The Masters Tournament countdown clock was ticking and Vaughn Taylor wasn't too excited about it.
"I was not panicking, but I was definitely worrying about my swing," said Taylor, an Augusta resident readying for his Masters debut. "It's not been good at all. I didn't want to go into Augusta not swinging well. That's the last thing I want to worry about."
After missing three consecutive cuts and posting an opening-round 73 at The Players Championship, Taylor went into lock-down mode. He went straight from the golf course to the practice tee and issued an internal ultimatum.
"I went to the range and said I wasn't going to leave until I figured it out," Taylor said. "It took about three hours. Probably like nine bags of balls."
The pounding punishment paid off. Taylor identified a flaw in his takeaway and set about correcting it. He finished the Players tied with champion Stephen Ames for the most birdies for the week and took home $208,000 for an eighth-place tie.
"It's a huge difference," Taylor said. "I feel so much better. I'm swinging like I was swinging last year."
Taylor made the cut on the number and then posted the low round of the day Saturday in the morning to climb into contention.
On Sunday, he played with Phil Mickelson and finished one better than the reigning PGA champ and world's No. 4 player.
"It never hurts to play with Mickelson in the last round of The Players Championship," Taylor said. "It's good experience."
It was almost a great experience. Despite a double bogey to start the day, Taylor grinded right back with birdies at 2, 5, 9 and 11 moving him into solo third place just four shots behind Ames.
Then it rapidly unraveled. He fell from third place to outside the top 25 in three holes - double-triple-bogey. He doubled the short par-4 12th when two chips couldn't hold the impossibly baked-out green around the pin.
"I've never seen anything like it," he said. "I hit the softest bunker shot, and it didn't even think of staying on the green."
On the next hole, the wind died and Taylor came up short in the pond, taking a triple.
"I've never played a course where the conditions changed on every hole," Taylor said of the winds and consistency of the greens.
Despite dropping six shots in three holes, Taylor didn't fall apart. He stood on the 15th tee, and focused on trying to birdie the last four holes. His final 24-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole came up 7 inches short of achieving that goal.
"I'm really proud of myself to let it go," Taylor said. "In the past I would have lost my head and ended up shooting 80-something. I made two doubles and a triple today and shot 1-over. I played well, and I'm not going to let a few holes bother me."
The next two weeks are all about the Masters.
"I'm not going to take a day off," Taylor said. "I'm just going to keep a club in my hand every day. That's the key."
He'll spend as much time this week as he can at Augusta National Golf Club.
"I just want to be comfortable," he said of the environment that will change dramatically a week from today when the gates open to patrons. "I'm still not quite comfortable out there."
Olin Browne, who played with Taylor on Saturday, said the Augusta product has the tools to handle the Masters.
"They should give him every putt inside of 10 feet," Browne said. "You know why? It's stupid to make him putt it."
But Browne had advice for the Masters rookie.
"He's got a whole different mind-set when he goes there," Browne said of the hometown dynamic and the potential distractions. "He needs to hand the keys over to his parents or whoever and just focus on the golf."
Taylor laughed at the simplicity of the wisdom.
"I don't think it's going to be as easy as that sounds," said Taylor, who will be staying in his own house with his caddie, putting coach and a friend from his mini-tour days. "I'm going to try to take it in stride and do my best. It's going to be a crazy week, and I want to try to enjoy it."
He's certainly in a much better place to do that than he ways four days ago.
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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