Ted Potter Jr.’s Journey to the Masters

Story: Keith Chartrand

Ted Potter Jr. had lined up numerous 4-foot birdie putts during his golf career.

There were the ones as a member of the Lake Weir High School golf team.

Ones as a fly-by-night player on the Moonlight Tour.

Others as a Player of the Year candidate on the Hooters Tour.

There were puts on the Web.com Tour that earned him the right to belong with the pros on the PGA Tour.

The ones with the boys back home at The Country Club of Silver Springs Shores were just for fun.

But the one that Potter faced and ultimately made in July at the PGA Tour’s Greenbrier Classic could have changed him forever.

A check for over a million dollars and being called a PGA Tour winner though did not change the even keel, down to earth, extremely humble, never-forget-my-roots 29-year old who calls Ocala home.

No, Ted Potter Sr. did not put a golf club in his son’s crib on Nov. 9, 1983, the day his son Theodore Charles was born. But when Potter Jr. was two years old, the golf course maintenance worker handed his son a club. Potter Sr. began to teach the basics of the golf swing and his little one tried to mimic Daddy as best he could. That meant going so far as swinging lefty.

“My Dad always put a right-handed club in my hand and I just flipped it over,” said Potter Jr., a natural right hander. “He just said he’ll make left handed clubs for me and that is how I got started.”

Being handed a club at the rip old age of two and swinging it with consistent form at four, it would come as no surprise that Potter Jr. would completely immerse himself in the sport that can be so addicting. He would play for Hurricanes golf team at Lake Weir High School. When he was not in class or playing in a high school golf match he was working in the cart barn at Lake Diamond Golf and Country Club, five miles from the high school up SE Maricamp Road.

Childhood friend and Lake Weir golf teammate Justin Lloyd worked along side Potter Jr. in the military green Quonset hut turned cart barn at Lake Diamond.

The two drove carts through the dirt parking lot to load bags. They washed clubs after golfers completed their rounds. They threw away empty cups and sandwich wrappers left in the cart’s cup holders and shelves. They took a hose to the carts before lining them up to recharge. They picked the driving range. Potter Jr. and Lloyd worked at the course for more than just the minimum hourly wage; they did it for the free golf that came with being a golf course employee.

“We had a pretty strict boss so we always showed up and took care of work,” said Lloyd. “We wanted to golf so (badly) that we did not want to give up the opportunity. We made sure to do the job the best we could and try not to get in trouble so we did not lose that opportunity.”

The complimentary rounds on the 6,612-yard course that sits in the middle of a 500 home community helped both Potter Jr. and Lloyd hone their craft. The cart barn duo along with teammates Patrick Sweeney and Tony Alfonzo made the Hurricane golf squad absolutely dominant.

“As a team at districts one year we had four round of golf at The Shores that were unbelievable in terms of what the scores were for four high school kids,” said Lloyd. “We won by 20-something shots. It was one of those flukes that all four of us got hot at the right time.”

Among his high school peers, Potter Jr.’s golfing prowess stood out. The lefty was named all-district three years in a row and made it to the state championships twice as an individual. Yet his coronation came five months after graduation in November of 2002. At the Marion Masters, a three-day amateur tournament at Eagle Ridge Golf Club in Summerfield, Potter Jr. absolutely obliterated the field. The 18-year old posted a 13-under par score of 203 – a whopping 17 shot better then second place finisher Richard Gard.

“I’m 56-years old and I have been playing golf for 40 years,” Gard told the Star Banner back in 2002. “He is the most impressive 18-year old I have even seen. He’s really something.”

Potter Jr. show tremendous perseverance and commitment just to have the opportunity to make his most important 4-foot birdie putt. He went back and forth between the Web.com and Hoosters tours between 2004 and 2011. Those developmental years he learned how to handle missing cuts, how to win and how to be consistent. In 2011 he won three times on the Web.com Tour, more then enough to earn his PGA Tour card.

Potter Jr.’s first PGA Tour event was the first full-field tournament on the 2012 schedule: the Sony Open in Hawaii. It would be a pipe dream if he believed he could start his rookie year with the big boys like he started 2011.

Potter Jr. won the Web.com’s South Georgia Classic in Valdosta by shooting a tournament record of 272. He was the only golfer in the field to post three rounds in the 60s at Kinderlou Forest Golf Club. Potter won by three strokes over Mathew Goggin and six strokes ahead of Brent Long and Charles Warren.

Half a year later and half a world away at Waialae Country Club in Honolulu, Potter Jr.’s competition at the Sony Open was drastically stiffer. The Goggins, Longs and Warrens were replaced by household PGA Tour names like 2009 British Open champ Stewart Cink, 2000 Masters champion Vijay Singh and 1999 US Ryder Cup hero Justin Leonard.

