Friday, March 24, 2023

James Piot rides confidence into Masters Tournament debut

The fifth-year senior will tee off at 10:45 Thursday morning with Hideki Matsuyama and Justin Thomas.

April 7, 2022
<p>Portrait of James Piot at Lasch Family Golf Center on Sept. 21, 2021.</p>

Portrait of James Piot at Lasch Family Golf Center on Sept. 21, 2021.

Photo by Rahmya Trewern | The State News

On the 18th at the Golf Club of Georgia, James Piot felt the nerves settle back in. Holding a stroke over Laird Shepherd after winning two of the last four holes, he watched his shot fall and came to a bitter, sinking realization on a sunny Georgia afternoon. 

“I hit it in the worst spot possible on the green,” he said last Monday via Zoom. 

Walking to the green, a member told the fifth-year senior golfer in passing that that was the spot to hit it on the 564-yard par 5 about 20 feet away from the cup. Piot politely refrained from voicing his flat disagreement with the member and sidled over to his lie to think things over. 

“I was sitting over that putt thinking, ‘If I hit this within ten feet of the hole, it’ll be phenomenal,’” he said. 

But whatever happens, happens, right?

So Piot gave it a firm tap, looking for the right break. Hands on his hips, he watched the ball lurch forward down the funnel, roll and roll and roll … and settle about a foot from the cup. The crowd laughed and cheered. And a sigh of relief ended up bringing some more confidence for what lay ahead. 

“I could’ve put a bucket of balls there, hit that putt a billion times and not done that,” he said. 

That shot was about a week-and-a-half ago when things didn't seem just as real. Today, Piot tees off in the first round of the Masters Tournament, golf’s premier major and the biggest tournament of his life, at 10:45 a.m. with reigning champion Hideki Matsuyama and former PGA Tour Player of the Year Justin Thomas in his group.

It is, in short, a momentous occasion. For starters, no Michigan State student has ever played in the Masters. So it wasn’t shocking the opportunity was on Piot’s mind in the midst of a rollicking comeback during the 121st U.S. Amateur at Oakmont in August 2021. 

“You’re thinking about that before the invitation comes in, which is crazy to say, but obviously it’s something we’ve all dreamed of since a kid,” he said. “For me, it was just like, in that moment, I’m playing for Augusta and you’re thinking about Augusta.” 

Few would fault him for that because … well, it’s the Masters. Of the things that may come to mind: The famous CBS promos that Piot admits to getting chills from. Amen Corner. Raes Creek. Azaleas lovingly doting the grounds. Pink dogwoods shimmering in the early spring breeze. Famously picturesque images that gently, warmly drive home the idea that there’s something truly sacred about the place.

“It's the most perfect piece of property," Piot said with a touch of awe. "When you’re out there, you’re like on holy ground as a golfer."

Through it all, his past memories of the tournament have come to life. The most vivid, Piot said, might’ve been professional golfer Tiger Woods’ spellbinding comeback win in 2019. Then he found himself at the site of professional golfer Bubba Watson’s hooked wedge from the woods on 10 to defeat Louis Oosthuizen in a sudden-death playoff in 2012. 

“They actually planted a mini tree where he hit the shot and I was sitting there and I go ‘There is no way I could do this in my life,’” he said with a laugh. 

As for the realities in an unreal experience? They’re a pleasantly mixed bag. Playing nine with professional golfer Bryson DeChambeau and a practice round with professional golfer Gary Woodland on a surprisingly hilly course where nothing seems out of place is nice, if not great. People he said he hasn’t talked to since high school reaching out for him to buy them Masters gear? Maybe not as much. 

“People asked me, ‘Hey man, can you buy me some of that special stuff?’” he said. “I'm like 'Listen man, I’m still a college kid. I got a max on my credit card so I can’t run through it all.'” 

It’s a funny story but it’s telling. After all, that is Piot at this particular moment: Always grateful for the support, but still a little uncomfortable being recognized. Poised for something really, really special with a full-blown career on the horizon, but, hey, still just a college golfer after all. 

“I’m trying to be a kid as much as I can still,” Piot said. “It’s tough to do and it’s a big transition, mentally as it is playing. I think I’ve done a pretty good of handling it.”

Go back to February. From the outside looking in, Piot’s introduction to life on the tour with the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bayhill wasn’t exactly the smoothest. The leaderboard reflected it: 12-over to miss the cut, eight bogeys, four double bogeys.

Being in the thick of a newfound “lonely lifestyle” with no teammates and no coaches to lean on, Piot struggled to find the right clubs and adjust, physically and mentally, to his first true tournament atmosphere. Piot wasn’t looking to fake it but it was hard to not feel the nerves at the moment. 

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“I thought I was cool, calm and collected the whole week, practice round and everything, playing in front of people,” he said. “Then I got to the first tee and I could barely feel my hands.”

But after getting a little more feeling in his hands, the positive things came to light. Hitting irons 15 to 20 yards farther than normal off “pure adrenaline.” Hitting wedges “Brooks Koepka-length” is another byproduct of that atmosphere’s energy. A brief conversation with pro golfer Rickie Fowler (“My mom made sure to embarrass me in front of him and wave to him and say ‘Thank you so much for being nice to James,’” he said) served as one of the cooler moments. By the end of it, there was another sinking realization in store for Piot.

Simply put, he said, "Hey, I can do this." 

“It just gave me a sense of belonging there and I just gotta get that in my head," he said. "I tell people, you gotta say, ‘I belong here, I’m good enough to do it and that’s what's gonna be the mentality for me going into Augusta.” 

If the mentality to make a run is there, the history isn’t there. No amateur has ever won the Masters and the few contenders go way, way back: in 1954, Billy Joe Patton led for 54 holes before whacking a 4-wood into the snaking creek on 13 to set the stage for a marathon 18-hole playoff between top golfers Ben Hogan and Sam Snead.

Ken Venturi, a San Francisco car salesman, admitted to playing too cautiously on a windy Sunday in 1956 and carded a final round 80 to lose by a stroke to Jack Burke Jr. Arnold Palmer breezed through the 18th in 1961 to hand Gary Player his first major win and quietly tied for second with famed amateur Charlie Coe. 

Even if Piot might not be gunning for a green jacket, he likes his odds at contending for the Silver Cup, the tournament’s trophy for low amateur honors. The second-lowest ranked WAGR, or World Amateur Golf Rankings, amateur in the field of six, he gave a sly smile when talking about what might happen out there, so long as he keeps his nerves in check. 

The confidence he’s manufactured, rode and occasionally got lucky with in an unlikely journey from Fox Hills Golf and Banquet Center in Plymouth, Michigan to Oakmont to now, Augusta—it shined through for a split second. 

“With (Michigan State Associate Head Coach Dan Ellis) on the bag and the way I see the course, it fits me well as far as my game, ball-striking wise,” he said. “Just got to stay patient out there and play my game and keep a level head and, y’know, there’s good chances.” 

Good chances. Come 10:45 a.m. on Thursday, Piot will already be a part of one. 

“I mean, I’m playing in a Masters and I’m still at Michigan State University,” he said. “For me, it's just gonna enjoy the experience, take it one shot at a time and whatever happens, happens.”

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