SAN DIEGO – The afterparty never materialized.
Hudson Swafford wasn’t throwing a rager, but on Sunday night he’d planned to have a few friends over to toast the third PGA Tour title of his career.
It'd already been a whirlwind afternoon at The American Express. The one-par back nine. The two-shot victory. The emotional news conference in which he paid tribute to his late father.
But what most don’t realize is how quickly normalcy returns, how unglamorous it often is for the non-1-percenters. How quickly the fans disperse ... and the corporate infrastructure collapses ... and the trucks roll out, all usually within an hour of the trophy presentation.
Then it’s back to real life. To solving life’s crises, big and small. And that’s why, a few hours later, Swafford wasn’t tearing it up with his buddies. With an early wakeup looming, he was driving himself to the Palm Springs airport at 11:15 p.m., in a Suburban that was losing air in one of its tires, fast.
“It’s not what a lot of people think,” Swafford told me with a laugh Wednesday afternoon. “We’re normal people, with normal lives, and it just so happens that our job is on TV.”
Every Tour player processes victory differently, but this week, Swafford’s turnaround time was unusually swift. Trying to avoid a TV conflict with the NFL conference title games, the Farmers will have the first scheduled Saturday finish since the 1996 Phoenix Open.
That gave Swafford a measly 66 hours to get his life in order – and to revel and recharge, reset and refocus.
“It’s all been a little surreal,” he said.
Once his various media obligations were over Sunday night (and all of his sponsors were mentioned), Swafford headed to his SUV with wife Katherine, his 3-year-old son James and his agent. They hadn’t driven more than a hundred yards when Swafford exhaled, “Man, that was cool.”
On the short drive back to their rental house, they ordered food and made small talk – joking how much more expensive their rental would be at the upcoming Masters, how they couldn’t wait to return to Maui – but Katherine mentioned how one of the tires was running low, 24 psi. He filled up but it was no cause for concern, yet, and that was good, for on this night there was still so much to do. They’d been renting a place for nearly three weeks and needed to pack up their belongings. Only then could he kick back to savor a few celebratory beers.
While loading up the car, Swafford checked the pressure once again: 23 psi. It was dropping. He moved the car, inspected the tire and discovered the culprit. A nail.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” he groaned.
They were planning to depart a 7 a.m., with Katherine and James flying out of San Diego at 11. There was little choice. Just before midnight he drove to the Palm Springs airport and exchanged the car after hours. It was 12:30 a.m. by the time he climbed into bed, equal parts exhilarated, exhausted, exasperated.
His alarm sounded less than six hours later.
“We’re up early, hadn’t slept, the adrenaline wasn’t there,” he said. “I was pretty tired.”
And yet, another long day awaited, beginning with a 2 ½-hour drive to San Diego.
“That’s when it started to sink in,” he said. “I just started thinking about what I accomplished. How I handled the moment. How I never got ahead of myself. How you can take those moments going forward and harp on that, reiterate to yourself that you don’t have to hit it to a foot every hole, that you can be patient and still shoot 4, 5, 6 under par.
“Every time I win, everybody always asks: How nervous were you? How nervous were you? But in the heat of it, it’s not like that at all. I’m more nervous when I’ve got my C- or D-game and I’m trying to make a cut when I haven’t made a cut in a while, rather than getting in contention and knowing my good stuff is good and letting it happen.
“It’s just putting good memories in there, knowing how I did it, writing it down, and understanding what I did. I look back and know I can do it – and do it again.”
Swafford could have flown home, too. Recent winners withdraw all the time, their bodies and mind too spent to compete again just a few days later. But Swafford never considered that option. He knew he was playing well. He knew Torrey set up for his game. And so after dropping off his family, he headed straight to the course, ready for whatever’s next.
Ambling onto the range, he received a hero’s welcome. Praise for how he handled the back nine. Pats on the back. Daps. “Everybody knows how hard it is to win out here,” he said. “There’s a few guys who make it look very easy. But it’s not. It’s tough.”
And just like that, he shifted back in competition mode. After a short warmup he zipped around for nine holes, mostly to get a feel for the greens. Then he had a massage – “Got me a clean flush” – and headed to an early dinner at Sbicca in Del Mar with his agent and Jimmy Walker. At last, a proper celebration: pork chops, tequila, two glasses of wine. Typically mellow and ho-hum for Hud. He dozed off early and didn’t stir until 8 a.m.
“And that’s late for me,” he said, “but it was needed.”
Tuesday was another light practice day: nine holes on the South Course, a bag of balls on the range, some speed work on the practice green, a quick workout. Back at their rental house, Walker grilled steaks and whipped up a pasta dish. All Swafford was responsible for was cleaning the dishes.
The remaining question was how locked-in Swafford would be once his 10:40 a.m. tee time arrived. It’s exceedingly rare for players to win in back-to-back starts, and Swafford could have been excused for mailing it in. After all, entering the AmEx he was at No. 166 in the world rankings, with zero top-10s in his last six months. But with a stellar final round at PGA West, his short-term outlook had dramatically changed: he was $1.3 million richer, with invitations to the Masters and Maui, and with a world ranking (No. 61) that could soon offer even more scheduling opportunities.
For one of the few times in his career he was in a marquee group, the Tour sliding him in alongside local product Xander Schauffele and Tony Finau. While Schauffele and Finau got off to flying starts on the easier North Course, Swafford looked out of sorts early, playing his first 13 holes in 1 over and hovering outside the top 100 on the leaderboard. Then Swafford birdied the par-5 fifth. He added another. And on his final hole of the day, he hit a sick flop shot from well below the green that nestled within a few feet of the cup.
“Heck of a shot!” Finau said, raising his thumb.
After signing for a 2-under 70, Swafford retreated to the practice green for a post-round debrief. “I hung in there,” he said, removing his cap and tousling his hair. “I know I’m playing good. So if this is my bad ball-striking day, I’ll be all right.”
Swafford had been chatting for 10 minutes, and he was starting to get antsy. The temperature was plummeting. Sunlight was fading. He needed to get in some extra putting work.
The ecstasy of Sunday had long faded away. Now, Swafford was seven shots off the lead, the tougher South Course awaited, and in this moment, that’s all that mattered.