No, Potter Jr. didn’t win the Sony Open but he turned a lot of heads playing with the big boys. He finished tied for 13th in a field of 144 golfers. He shot three rounds in the 60s just like he had done 4,880 miles away in Valdosta. He was the low rookie among 24 in the field. He even was brought onto Golf Channel’s set for a live interview during the tournament broadcast.

It was an auspicious beginning but it did not last. The game of golf can be so cruel; one week you are on the leader board, the nest week you are missing cuts. Potter Jr. went through a series of early season roller coaster ups and downs before plateauing from mid April to mid June. In the 14 tournaments Potter played in after the Sony Open he missed the cut nine times including five in a row. When he did make it to the weekend, he finished nowhere near his T13 in Hawaii.

The low point of Potter Jr.’s 2012 season might have come in Cromwell, Conn. His second round of 69 at the Travelers Championship was not good enough to negate his opening round 75.  Potter Jr. had missed his fifth consecutive cut. He did not play the next scheduled tournament, the AT&T National. Instead he went back to Ocala and hoped to find his swing; the swing he had in Valdosta.

“I struggled those last few weeks and I tried to get my swing back to way it felt last year on the Web.com Tour,” said Potter Jr.

If the Travelers was the low point of Potter Jr.’s rookie year, remarkably just nine days later would be the high point.

At the Greenbrier Classic in West Virginia, Potter rang in the month of July with rounds of 69 and 67 to get to the weekend. The streak of missed cuts was over. A third round score of 64, which tied his lowest round of the year, put him in contention. He was only three shots behind third round leader Webb Simpson when the final round began.

The fluctuation of the final round leader board had tournament patrons giddy with excitement. Some 726 miles away in the clubhouse at The Shores, Potter Jr.-backers, who love the humble lefty, could hardly contain themselves as they watched the drama unfold on the TV. Down four strokes with four holes to play, the 28-year old from Ocala made clutch shots down the stretch. A birdie at No. 15, an eagle at No. 17 and birdie at No. 18 put him in a two-man playoff against Troy Kelly.  It seemed as if a golden opportunity had slipped away when Potter Jr. missed a five-foot birdie put on the second playoff hole. On the next hole though Potter grooved a nine-iron on the par 3 18th hole to four feet; Kelly was 45 feet away.

“No cheering until the ball goes in the cup,” yelled The Shores bartender Kristen Howard.

As soon as Potter’s ball fell in the hole, Roger Hogsten ran around the bar high-fiving people. The drinks flowed as more Shores regulars came in to celebrate one of theirs winning a PGA Tour event.

“We all love Teddy,” said Howard. “We loved him when he was a nobody and now he’s a hero and we still love him.”

On the 18th green the love was shared as Potter Jr. and his girlfriend Cheri Cox embraced. Six months later the two would be engaged.

Potter Jr. was now a PGA Tour winner. He was also a millionaire. He had exempt status on the Tour through 2013. More importantly he could check off one of his lifetime goals:  playing Augusta National.

“You know you get play now, right?” Golf Channel’s Jason Sobel asked in the post round interview session.

“Yeah, I’m pretty excited about that,” Potter Jr. responded with a huge grin.

By virtue of his win at the Greenbrier, Potter Jr. automatically qualified for the 2013 Masters at Augusta National.

“When you see it on TV it looks so beautiful,” said Potter Jr. “The top golfers in the world are playing there and the history of Augusta, it is just one of those things you want to do.”

The drive up Magnolia Lane, a very short road to Augusta National’s clubhouse, is one that Potter Jr. only envisioned in his mind. He actually got to do it the second week of April and made a name for himself that will forever be linked to the most prestigious golf tournaments in the world.

No, Potter Jr. did not win the 2013 Masters – he missed the cut with rounds of 76 and 73. But he did win the Wednesday par-3 tournament, a testament to his incredible short game considering Augusta’s world-renowned difficult greens.

First played in 1960, the picturesque course covers nine holes ranging from 70 to 140-yards. Potter Jr. won on the second playoff hole making a birdie at No. 9 to beat Matt Kuchar. Three-time Masters champion and short game extraordinaire Phil Mickelson was eliminated on the first extra hole. Just like after winning Greenbrier, a huge grin lit up Potter Jr.’s face as he hoisted the crystal trophy as he won on the second playoff hole.

Yet the most important thing that has come out of Potter Jr.’s accomplishments is that it did not his life. He still calls Ocala home. He still comes around to The Shores to play a round with the boys. He hunts, fishes, throws darts and plays pool with them too.

“One thing that he has never lost: he still stays committed to the people that were there with him from the start,” said Lloyd.

It did not change who Ted Potter Jr. is either.

“That is how I grew up,” said Potter Jr. “My family has always been like that. Treat everyone how you would want to be treated. That is basically how I’ve always lived life. I want to be happy and want all the people around me to be happy.”

Ocala could not be happier for Ted Potter Jr.

There are seven billion people in the world of which 60 million play golf. Potter is ranked 143 in the world; the same Potter Jr. that is one of the real, genuine, good people Ocala is lucky enough to call one of our own.

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