News & Opinion

Chappell’s next victory: Presidents Cup spot

OLD WESTBURY, N.Y. – Earlier this season, Kevin Chappell finally put to bed the question of when he finally would notch his first PGA Tour victory. After six runner-up finishes, he claimed the Valero Texas Open in April, in his 180th Tour start. 

But just as a recently-married couple begins to be assaulted by the question of when they are going to have a baby, Chappell, 31, found that his breakthrough and continued steady play has him on the brink of making his first U.S. Presidents Cup team and answering questions such as, "How big of a goal is making the team?" 

"I knew you couldn't not ask that," said Chappell, a grin turning to a look of exasperation, after shooting a third-round 64 Saturday in The Northern Trust at Glen Oaks Club.

With only one week remaining until the top 10 in the U.S. point standings automatically qualify for the team, Chappell is on the hot seat at No. 11. He gained no ground after tying for sixth at The Northern Trust. 

His last appearance representing the red, white and blue? The 2008 Arnold Palmer Cup. And yet he downplayed the importance of making the Presidents Cup team as much as someone who clearly wants to make it can. 

"It's not a goal," he said. "It will be the result of accomplishing my other goals."

Good canned answer. Sports psychologists Bob Rotella and Richard Coop approve of such thinking. As for those goals, winning was high on the list, but interestingly, Chappell said that his biggest goal was to finish atop the leaderboard for the 16-round aggregate score at the four majors. This was the first year that he was eligible for all four majors, but he missed the cut at the British Open.

In a survey of more than two dozen players, agents and caddies during the Florida Swing, Chappell was the player most often named as "Best Player Without a Victory on the Tour." He called it both a burden and a compliment. The 2008 NCAA men's individual champion out of UCLA expected to do big things. He has kept his card and qualified for the FedEx Cup playoffs in seven consecutive years, making it to the Tour Championship for the first time last season. But he knew that he was capable of more. Three things seemed to hold him back: a tendency to be tough on himself, obsessing about his golf and a balky putter. 

He credits fatherhood as the spark for his career's upward trajectory. Chappell and wife, Elizabeth, gave birth to Wyatt in 2015, and a second son, Collins, in January. 

"It's changed my priorities," Chappell said. "Golf means a lot to me, but it's not the end all, be all. It's taught me that I can put golf away when I'm home and not think about it 24/7. I'm able to work less but work smarter and get better results."

It's hard to quantify how much the addition of Mark Horton has contributed to "working smarter," but Chappell, No. 26 in the Official World Golf Ranking, hired the stats guru at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and won a month later. Horton already has helped Brandt Snedeker and Billy Horschel win the FedEx Cup.

"He's shown me where to attack and where to play a little more conservative," Chappell said of Horton's number-crunching of the Tour's ShotLink course data. "It's not always firing at the flag. It's hitting at the best position relative to the flag." 

Chappell's putting still is a work in progress. Three years ago at the Shell Houston Open, he switched to a cross-handed grip because he wasn't making anything. He likes the way it allows him to set up to the ball more consistently. 

"I don't know if my stats are any better," he said. "I just feel more comfortable."

In fact, his putting stats remain a concern. This season, he ranks 171st in strokes gained: putting. That could be a turnoff for U.S. captain Steve Stricker, who has made it known that No. 11 in the standings is likely to receive one of his two captain’s picks to fill the roster for the Sept. 28-Oct. 1 matches against the Internationals at Liberty National in Jersey City, N.J. But Chappell isn’t worried about getting leapfrogged this week or being overlooked for a veteran hand such as Phil Mickelson as a captain’s pick.

"Hopefully, I won't have to be chosen," Chappell said.

Now that sounds like a guy with a goal of making the team, after all.

Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf World and The New York Times. He is the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: golfsdrivingforce@gmail.com; Twitter: @adamschupak