Insider: Breaking down some breakthrough candidates

Dunn/Getty Images
Ricky Barnes' name isn't always mentioned immediately with the young stars of the game, but a win at Innisbrook would change that.
March 16, 2011
Stan Awtrey, PGATOUR.COM Correspondent

Sometimes you never see success coming on the PGA TOUR. It may be just around the bend, as close as the next event or one good final around, but you don't see it lurking. Most of the time it's a matter of getting a few breaks or having a swing change finally click on the course. Many times it just sort of happens. Unexplained.


Just ask Troy Matteson, who last week may have surprised himself by finishing second at the Puerto Rico Open. The former Georgia Tech All-American and NCAA Champion nearly won the third TOUR event of his career, losing to the ageless Michael Bradley in a playoff.

Most players would have been upset about losing such a playoff and Matteson is no exception. He would have preferred the victory instead of taking home a silver medal, but afterwards he couldn't really be too upset with himself.

"I'm not disappointed with my play at all," Matteson said. "Most people would walk off after a second, losing a playoff and maybe be distraught. But I haven't played good all year, so this is at least a sign of good things to come."

Matteson is a smart guy. He spent most of his time on the honor roll at Georgia Tech, which requires guys to take tough subjects like calculus and assemble a nuclear reactor. Matteson could look at his previous success and see how he'd come up short. In seven previous starts, he had missed the cut five times, including the three starts prior to Puerto Rico. It was his first breakthrough since switching to a belly putter at Torrey Pines.

Michael Bradley, who won the tournament, had a similar record. He had missed the cut in four consecutive events before winning in Puerto Rico. He said he just needed to get away from the poa annua greens that permeate the West Coast courses. He said Puerto Rico was more like the Florida courses, which he enjoys. Perhaps he didn't necessarily see the victory coming, but he did expect to play better.

Which begs this question: What other players are out there who can use their recent improved play as a sign of better things to come? Who will be the next TOUR player to improve enough to break into the win column or at least make a serious challenge on Sunday? Here are few names in this week's Transitions Championship field to consider as possible breakthrough candidates:

Padraig Harrington: He's played three stroke-play events in the U.S. and has made the cut each time. Better than that, the popular Irishman has improved his performance each time out. His best was a tie for 10th at last week's World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship at Doral. It was his first top-10 since the WGC Bridgestone Invitational last August and a sign that those swing changes are finally taking root.

Ricky Barnes: Coming off the finest season of his professional career, it looked like Barnes was ready to join the other young stars emerging on the PGA TOUR. But a bulging disk in his back has limited his ability to compete. He last played at the Honda Classic and finished fourth.

Heath Slocum: He's missed four cuts in his last five starts and getting to the second round of the WGC-Accenture Match Play isn't something to hang a season on. But Slocum has played well at Innisbrook, nearly winning there in 2007, and is more than due to see good signs.

David Duval: Isn't it the week for the "good" David to show up? He's alternated between good tournaments and bad tournaments: T-17 at Torrey Pines, T-66 at Pebble Beach, T-9 at Riviera, T-64 at the Honda. No one will be really surprised when Duval wins again.

Jamie Lovemark: Big things were expected from the former Southern Cal star, the leading money winner from last year's Nationwide Tour. He missed the cut in four of his first six events and withdrew from another because of back issues. He showed signs last week by finishing tied for 28th in Puerto Rico, evidence that his game is catching up now that his back is feeling better.

And while he's not in the field this week, the biggest question about signs to come involve Tiger Woods. Was that final-round 66 he put on the board at Doral another indication of good things to come or just another step in his process? We'll have to wait another week to find out, but the signs are certainly there.