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Watney off to hot start in PGA Tour

After a steady and impressive rise in his first three years on the PGA Tour, Nick Watney stepped back a bit last season.

It wasn’t a bad year, by any means, as he still made 21 of 27 cuts and earned $878,173, but that left him at No. 121 on the money list. And compared with 2007, when he won the Zurich Classic in New Orleans for his first Tour victory and finished 43rd on the money list at more than $1.8 million, well, he certainly held higher expectations for 2008.

The 27-year-old Henderson resident is wasting no time meeting those goals in 2009.

Watney has played in seven events this year. He’s made all seven cuts. He won the Buick Invitational at Torrey Pines in San Diego the first week of February — clearing $954,000, more than he made all of last year.

Then two weeks ago, he fought Phil Mickelson tooth-and-nail in the CA Championship at Doral in Florida, taking second by just one stroke in the exclusive event featuring the top 80 players in the word rankings.

That lifted his season earnings to just over $2 million, more than he’s made in any of his previous four seasons on the Tour — and he’s still got most of the year ahead of him.

"Last year, I was definitely not pleased with many of my finishes," said Watney, who had just one top-10 effort in 2008, the lowest total since posting two top-10s in his rookie year of 2005. "I just really love to work on my game and improve. And after last year, I had a lot of room to do just that. So far, so good this year."

Indeed, as he notched his second career win in just the fourth full-field event of the season, shooting all four rounds under par at the Buick to post an 11-under 277 total. He fired a 4-under 68 in the final round to edge third-round leader John Rollins by a stroke for the title.

"With all the time I put in during the offseason trying to improve, it’s nice to win anytime," he said. "But to win early in the year, you’re kind of playing with house money from that point on, and you can let loose the rest of the year."

Watney really let loose just six weeks later. As one of three annual events in the World Golf Championships series, the CA Championship was packed with talent, including Tiger Woods in his first tournament-style event since his stunning U.S. Open victory last June.

Watney opened with a 6-under 66 to immediately get into contention, then followed up with a pair of 67s to stand tied for first with Mickelson heading into the final round.

One more round in the 60s would have at least gotten him to a playoff, but Watney’s 70 left him at 18-under 270, just a shot behind Mickelson’s 69 and a 269 total.

"It was probably a bit of uncharted water there," Watney said of holding up against such a sterling field. "In the end, it’s still just a golf tournament. Looking at it like that, I was really OK while I was out on the golf course.

"After I was finished, it was really cool to realize it was a World Golf Championships event, and I was going head-to-head with Phil like that, coming up just a half-inch short."

Yet Watney said he wasn’t surprised by his success in the event.

"I don’t think ‘surprised’ is the right word; I was pleased and excited," he said. "But I think everybody in the field thought that’s where they wanted to be."

While he was thrilled with his finish, Watney also felt there was more to be gained from his effort.

"I think I need to take it and learn as much as I can. It was a fun week, but starting at the next tournament, everybody is back at zero," he said. "I’m excited to keep improving and get back in the heat of the battle again."

It only took five more days for that to happen. Last week, he shot 69-67 in the first two rounds of the Transitions Championship in Palm Harbor, Fla., and was tied for the lead with Steve Stricker at 6-under 136. He struggled a bit Saturday with a 74, then bounced back with a 71 Sunday to tie for 12th, his sixth top-25 finish in his seven starts this year.

This weekend, he’ll tee it up at Bay Hill in Orlando, Fla., for the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Then he’ll take a well-deserved week off before heading into the season’s first major — the Masters — as one of the hottest golfers on the Tour.

And though this will be only his second trip to Augusta, Ga., he’s plenty comfortable there, after taking 11th last year.

"It was incredible," Watney said of his inaugural Masters experience. "If it’s not the best, it’s one of the two or three most prestigious events we play. Just to be in that environment was incredible."

He’s not taking last year’s finish for granted, either, realizing the history Augusta National has for making things difficult on even the best golfers.

"You can put yourself in a box there, where it’s almost impossible to make par," he said. "It’s a pretty taxing event. But I’ll definitely try to remember as much as I can, and I think I have some good vibes there. I’m looking forward to getting there."

And he’s not reserved about his goal for the Masters or any other event the rest of this season.

"Winning is obviously the goal, and to have already done that so early (this season), it was so great that I just want to see how many I can get," said Watney, a former top-ranked college player at Fresno State who moved here in August 2007. "So far, I’ve done a good job managing my time and working on the right things. I’m definitely pleased with the way the year has played out so far."

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