Cool Denny Hamlin par for the course
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- PGA Tour veteran Joe Ogilvie and I are walking up the ninth fairway at Quail Hollow Country Club late Monday afternoon having just witnessed Denny Hamlin blast his drive well past everyone else on his final hole.
Did I mention that the Joe Gibbs Racing driver swung a golf club left-handed and was using a right-handed club borrowed from another member of his fivesome?
Turned upside down, nonetheless?
"I should retire and take him on a money tour as a 21-handicap," Ogilvie says of the Sprint Cup driver-turned-golfer for the Wells Fargo Championship Pro-Am, which his group won with a net 18-under 54. "You can tell why he's at the top of his sport.
"I don't know if he's a perfectionist, but you can tell he wants to be the best at whatever he does."
You can tell a lot of things about Hamlin as you watch him tour this 7,442-yard piece of real estate for 18 holes. Much of it you can relate back to racing and have a better understanding of why he's not in a panic mode ranked 17th in points with no wins nine races into a season that he and many others expected to be championship-caliber after last year's runner-up finish.
Take the first hole, the 591-yard par-5 10th, for this group. Hamlin hit his drive into the right rough, shanked his second shot through the fairway into the left rough, took three more shots to get on the green and then two-putted for a double-bogey.
That would be enough to rattle most amateurs, particularly playing in front of a PGA player with a gallery.
Hamlin rebounded with par, birdie, a three-putt bogey and two more pars to be at 2 over after six holes. Pretty impressive for somebody who has had only two two-hour lessons since picking up the sport two years ago, someone who shoots an average score of 93, according to his handicap.
"Have to change my profession," Hamlin says three holes into his turnaround.
Hamlin composed himself again on his back nine, finishing with pars on Nos. 8 and 9 after consecutive triple-bogeys, starting the final hole with the upside-down driver shot he learned from PGA star Bubba Watson, who won Sunday in New Orleans.
"I'm telling you, I'm going to join the tour when I retire," Hamlin says.
There's that swagger we saw when Hamlin made his run at last year's Cup title, the one that has been missing much of this year.
"He has that great confidence it takes to be great," Ogilvie says. "He's competitive. He doesn't seem like he gets nervous about anything."
Hamlin definitely doesn't get nervous about golf, which puts him one-up on Jimmie Johnson. The five-time defending Cup champion called golf the most nerve-racking thing he does before his pro-am here a year ago. He showed it, picking up on the first and fourth holes, and double-bogeying the second and third before gutting out a par on the fifth.
Reminded of Johnson's start and asked if he was nervous, Hamlin shrugged his shoulders and said, "Nah."
"I'm playing on house money," Hamlin jokes. "What do I have to lose out here, other than my dignity, and I lost that back on the 15th. Maybe I have to have that challenge.
"We need to have ... in the Cup series a challenge, a triathlon or something, [to show] who can perform best at each sport. I might be in the running."
See what Ogilvie means by competitive?
For that reason Hamlin should be back in the thick of things when the Chase begins. His second-place finish Saturday night at Richmond was a good sign for a team that has struggled to get good finishes at tracks where it dominated a year ago.
That Hamlin wasn't upset that he didn't win spoke volumes.
"At this point we need to par all the way in," he says.
A few years ago, Hamlin wouldn't have been quite so calm. He would've been biting off the heads of his crew members and anyone else he felt wasn't pulling their weight. But like his three-quarter, compact golf swing, he keeps emotions in control.
"I've gotten better at it," Hamlin says. "Obviously, we're further back right now than what I've been at this point in my career, but my alarm is definitely not going off in my head."
That doesn't take away the importance of Saturday's finish. Hamlin knows a triple-bogey on a track where he'd won two of the previous four events would have been a red flag.
"If we had a bad run, would my panic meter have gone up a number?" Hamlin asks. "Probably. I still feel like there is so much time left and there is so much potential for us that I'm just confident we can go out and win every week."
In other words, Hamlin's not giving up as the little girl on the 10th hole suggested after he slammed his club into the ground en route to his double-bogey.
There is no give-up in Hamlin. You saw that last spring when he didn't miss a beat after surgery to repair the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. You saw it all around Quail Hollow.
"It's a game that takes some patience and takes a while to get right," Hamlin says of golf.
Maybe that's why Hamlin is so good at Darlington Raceway, where the series heads this weekend. In 2004, he finished eighth in his first Nationwide Series race at NASCAR's toughest track with a full-time Cup ride for JGR hanging in the balance.
In five Cup races at the 1.366-mile facility, Hamlin has an average finish of 6.6 -- best among active drivers -- including a victory there a year ago and four other top-10s.
"I love the place." Hamlin says. "There is something about the challenge of that racetrack I just gravitate to. It's no different than playing golf. It's so hard. I'm a competitor. I like challenges, and Darlington is the biggest challenge on the circuit."
Quail Hollow is a similar challenge on the PGA. Many competitors consider it one of the top two events outside the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship.
It's a layout that tests all the skills of a golfer the way Darlington tests all the skills of a driver.
And while Hamlin didn't conquer it, his 5 over par on the front and 16-over 88 total was impressive considering he'd never played the course and had the additional pressure of playing in front of a crowd.
Only twice did Hamlin even start to lose his composure, the first when he slammed the club in front of the girl and the second when he pushed his fourth shot on the par-5 seventh (his 16th) and shouted, "Oh my god. I killed a kid!"
But each time Hamlin gathered himself and came back with a good shot. He refused to let a mistake serve as a hangover just as he has refused to let last year's collapse with the points lead over the final two events serve as an excuse for this year's slow start.
"That's what you've got to do," says Hamlin, who shot a career-best 81 last week at Richmond. "Even my friends were saying when I had that bad stretch on the back nine, 'The holes are done. Par the last two. Just part the last two.'
"And we did. You've just got to put out the bad stuff."
Hamlin did that and more. When Ogilvie gave Hamlin's caddy/front end mechanic, John Furino, a hard time for losing two head covers, Hamlin gave it right back.
"Joe asked if this is the guy that actually tightens bolts on your car and stuff," Hamlin says with a laugh. "I said, 'Yeah, you haven't seen us race a few times? S--- falling off.'"
Even if parts were falling off the No. 11 Toyota, Hamlin likely would find a way to hold things together on the track just as he does on the golf course.
"He's pretty damn good," Ogilvie says. "It wouldn't surprise me if he's a single-digit handicapper by the end of the year."
Or maybe a Cup champion.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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