Don't make no noise," the caddie said.
His man, Alex Prugh, 25, was standing in the rough on the 9th at PGA National last Thursday, his ball almost at the base of the one cruddy little tree on the right side of the hole. Nobody was following them, really, but an AWOL ball always draws rubberneckers, and now a half-dozen people were almost breathing down Prugh's neck.
The rookie player and his rookie caddie, Zach Bixler, were at the Honda Classic. They played on the same University of Washington golf team, and now they have taken their show on the road. On the West Coast they made all five cuts, with three top 10s. Now they were trying to close out their first round on their first stop in their first swing through Florida.
Prugh, having started on 10, was playing his last hole for the day, and he was two under. A raw wind whipped over the condo roofs and the lagoons and the fairways, heading straight for Florida's Turnpike. (Nobody can say PGA National, home of the PGA of America, is hard to find.) When they stepped on the tee, the boys were thinking about getting in and getting to three under: 421 yards, wind off their right shoulder, left front pin. Perfect for Prugh, who with a strong grip takes it a little outside on the backswing, drops it in going down and smashes draw shots. (Prugh's drop-in move is not as obvious as that of another golfer from the state of Washington, Fred Couples, but you get the idea.) Driver, wedge, one putt, lunch.
But Prugh's last drive of the day was a lousy push job that finished under that cruddy little tree. (You should have seen the 130-mph second swing Prugh took off the 9th, at his empty upright tee.) Now, about five feet from where Prugh and Bixler were trying to make a living, an old man stood with a flapping plastic shopping bag. That's when Bixler, wearing tennis shoes, tall black socks, long brown shorts and a couple of windbreakers, looked up from under the flat brim of his snow-white nature valley cap (caddie endorsement deal) and said, "Don't make no noise."
If you're lucky, when you get on Tour, you'll come out with a Bixler, a buddy who has nothing but your best interests at heart. This Prugh—you say it Proo, and the city he's from, Spo-can—is lucky. His caddie, a pro himself, can beat him on any given Tuesday, and Bixler can read putts and imagine recovery shots and talk March Madness. The caddie will be in Prugh's wedding, when the golfer marries a Spokane gal (Prugh's word), Katie Penberthy, in September. As road buddies, Prugh and Bixler do fine. (Judd Apatow movies, Applebee's restaurants, Hilton in its various hotel brands.) Last week they shared digs at the Doubletree just down PGA Boulevard from the course. Free cookies every night.
Prugh, who earned his Tour card by finishing 16th on the Nationwide tour last year, has no entourage. His caddie is his five-spits-per-fairway shrink. (Prugh is good for one or two.) His father, Steve, the head pro at the Manito Golf & Country Club in Spokane, is his de facto manager. Prugh's brother, Corey, three years older and an assistant pro at Manito, is his swing coach. His sister, Hillary Prugh Carls, 31, is his lawyer. His mother, Susan, is his cheerleader and nurse. All in the family.
Steve played golf at Oregon with Peter Jacobsen, who remains a good friend. Jacobsen sent an e-mail to Steve the other day that said, "Tell Alex to keep playing well. No one ever turns pro to sign deals or worry about agents. We play to win! That stuff will all happen in time."
During the West Coast swing, TV showed Prugh making swings here and there, and Ken Still, a member of the 1969 Ryder Cup team and a crusty son of the Evergreen State, got worried. So he called Steve and said, "He's playing good—don't let 'em change a damn thing."
Prugh's not looking to make any changes. He is your classic uncomplicated golfer: Hit ball, find ball, repeat. The little flash of anger on the 9th tee is typical of him: Get it out of your system fast, move on. Prugh is like Davis Love III (the son of a teaching pro) and Arnold Palmer (the son of a course superintendent). He grew up in the game and is steeped in it. The family lived a wedge shot from Manito's 6th tee, and all three kids took to golf. (Corey played at Washington, Hillary at Montana State.) Alex got good trying to chase his brother and other elders. His mother remembers taking Alex to a junior tournament in Montana. Alex was nine, playing a 16-year-old. The starter asked Alex if he was nervous. Nope, he replied. "I don't mind beating these big guys." Today he's 5'10" and 160 pounds, and not much has changed.
He majored in economics (Bixler did, too), and he's a smart kid. If you're looking for profound, you're asking a lot—he's a 25-year-old professional golfer—but he has his moments. In 2004, at age 19, Prugh was the first alternate for the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills. He flew into LaGuardia Airport and was waiting at the baggage carrousel for his clubs. Aaron Baddeley and Tim Clark were waiting for their clubs too.
