The next time Kevin Chappell stands over a long, difficult putt to win a prestigious golf tournament, he’ll have a better idea how to react.
Or, to be precise, how not to.
“Sure you feel nervous,” the 30-year-old Fresno native and PGA Tour veteran said over the phone from his home in Scottsdale, Ariz. “There’s excitement. There’s nerves. There’s an energy around that green at that point in time that you can’t help but pick up on.
“I think that’s the key in those situations. How do you handle that change of energy in that moment?”
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Chappell, by his own admission, is still somewhere on the learning curve – even while enjoying his finest year as a pro. One that vaulted him toward the top of the PGA money list and guaranteed his entry to all the big tournaments (Masters, U.S. Open, British Open, WGC events) in 2017.
At the Tour Championship, Chappell played in the last group on a Sunday and held a two-stroke lead heading into the final two holes.
During the season-ending Tour Championship at Atlanta’s East Lake Golf Club in late September, Chappell played in the last group on a Sunday and held a two-stroke lead heading into the final two holes.
Despite coming up well short on a 35-foot birdie putt on 18 that would’ve won the tournament, Chappell managed to save par and enter a three-way playoff won by Rory McIlroy.
Next time Chappell finds himself in a similar position, he’s confident he’ll be able to draw from that experience to better effect.
“It’s a matter of learning to get comfortable in those situations and continuing to grow and learn more about myself and what to expect when I’m in contention like that,” Chappell said.
“I didn’t get the result I wanted at the Tour Championship, but man it sure was a blast being in control of my game and feeling like I had what it took to win. How can I not look at that as a positive?”
It was a fitting end to a career season.
With eight top-10s in 27 events, including four second-place finishes, Chappell racked up $4.5 million in earnings (nearly triple his previous best) to finish eighth on the PGA money list and lift himself into the U.S. Ryder Cup team conversation.
The whole Ryder Cup process, how the team is selected, was very new to me and very disappointing. I felt like I deserved to be on the team.
In fact, Chappell had such a good year, and finished second so often, that everyone who interviews him immediately wants to know why he’s still looking for his first Tour victory.
“You don’t want to have to answer that question for very long, but after the year I had and all the close calls I had, you’re going to have to answer it a lot,” he said.
“The obvious answer to, ‘What’s it going to take for you to win?’ is that I have to shoot better than everyone else through 72 holes. I haven’t done it yet. If I had the formula, I’d implement it. But I think all these close calls will come around to help me figure out that formula.”
It isn’t as if Chappell is finishing second to also-rans. Besides the playoff loss to McIlroy, he finished twice to Jason Day, once in March at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and again in May at the Players Championship.
Chappell also finished in a tie for third, with Jordan Spieth and others, behind winner Dustin Johnson at the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational in July.
Between McIlroy, Day, Spieth and Johnson, I’ve just named four of the top five or six golfers on the planet.
That’s the level Chappell is striving to reach.
“I definitely haven’t been afraid to get in contention in some bigger events, and in those events that’s who you’re going to have to beat,” he said. “It’s great to battle with them, but I also get to see why they’re ranked where they are and if there’s anything they do that I can apply to my game.”
$4.5M Kevin Chappell’s 2016 earnings, eighth on the PGA money list
Chappell, who grew up a block away from the fifth fairway of Fort Washington Country Club, has always approached golf thoughtfully and meticulously.
“He was a serious kid,” said Chris Doos, Chappell’s coach from age 9 through his second year on Tour. “Even in high school, he knew better than I did how the ranking systems worked. Because he studied it.”
During Chappell’s junior year at Buchanan High, Doos had him record his dream goal, what Doos calls “his big ‘W’ in the sky – as in want.”
“It wasn’t that Kevin wrote down, ‘I want to be on the PGA Tour,’ ” Doos recalled. “He wrote down, ‘I’m going to make a career on the PGA Tour.’ This was in 2003. And also, ‘I will win the Grand Slam.’ He had very lofty goals at that age.”
Doos isn’t surprised that Chappell’s breakout didn’t happen right away – aside from a third-place finish at the 2011 U.S. Open. It’s been the same pattern throughout his career.
“At every new level, he always took a little time to get comfortable on that stage,” Doos said. “He never did poorly, but before he started winning those big events, it took a while. The same thing is happening here.”
He will shine this year. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if he wins a couple times.
Chris Doos, Kevin Chappell’s ex-coach and close family friend
Chappell credits “intangibles,” both professional and personal, for his 2016 success.
He’s been with the same swing coach, Mark Blackburn, for six years and the same trainer for seven. In February, Chappell hired a new caddie, Joe Greiner, who also happens to be one of his closest friends.
Chappell’s home life also has settled. In April 2015, wife Elizabeth gave birth to their first child, Wyatt Casey, whose middle name is a tribute to Kevin’s older brother who died in 2007 of heart failure at age 24. The couple are expecting a second child in January.
“Since Wyatt was born, my career really has taken a turn for the better,” Chappell said. “It’s given me some perspective and made me manage my time better because I’d much rather be with my wife and son than chasing a golf ball.”
For now, Chappell must keep chasing. Sunday, he flies to Malaysia to begin the 2017 wraparound season at the CIMB Classic. Then it’s off to China for the World Golf Championships-HSBC Champions. He plans to keep playing till Thanksgiving before taking a two-month break until February.
Now that Chappell has experienced the feeling of standing over a tournament-winning putt and being in contention against the world’s top players, he’s confident the victories will come.
“The stats show (ages) 30 to 36 are prime years for golf,” he said. “I’m just starting that and looking forward to the next six to 10 years being my best.”