langham's challenge to the same one Leonard faced after slipping in the world rankings from his 1998 British Open high.
"There are two types of players," Valiante said. "One type has never done much and wants to do what he's never done before. The other type has climbed the mountain and, for whatever reason, lost it. We didn't need to teach Franklin things he's never done."
What Langham needed was to find the confidence that took him to the top in the first place. What Valiante did was convince him the Nationwide Tour was an opportunity, not a setback. They established a defined gameplan to get back to the PGA Tour, requiring weekly preparation, reasonable goals and loads of patience.
"Take baby steps back on the path to being a winner," Valiante kept telling him.
As Langham's old game started coming back, frustrations slowly mounted as he waited for his scores to catch up with his skills. He needed another pep talk from Valiante.
"Stay patient, change nothing," was his psychologist's advice. "When things aren't happening as fast as you want, you don't have to press more. You do the opposite."
That week Langham fired a career-low 61 in the second round of the Rheem Classic in Tennessee, spurred by a front-nine 28 and eight consecutive birdies. He won and was on his way to regaining his PGA Tour card by finishing fourth on the Nationwide money list with eight top-10 finishes.
Langham's game stood out even more than his results. He finished in the top seven in seven of the 13 main statistical categories, including a Nationwide Tour leading scoring average of 69.80 that got even better in final rounds (68.87). He was second in greens in regulation (72.4 percent) and third in putting average.
In 2003, the only stat where Langham ranked among the top 25 on the tour was 15th in sand-save percentage. In one season, his scoring average improved nearly a full stroke - and nearly three strokes on Sundays.
"I had a real solid year throughout," Langham said. "It gave me a chance to get that confidence back.
It was a valuable lesson.
"Through all of it he learned to appreciate the Nationwide Tour," said Langham's mother, Mary. "It changed his whole attitude."
By the second half of the season, it was Langham who was coaching Valiante in their weekly game-planning chats.
"I think he's thinking perfectly," said Valiante of Langham's rebuilt confidence as he heads back to the big tour. "He's a far more complete golfer mentally than he ever was. He's got a lot of good things in place and can have a very successful year."
Langham certainly has the respect of his PGA Tour peers, guys who can relate to how difficult it can be to regain your footing when the carpet gets pulled out from under you. Confidence, as Langham knows too well, is a fleeting thing that needs reinforcement to grow and stay strong. It doesn't grant the luxury of readjusting to the higher rigors of the PGA Tour.
Langham will map out a new list of reasonable goals next week before he heads to Hawaii to embark on a new PGA Tour season at the Sony Open.
"Hopefully I can get back and surpass what I did in 2000," he said. "I want to win a golf tournament. I want to play well in majors, and maybe win one. I want to maintain that confidence, stay patient and know it will come."
Just knowing that it can shows how far he's come already.
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or email@example.com
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