NASSAU, Bahamas — A year ago, there was a young man in Tiger Woods’ gallery at the Hero World Challenge who was there with a purpose, knowing he wanted to be inside the ropes for this year’s edition. That would be Bryson DeChambeau, an up-and-comer ranked 99th in the world then who is back this week as a competitor, having won four times in 2018 and risen all the way to fifth.
Cory Whitsett, 27, might not get to the 18-man Hero field in 12 months, but he hopes to one day get here. He was a U.S. Junior champion, four-time All-SEC golfer, an All-America and played on a NCAA national title-winning team while at Alabama. But he has struggled to break through as a professional, relegated to a steady diet of mini-tours and Monday Web.com Tour qualifiers.
A few weeks ago, Justin Thomas, Whitsett’s former ‘Bama teammate and a player who has climbed all the way to No. 1 in the world (he’s currently fourth in the Official World Golf Ranking) had a proposal for Whitsett. If Whitsett didn’t advance to play in next week’s Web.com Tour Q-School finals, then maybe he could join Thomas and be on his bag at Albany for the Hero. Thomas figured that being around the world’s top players, watching them and absorbing all they do, could be a valuable step as Whitsett continues to progress.
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So as veteran caddie Jimmy Johnson gets a well-deserved week off, Whitsett, who shot 14-under par at the second stage of Q-School in Mobile, Ala., but failed to advance – slung Thomas’ large Titleist staff bag over his shoulder and went to work, his eyes wide open.
They hadn’t been at Albany for more than an hour on Tuesday when Thomas, hitting a few shots in the chipping area, would engage in a chipping contest with Tiger Woods, the 14-time major winner and tournament host. This is where Whitsett’s continuing education as a player, Albany-style, commenced.
“Tiger comes over and he’s hitting these shots that I’d never really seen before,” Whitsett said following Wednesday’s pro-am round at Hero. “There’s some things that I’m already going to go home and mess around with.”
That’s exactly what Thomas had in mind when he asked Whitsett to join him for the week, hoping to instill him with confidence.
Whitsett has played a handful of Web.com Tour and Mackenzie Tour (Canada) events the last few years, but he’s still a long, long way from the action he’ll be watching this week. Their opening pairing on Thursday at Albany is alongside Woods.
“It’s a good opportunity for us to go out and have some fun,” Thomas said. “He’s seen me play a lot of golf, so I feel comfortable if I ask him something, I feel what he says is at least relevant. You could have buddies out there who say, ‘I don’t know.’ Hopefully we’ll have a good time out there and play some good golf while we’re at it.”
Before getting to the Bahamas, Whitsett spent a day in Jupiter, Fla., with Thomas, where they hung out and played at the Bear’s Club with Rickie Fowler. Whitsett, a former U.S. Walker Cup player who had a stellar career at Alabama, knows he has the goods to one day join his pals on the Tour that they play, the best one in the world. But right now, with very little status on any tour, he has to fight and claw to find his way. He tried seven or eight Monday qualifiers for the Web.com Tour a year ago but did not have any success.
He teed off at a qualifier in Knoxville earlier this year and 8 under already was the number before he struck his opening shot.
“I parred the first par 5 and I was like, ‘Where’s my car?’ ” Whitsett said with a grin.
Whitsett, tall and lanky, and who plays left-handed, said he can only recall caddying once before. He was living on St. Simons Island in Georgia and Cody Gribble, a pal from his junior and college days in Texas, asked Whitsett if he could caddie for him in a Monday qualifier for the RSM Classic. He accepted. He said on Wednesday it took him 20 minutes just to figure out the straps on Thomas’ staff bag and said half-jokingly that he wishes Thomas showed up this week with his old Alabama carry bag. No such luck.
All lifting aside, Thomas wants this to be a fun yet meaningful week for his buddy.
“He just shot 14 under at second stage (Web.com Q-School) and missed,” Thomas said, shaking his head. “It’s unbelievable. He missed by two, I think. He’s playing a lot better. He’s excited about it.
“Fortunately, I haven’t had to deal with it, or think about it, but I can’t imagine how hard that is, going to Q-School and missing a couple of times. I’m sure a lot of doubt comes into your head.
“I’m sure he knows … but I WANT HIM to know that he belongs out here, and he’s good enough. I think being out here with us, and watching us play, and being around the best players in the world, I think it’s going to be good for him. It’s going to make him realize that he’s a lot closer than he thinks he is.”