By Cary Estes, Special to PGATOUR.COM
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Just one month ago, Morris Hatalsky hit what he called “about as low a point as I’ve ever been on the Champions Tour.” Now he is on the verge of reaching a new high.
Hatalsky fired a 5-under 67 Saturday in the third round of the Regions Tradition at Shoal Creek, leaving him 10-under for the tournament and tied for third, two shots behind leader David Frost. Not only is the 61-year-old Hatalsky attempting to end a seven-year Champions Tour winless streak, but he also is in contention to win a tournament major for the first time in his career.
That alone would be reason enough for Hatalsky to be excited about how well he has played this week. What has him downright ecstatic about his current situation is the fresh memory of the meltdown he endured May 3. On that day, Hatalsky turned in the worst round of his 40-year professional golf career, shooting a fat 17-over 89 in the opening round of the Insperity Championship at The Woodlands Country Club in Houston. It was a round that included two triple-bogeys and a 10 on a par-4.
“It was so absurd, it was laughable. It was almost like an out-of-body experience to go through that,” Hatalsky said. “It was really discoursing. That was about as low a point as I’ve ever been on the Champions Tour. When you’re going through a difficult time like that, it wears on you and you can lose your confidence. And when you lose your confidence in this game, it becomes very taxing as far as the way you go about your business.”
Hatalsky tried to regroup the next day, and he did manage to improve his score by nine strokes. But that still left him with an 8-over 80, and he found himself staggering into the final round at 25-over par before closing the tournament with a solid 2-under 70.
It would have been easy for Hatalsky to have completely lost faith in his golfing ability at that point, but he said his wife, Tracy, refused to let him give up. “She is a great encourager. She doesn’t let anybody feel sorry for themself,” Hatalsky said. “I don’t know exactly what happened (in the Insperity Championship), but it happened, and that’s it. You don’t dwell on it. That’s the wrong thing to do. You just say, ‘I can’t believe that’ and try to have a good chuckle about it.”
Still, it was hard for Hatalsky to keep laughing when the scores simply didn’t get much better. Last week at the Principal Charity Classic, Hatalsky shot 75-79-78 for a total of 16-over. It was sixth time in seven tournaments this season that he finished worse than 30th, and the fourth time he failed to crack the top 50.
So at the beginning of this week, Hatalsky decided it was time for a drastic change. He switched his driver, his irons and his sand wedge. He basically tried to make a complete break from everything that hadn’t worked this season, a tricky prospect for any golfer midway through the season. But Hatalsky figured he had nothing to lose.
“There was some (uncertainty), but let me tell you, the other way is much worse,” Hatalsky said. “What I was doing just wasn’t any fun. I had to try something different. I’ve always stayed disciplined on working on the game and what I need to do. From that vantage point, there was always that glimmer of hope that I could turn it around.”
So far, the benefits of the changes have far exceeded Hatalsky’s expectations. He said he arrived in Birmingham this week simply hoping to see some signs of improvement. Instead, he has posted three consecutive sub-par rounds in a tournament for the first time this year. He ended Saturday’s round by making a 12-foot birdie putt that left him firmly in contention.
“I was just hoping for a good, solid tournament to get some momentum going back in the other direction,” Hatalsky said. “But everything has started to click, and as the week has gone on I’ve gotten more and more confidence. It’s been a really nice turnaround for me.”
The leaderboard is packed entering Sunday’s final round. At one point on Saturday there were 18 golfers within two shots of the lead, and the round ended with 15 golfers within five shots of Frost. With so many players in the hunt, Hatalsky said he will simply continue working on his game and not worry about anything else that is going on around him.
“It would be the wrong mentality for me to even think about trying to win a golf tournament,” Hatalsky said. “The idea for me is just to try and put together a good solid round. Just hit some good shots and hopefully make some putts. If that happens and I’m in the right position, then I can start thinking about winning. But right now, I’m just enjoying the fact that I’m playing well again.”