Home game for Nico Echavarria at PLAYERS … after intending to be away this week
4 Min Read
PLAYERS first-timers include adopted locals Echavarria, Tyson Alexander, Aaron Rai
Written by Kevin Prise @PGATOURKevin
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – In Nico Echavarria’s mind, only one scenario would bring him home this week for THE PLAYERS Championship.
“I told my girlfriend that maybe we would come if Tiger (Woods) was playing,” Echavarria said.
Echavarria hadn’t yet accounted for the second scenario. His final avenue into THE PLAYERS required a victory at last week’s Puerto Rico Open – and he entered the week on a skid of four consecutive missed cuts, mired at No. 144 on the FedExCup. But after unearthing a tempo key on the range Friday afternoon, he closed in 65-68 for a two-stroke win over Akshay Bhatia at 21 under – and a tee time Thursday at TPC Sawgrass’ THE PLAYERS Stadium Course.
Nico Echavarria earns first PGA TOUR victory at Puerto Rico Open
As of seven days ago, Echavarria would be unable to work at home this week. He plays out of TPC Sawgrass, and the practice facility would be occupied. He was set to visit with family and friends in south Florida – “practice a little, relax a lot, watch a lot of THE PLAYERS Championship on TV” – then drive to Tampa for next week’s Valspar Championship. He was so committed to this plan that he flew to Puerto Rico from Fort Lauderdale.
In a reversal of fortune, he’s one of 32 first-timers in the field at TPC Sawgrass, competing for a $25 million purse.
“It’s crazy,” Echavarria said Tuesday off the 18th green at the Stadium Course. “And here we are. Tiger’s not playing, and I am here.”
Ponte Vedra Beach, situated approximately 30 miles southeast of downtown Jacksonville, is a popular base for professional golfers. TPC Sawgrass is a big reason why. The facility also includes Dye’s Valley Course – former host of the Korn Ferry Tour Championship – along with a robust practice area and a performance center.
TPC Sawgrass membership is a perk of Korn Ferry Tour status, and up-and-coming pros often migrate to the region upon earning Korn Ferry Tour status via Q-School. Sometimes they stay a while.
PLAYERS first-timer Tyson Alexander falls into this category. After several failed attempts at Q-School – missing by double-digit strokes at First Stage on three occasions – the University of Florida alum cracked the code in fall 2017, advancing through Second Stage to earn his Korn Ferry Tour card.
Alexander didn’t need to go too far from his hometown of Gainesville, Florida – his dad Buddy was longtime University of Florida men’s golf coach and advanced to the Round of 16 at the 1994 U.S. Amateur at TPC Sawgrass, falling to Tiger Woods.
“I should’ve done it earlier, honestly,” said Alexander of moving to the area. “You’re around people every day that are doing the right things to get better, and it’s motivating.
“I would definitely say that it spurred me to kind of get my stuff in gear.”
Tyson Alexander looks to write his own story in rookie year on TOUR
Alexander proceeded to earn PGA TOUR status through the 2022 Korn Ferry Tour season-long standings, and his strong play as a rookie – notably a runner-up at last fall’s Cadence Bank Houston Open – has earned him a spot this week at the Stadium Course.
“It means a lot,” said Alexander, who practices frequently at TPC Sawgrass’ pros-only back range, then is apt to test out new feels on the Stadium Course’s nearby par-4 fifth and seventh holes. “I feel like everybody here earned their way here, and I play and practice here every day when I’m home. I’ve been here a lot of years on the other side of the ropes, and this year’s a lot better than that.”
Others bring an international flair. England native Aaron Rai recently moved to Ponte Vedra Beach; he spent time in the area during off-weeks as a TOUR rookie last season, and he enjoyed it to the point of purchasing a residence last month. “This is literally my fourth or fifth night actually being here,” he said Wednesday. “The (TPC Sawgrass) facility’s incredible; I always found myself gravitating back to here.”
A top-125 finish on the FedExCup means full status for the following season and a spot in THE PLAYERS. Rai finished No. 94 on last year’s FedExCup as a rookie to punch his ticket to TPC Sawgrass.
“It’s amazing,” Rai said. “It is a bit of a dream come true. It’s just a very iconic golf course, a very iconic tournament, and historically the best players in the world are in this field. To be a part of that is very special.”
Echavarria, who earned his first TOUR card via the Korn Ferry Tour Finals last summer, moved to the area in January 2021. He played collegiately at Arkansas and previously spent time in south Florida, but he believed TPC Sawgrass could help push his game to a new tier.
“Just to get better golf, having a place to practice and get my game better was very important for me, and there’s no place like TPC Sawgrass for that,” Echavarria said Tuesday. “I’m very thankful that I call this place home.”
After a celebratory dinner Sunday evening, Echavarria and his girlfriend Claudia De Antonio caught a Monday morning flight back to Fort Lauderdale. They stopped to visit with De Antonio’s parents, then made the five-hour drive back to Ponte Vedra Beach on Monday afternoon. A trip home doubled as a business trip.
That second scenario came to fruition, after all.
Kevin Prise is an associate editor for the PGA TOUR. He is on a lifelong quest to break 80 on a course that exceeds 6,000 yards and to see the Buffalo Bills win a Super Bowl. Follow Kevin Prise on Twitter.