Watkins brings the 'Funk' to Nationwide Tour

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April 10, 2007
By Dave Lagarde PGATOUR.com Correspondent

If there is one thing the Nationwide Tour annually guarantees, it is accelerated growth for rookies.

On the Nationwide Tour, a first-year player with a willingness to travel learns to sink or swim. The first five events are played in five different countires -- Panama, Australia, New Zealand, Cajun Country and Wine Country.

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OK, so maybe the last two might be just a little bit of a stretch, but given the stark cultural differences between Lafayette, La., and Livermore, Calif., you get the point.

So there is plenty to be learned, experience to be gained, airplanes to be boarded and golf to be played.

Just ask Aaron Watkins, a typical Nationwide Tour rookie. Watkins spent the last three seasons playing the Grey Goose Gateway Tour near his home in Mesa. Ariz.

A pair of first-stage failures at PGA TOUR Qualifying School preceded a near-miss in the finals as a single stroke denied Watkins his player's privileges in The Big Show.

But, for a mini-tour grinder, there was a handsome consolation prize: status on the Nationwide Tour and all sorts of opportunities, including accelerated growth.

Forget about the higher level of competition for a minute. Simply put, so many other things on the Nationwide Tour are vastly different.

"All I had to do to play on the Grey Goose [Tour] was wake up, get in my car, drive to a course and compete,'' Watkins said.

And now?

Watkins finds himself planning a schedule, booking flights and hotel rooms, renting cars, navigating in and discovering where to eat in foreign countries as well as soaking up as much knowledge as he possibly can about the courses.

"The hardest part is just keeping up with everything,'' said Watkins, who had played exactly one of the 32 Nationwide Tour tracks -- Ohio State's Scarlet Course, albeit before it was renovated.

Fair to say, Watkins is earning a passing grade in Nationwide Tour 101. He played the weekend in the first event, the Movistar Panama Championship, scored his first top 10 (a tie for eighth) in the Chitimacha Louisiana Open presented by Dynamic Industries.

In the Livermore Valley Wine Country Championship at Wente Vineyards, he was tied for the lead with 27 holes to play.

That's invaluable information Watkins filed away and will draw upon as the season picks up again this week at the South Georgia Classic in Valdosta.

Cuts were missed in Australia and New Zealand, but that's not to say his trek to the other side of the world was not without his benefits.

Watkins knew very few of his peers when the season started, but, he said, the majority of the players hung out together while Down Under, so he got to know them and vice versa. Thanks to Watkins' road roomie, Martin Laird, the players even learned his nickname, "Fred Funk." given to him by eight-time PGA TOUR winner Jim Colbert, who, like Watkins, is a Kansas State alum.

The moniker fits. Watkins, 5-foot-8, 160 pounds, is diminutive, like Funk (5-foot-8, 165). Watkins might be relatively short off the tee, but he can thread a needle with his driver.

"At first, it ticked me off,'' Watkins said of the Funk reference. "The next thing you know, Fred wins THE PLAYERS Championship on one of the toughest courses (The TPC at Sawgrass) on TOUR.

"So I decided to take it as a compliment. I get all sorts of grief from the players when they look at the driving distance stat after a round. Now everybody calls me Freddie.''

Watkins, 24, revels in the nickname now as he goes about his business. List "staying patient'' among his other Nationwide Tour discoveries. At least he is trying to anyway. It's not easy for someone with a mini-tour mindset, where going deep in every round is a must.

"Out there you felt like you had to make birdies, lots of them, or you were losing ground in a hurry,'' said Watkins, who finished second on the Gateway Tour money list in 2006. "You had to be consistent and you had to go low. I've already learned to let my bad rounds go. Everyone is going to have them and we're playing 72 holes. You make a bogey it's not going to kill you.''

Like all of his Nationwide Tour peers, Watkins wants to win and his aim is for a spot inside the top 25 on the season-ending money list, which would allow him to graduate to the PGA TOUR in 2008. But he also understands time is on his side, so he will consider 2007 an acceptable year if he finished in the top 60 and retains his status on the Nationwide Tour.

One other thing Watkins, who stands in 45th position on the money ladder through five events, has his sights set on: Having fun on the golf course and forgetting about the pressure involved in playing for pay.

So is he after five events?

"You bet,'' Watkins said.

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