"I saw them and thought, They're regular people who happen to be very good at golf," Prugh said the other day. "They were waiting for their bags, like everybody else."
As a kid Prugh was never one to hang on every amazing thing that Tiger Woods did. "I was more into all that," Corey says. "Alex was doing his own thing." He's a regular person who happens to be very good at golf. Six events into his big league career, he is undaunted.
He has had good training. In the summer of '77 Steve played in the Dutch, German and Swiss Opens, among others. The son's the same way, willing to get on a plane. As an amateur he played in Great Britain and Japan. Last year he won the New Zealand Open, a Nationwide stop, playing the final 11 holes in eight under par. In victory Prugh, draped in a colorful Maori blanket on a hot day, raised his trophy high and then headed to the airport, Bixler at his side.
On Saturday at the Honda, Prugh was paired with Chris Riley, a former Ryder Cupper. Riley liked what he saw. "He's the same age I was when I got on Tour, and he has way more game than I did," Riley says. "He's not super long but plenty long enough. He's a nice kid with a good head on his shoulders. Does he want it? When you're 25 and you have no money in your bank account, you want it."
Prugh wants it. He wants to buy a house in Spokane and call it home, no matter how much time he spends working on his game in Las Vegas. His goal for this year is to play in the Tour Championship. He still hasn't qualified for any of the four majors. Nobody's going crazy here. They know it's a long, long road playing the Tour.
On Thursday, Prugh closed with a scrambling par, on a birdie hole. In the second round he made a bogey on the par-5 18th. In the third round he salvaged par there. On Sunday he closed with another bogey. He dumped his third into a greenside trap and after a bad bunker shot took two angry swipes at the sand. He finished in the middle of the pack (35th), but his bank account grew to $612,854, good for 25th on the money list.
"I have to learn to close these rounds," Prugh said when he was done, signing balls for waiting children.
Low energy? Tired head? What was it?
"Nah," the kid said. "Just bad shots."
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Camilo Villegas capped off an eventful week with a runaway win at the Honda
Camilo Villegas had two home games last week. He helped host a Nationwide tour event in Bogotà, Colombia, his native country, and was there for the pro-am. Then he flew to his U.S. home, in Jupiter, Fla., and from there he made the 15-minute commute to the Honda Classic, which he won by five shots with a solid two-under Sunday 68, earning himself $1,008,000. Meanwhile his kid brother, Manuel, played in the Colombia event, closed with a 67 and earned $9,900 for his 15th-place finish.
In the annals of weird golfing coincidences, it's up there. (Or maybe, like Freud, you don't believe in coincidences.) No, it doesn't hold a candle to Ben Crenshaw burying his mentor, Harvey Penick, then flying to Augusta and winning the 1995 Masters. But it's probably up there with Bob Duval winning on the senior tour the same week his son David took the Players in 1999.
Camilo, with a body he stole from Sugar Ray Leonard circa 1980, is a tough one to figure out, as a golfer and a person. He has won three Tour events but hasn't contended in a major, and Vijay Singh, for one, isn't ready to say that he's about to. "I don't know," Singh said on Sunday. "We'll have to wait and see."
Villegas speaks English in complete, elaborate sentences, and in victory he spoke with passion about his homeland and his hope that visiting Nationwide players will leave Colombia with a new impression of the country best known to Americans for its drug wars. If you watch him play and listen to him speak, it's clear that he's intelligent and hardworking and driven.
But he can be a prima donna, too. He'll blow off reporters he doesn't have time for. At the 2007 British Open he was railing at his agent in the Carnoustie locker room about one thing or another, concluding with, "And these pants—they suck!" Gary Player and Lee Trevino and other Hall of Famers have had the same move, without being saddled with Golf Digest's designation as the sexiest player on Tour. It must be a burden. Still, Villegas is only 28. He's growing up in front of us. What he did last week was certainly impressive.
The event in Colombia was won by a former Ryder Cupper, Steve Pate. Years ago, as a regular on the big Tour, Pate was nicknamed the Volcano. He had one of golf's greatest tempers. It was a pleasure: You knew what you were going to get with Pate. Alas, he turns 50 next year, and the passing years have calmed him down. There were some long gaps, but Pate grew up in front of us too.
Photograph by David Walberg
SCRAMBLING Prugh hit only 54% of the fairways at the Honda, but he held things together for a 35th-place finish.
Photograph by David Walberg
DRY RUN Villegas handled the watery Bear Trap, playing the three-hole stretch in even par for the four rounds.
Photograph by David Walberg
PRO'S PRO No slouch as a player himself, Bixler is the perfect bag man for Prugh.