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Brandt Snedeker has emerged as a force on Tour and an Augusta favorite

Brandt Snedeker
Todd Bigelow / Sports Illustrated
Brandt Snedeker has been hard to miss in 2013; in his first five starts he had a win, two seconds and a third.

"You don’t realize that chandeliers are real­ly low."

Which is true, you don’t. Unless, like Brandt Snedeker, you’ve been walking through empty dining rooms on runners improvised from collapsed cardboard boxes.

It was a cold, rainy morning in early March, and a cheerful Snedeker was explaining it was not the chandelier in his half-empty house in Nashville that had put the latest lump on his noggin. No, the 6' 1" golfer blamed the big copper wheel hanging from a ceiling in his recently purchased hilltop mansion in nearby Franklin. Or maybe it was the gaslight sconce he had inadvertently head-butted outside his new front door.

“I’ve nearly killed myself four times just walking through the new house,” he said, watching a team of movers wrap the last three years of his life in padded blankets. “To say I’m injury-prone would be an understatement.”

Well, no. To say that would be factual.

Snedeker, the PGA Tour’s biggest money winner since last September, recently missed five weeks of competition because of an intercostal strain on the left side of his chest. Hip and rib injuries have disabled him four times since he joined the Tour in 2007, and this time it happened at the worst possible moment: when he was leading in the final round of the AT&T National Pro-Am at Pebble Beach in February.

“For a couple of days it was brutal,” he admitted recently. “I couldn’t move or breathe without pain.” Friends and family watching the telecast knew that something was wrong: Snedeker’s stride was tentative; he grimaced on shots down the stretch. “My caddie said something really smart. He said, ‘How many full swings you got left? Give me 20 more swings. Just give me eight more swings. . . .’ ”

Snedeker gave Scott Vail enough knife-in-the-chest swings to finish bogey-free on the back nine at Pebble and nail down a two-stroke victory, his fourth in two years. But he said nothing publicly about his injury until the following Tuesday, when he pulled out of the WGC Accenture Match Play—the first in a string of reluctant withdrawals.

“You never want to take a break this long,” Snedeker explained after a month of physical therapy in Nashville, “especially the way I was playing.” Frustrated by his inability to practice, he had seen several specialists about his ribs, including a bone doc from his alma mater, Vanderbilt, and a muscle expert at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. “Everything was clean,” he said with a smile and a shrug. “I’m probably the only guy to walk out of the Mayo Clinic disappointed because he got a clean bill of health.”

The X-rays of Snedeker’s season have been just as clean. He leads the Tour in three statistical categories (scoring average, birdie average and all-around ranking), is second in the FedEx Cup points list and the Tour money rankings ($2.86 million), and has four top three finishes in seven starts. That’s on top of his scintillating autumn of 2012, which saw him win the season-ending Tour Championship ($1.44 million), the seasonlong FedEx Cup race ($10 million) and a basement full of bottled Coke (priceless).

 

Brandt Snedeker
Todd Bigelow / Sports Illustrated
Snedeker recently moved into a new house outside Nashville.

 

Some now say—with a discreet glance to see if Luke Donald is listening—that Snedeker, at 32, is the game’s most consistent performer. “It’s his putting; it’s dynamite,” says the English star, Justin Rose. “He holes bombs, and he’s not scared of missing. He’s always running the ball at the hole.”

“Not a lot of guys are going to beat him right now,” says Brian Harman, a Snedeker protégé. “He looks super confident, and he’s shooting a lot of low numbers.” And yet, it was only last summer that a British tabloid, spying the mop-topped Tennessean’s name atop a British Open leader board, headlined its story: brandt who?

“It’s so funny,” Snedeker says. “Everybody wants to know what the difference is. You went from 35th in the world to fourth in nine or 10 weeks. What’s the difference? Well, my golf swing has not changed over the last three years. My short game has not changed. People say I’m a great putter, but I’ve been a great putter for a while, that’s nothing new. The biggest difference is just the way I prepare and how I think.”

Specifically, Snedeker credits a Moneyball-style emphasis on performance data as well as the tutoring of Englishman Mark Horton, a golf statistics guru. “There are two ways to play extremely well,” he says. “You can be extremely intelligent and play to your strengths, or you can have no clue what you’re doing and just do it.” Having established a Donald to Dustin Johnson range, the fast-talking Snedeker admits he “was kind of in the middle. Mark looked at my stats and said, ‘I see no reason for you not being a top five player. It must be your thinking.’ ”

Snedeker, a relatively short hitter by Tour standards, already knew he couldn’t overpower a golf course the way Johnson does, that his strength was his short game. But he hadn’t applied that understanding effectively. Says Snedeker, “I used to play a golf course the way everybody else played it, the way you’re supposed to play a course.”

No more. Snedeker and Horton now merge his updated playing stats with the Tour’s ShotLink data to fashion a tournament strategy that fits his game that week on that specific course. Much of it is common sense—making sure his chips stop below the hole, for example, “because the odds of me making a putt from five feet underneath the hole are nine or 10 out of 10,” he says, “while my chances from five feet above the hole are only six or seven out of 10”—but sometimes the plan shifts the paradigm in his favor.

His AT&T victory was a case in point.

