If it’s true that playing golf well requires a mind free of clutter, then Casey Wittenberg did not provide the example to be run up that flag pole during the final round of the Nationwide Tour’s Wichita Open on a scorching Sunday afternoon at Crestview.
Not only was Wittenberg chasing his playing partner, Jim Herman, for most of the day, but he was also scuffling with a new left-handed grip on his driver, one that seems to be working in spite of the discomfort it brings with it.
For what seems like an eternity, Wittenberg stands over every tee shot until finally stepping up to hit the shot. He says it’s part visualization and part reminder of the new way he’s gripping the club since he changed swing coaches at the end of 2011, casting his lot with Adam Schriber, who also works with Anthony Kim.
“When I used to work with a lot of guys under David Ledbetter, I had a really palmy left-hand grip,” Wittenberg said. “When I started working with Adam, we’ve been trying to get it more into my fingers. It’s something that just doesn’t feel comfortable to me and it’s something I fight with.”
Fortunately for Wittenberg, his swing won the fight Sunday and, really, all week. His six-under 66, and Herman’s back-nine meltdown, catapulted Wittenberg, a former All-American at Oklahoma State, to his second Nationwide victory just a week after finishing in a tie for 10th at the U.S. Open at San Francisco’s Olympic Club.
Wittenberg finished at minus-18, two shots better than Herman, whose double-bogey at No. 15 sank his chances, and Justin Hicks, whose late charge was interrupted by a bogey on the par-5 No. 14, a birdie-haven.
Wittenberg is a small guy, listed at 5-foot-8, 158 pounds. He’s not a abnormally long hitter, either. But he’s accurate and he usually doesn’t beat himself.
Yet, as with all professional golfers, satisfaction is fleeting.
After finishing the 2011 season poorly, Wittenberg thought a change in his swing was in order. And if you ask for a change, somebody is going to suggest one.
Taking on a new grip might not seem like much, but for the 27-year-old Wittenberg it has been a great show of faith in his new coach. And with two Nationwide Tour victories and his fine showing at the U.S. Open, there have been enough high finishes and nice paychecks to prove to him that the change is paying off.
Wittenberg’s methodical routine on the tee box, though, can try the patience of fans, officials and, I’m sure, other players.
There’s the new grip, which still takes Wittenberg a little bit to figure out. But Wittenberg is also a believer in visualization, which certainly doesn’t make him unique in golf.
Jack Nicklaus has often said that he never made a shot without first visualizing everything about the shot in his imagination. Being that Nicklaus has won more major tournament championships than any other golfer in history, it’s not surprising that visualization has caught on with so many.
Wittenberg, though, has used the technique, in part, to rack up enough money to become No. 2 on the Nationwide earnings list for 2012.
“I gather my thoughts some out there,’’ Wittenberg said. “And I try to figure out what I want to do with the golf ball before I get up to it. It’s worked out fairly well.’’
Wittenberg made a huge par putt from the fringe on No. 15, after Herman’s second shot from about 130 yards plunked into the lake in front of the green. It was a shocking shot by a golfer who had only one bogey during his first 65 holes, had a bogey on No. 12, a par-3 over the water after hitting his tee shot to the left of the green. He righted the ship with a birdie at No. 13, but followed the disastrous double-bogey at No. 15 with another bogey at No. 16. Suddenly, the steadiest player of the week was losing his wheels.
Wittenberg made four birdies during a six-hole stretch to take a commanding lead and he didn’t falter. It’s another victory for a former Oklahoma State golfer, one who lost to Nick Flanagan in the finals of the 2003 U.S. Amateur and who finished 13th in the 2004 Masters, the highest amateur finish in that major in 41 years.
“I take great pride in the golf program at Oklahoma State,’’ said Wittenberg, who played for the Cowboys in 2003 and 2004. “Mike McGraw and my coach, Mike Holder, have done a great job of keeping everyone together.’’
Not easy, when you consider the Cowboys have produced close to 60 All-Americans — players like Hunter Mahan, Scott Verplank, Rickie Fowler and Charles Howell III — while winning nine national championships.
“Stillwater’s a pretty amazing place and that’s been a pretty amazing program,’’ Wittenberg said. “And it’s not going anywhere. I think they’ll be in the top two or three teams in the country every year.”
Wittenberg might be the next former Cowboy to make it big. It looks like he has a grip on things.