“I’m giving you some behind-the-scenes stuff here,” Snedeker said on moving day, settling into a sectional sofa at his new six-bedroom house. “Everybody thinks you’ve got to spend all your time at Pebble because you play it twice. But we focused our practice on the toughest course, Spyglass. That course always plays at par or just a little over, and my thought in the past was just to get by, to shoot even par or one under. That’s how everybody plays Spyglass. But this year my mind-set was completely different. Because if you’re aggressive on that course and shoot four or five under par, you have a massive advantage over the field. You’re going to be right where you need to be on Sunday.”

Which is true, as far as it goes. But Spyglass Hill is scary tough, with sandy cliffs and ice plant menacing the golfer at every turn. Going low there isn’t just a matter of resolve, is it?

Snedeker leaned forward. “What’s really important at Spyglass are the par-5s. Those are the holes you have to be aggressive on—making sure you have wedge in your hand, going after pins. There are four or five holes you’ve just got to get by, make a par and don’t do anything stupid. The rest is game management—missing fairways in the right spot, missing greens in the right spot, leaving yourself easy putts.”

Theory met reality on Feb. 8, when Snedeker fired a bogey-free 68 at Spyglass, two of his birdies coming with easy up-and-downs on par-5s. That gave him a share of the second-round lead, and come Sunday he was right where his game plan projected he’d be—on the 18th green at Pebble Beach with Clint Eastwood at his side and a crystal trophy in his hands.

Neither that victory nor his two 2012 triumphs, he promises, will make him forget his limitations. “My goal this year is just to hit greens. I’m not worried about trying to hit a five-iron to three feet. I’m trying to hit it to 30 feet. Get me on the green somewhere, and I’m going to beat people.”

He means “most people, most of the time.” When Tiger Woods won the Farmers Insurance Open in January, his closest pursuer was Snedeker. When Phil Mickelson ran away with the Waste Management Phoenix Open a week later, the runner-up was—yeah, that same Nashville cat. “Sneds has a reputation for being a very nice Southern boy,” says Rose, “but he’s got a fierceness to him that I don’t think people appreciate.”

Not to mention a wicked sense of humor. After his boss’s victory at Pebble, Vail texted a doctored photograph to Rose and his caddie, Mark (Fooch) Fulcher, showing them in Snedeker’s rearview mirror over the warning, things in the mirror look closer than they actually are. “The fact that he’s nicked us in the World Ranking isn’t lost by either party,” says Rose with a smile. “But it’s good fun.”

Johnson Wagner is another friend who enjoys Snedeker’s thrust and parry. “I call him Glass Man because he gets injured all the time,” Wagner says, alluding to the rib strains and a couple of career-stalling hip surgeries. “Anyway, I walked up to Sneds on the range at the Greenbrier last year and made some smart-ass comment like, ‘Be careful swinging those drivers; you might break another rib.’ A couple of minutes later I’m hitting next to him, and he says, ‘What’s going on with your foot during your follow-through? That’s terrible. You better take some video and send it to your coach.’ ”

Wagner rolls his eyes. “He got totally into my head. I looked at video, and I was panicked about what was going on with my foot. He’s good about getting in the last dig.”

 

More than anything, Snedeker’s peers are impressed—some might say unsettled—by his air of confidence. It’s not the boast-to-the-mirror swagger popularized by sports psychologists, and it’s certainly not arrogance. It’s the self-assurance of a man who sets reasonable goals and then achieves them, whether it’s graduating from Vanderbilt in four years while playing on the golf team, perfecting one of the fastest swings on Tour or merely improving his sand-saves percentage.

“He’s been good forever,” says Tiger’s swing coach, Sean Foley, dismissing the “Brandt Who?” fallacy. “When I went to the University of Nashville, Sneds was the best player in the state by a landslide. He was one of the best players in college.” Snedeker became, in fact, the world’s top-ranked amateur. Then he was a force on the Nationwide tour (two wins) and an immediate hit on the PGA Tour, where he was the 2007 Rookie of the Year on the strength of six top 10 finishes and a win at the Wyndham Championship.

Mandy Snedeker, wowed by the view of the Tennessee hills from her new infinity pool, mentioned her husband’s effortless aplomb. “I said, ‘When we met in college, did you ever think we’d be moving into a house like this?’ And he said, ‘Yeah! That was my plan.’ ”

Brandt suspects that his straight-line thinking is owed to good parenting (his father, Larry, is a retired lawyer; his mother, Candy, owned a pawnshop) and the fact that all the schools he attended, kindergarten through college, were on the same street (Harding Road/West End Avenue). His personal life remains Nashville-centric, his days at home built around workouts, practice and tickle sessions with two-year-old Lily and her baby brother, Austin. “I’ve got the best support system in the world,” Snedeker says. “I’ve got two beautiful kids, and I’ve got a wife who never gives me guilt about anything related to golf.”

Snedeker flashed the boyish grin. His real secret—the “difference” that makes him a smart-money pick to win next week’s Masters—may be that he has never tired of the game. He has not morphed into one of those melancholy pros who play for paychecks, hating their job.

“If I quit golf tomorrow,” he said during his recent layoff, “I’d still watch it on TV. I love seeing my friends play; I love hearing what Johnny Miller’s saying about a guy. I’m a golf junkie.” He exchanged a look with Mandy, who leaned on his shoulder. “And I’m not thinking I’m the best player in the world now, because I’m not. I’ve got a long way to go. You’ve got to win majors; you’ve got to win a bunch of tournaments. But I’m playing the best golf of my career, and I feel I’ve got nowhere to go but up.”

That’s Snedeker. Already anticipating his next move.


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