JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Bud Cauley doesn't remember when he attended his first PLAYERS Championship, but he does recall sitting on the hill alongside the par-3 17th hole when Tiger Woods had his better-than-most moment.
He was 11 years old when Woods sank the long, winding, downhill putt en route to winning the 2001 tournament.
Cauley's father, Bill, also remembers sneaking back out to the course one night earlier in the week with his son and a net to try to fish out a ball Woods had hit into the water surrounding the famous island green.
This year, Cauley, who never did retrieve the lost ball, will be on the other side of the ropes to compete in his first PLAYERS Championship.
"I love it up there," said the 22-year-old Cauley, who grew up in Jacksonville and estimates that he's played TPC Sawgrass more than 100 times. "It's a ball-strikers course and that suits my game well."
As it turns out, professional golf suits Cauley quite well, too. He always knew it would.
Following his junior year at Alabama, Cauley decided to forego his senior season and turn pro. He qualified for the U.S. Open and tied for 63rd.
A week later, Cauley tied for 24th at the Travelers Championship followed by a tie for fourth at the Viking Classic three weeks later.
Cauley added three more top-15 finishes and became just the sixth player to go from college straight to the PGA TOUR without having to go through q-school or the Nationwide Tour.
The others to accomplish the feat: Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Ryan Moore (the last to do it), Justin Leonard and Gary Hallberg.
"It doesn't surprise me he earned his card that way, by going out and just playing golf" Cauley's father said.
It didn't surprise Cauley, either, which is why he chose to turn pro early.
A three-time finalist for the Hogan award, given each year to the nation's top collegiate golfer, all three years at Alabama, the toughest part for Cauley was passing on the remainder of his college experience.
"I knew it was tough decision because I loved being at school, but I felt like my game kept improving and the best thing to do was to turn pro," Cauley said. "Everyone was really supportive. I had to do what was best."
Added Cauley's father: "One thing I knew about Bud was that he researched his decision. He doesn't make decisions fast or impulsively."
Already this year, his first full season on TOUR, Cauley has earned nearly $800,000 in 13 starts and climbed to 39th in the latestFedExCup standings.
At the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard, he tied for fourth and a week later tied for eighth at the Shell Houston Open.
Still, Cauley had to wait until the 11th hour to find out whether he would be in the field for his first PLAYERS Championship. When Bubba Watson and Anthony Kim both withdrew earlier in the week, Cauley was in for sure.
Unlike in his first U.S. Open, however, Cauley's father won't be on the bag. That job has since been given to veteran caddie Tony Navarro, who has worked for, among others, 2004 PLAYERS champ Adam Scott.
Instead, Bill Cauley, who has garnered a sort of cult following on Twitter -- "I'm as surprised as you are, but he loves it," his son says when asked about -- will be reflecting back on all the times he and Bud attended the tournament as fans.
There was the year Bud dipped under the ropes by the 16th green to get Sergio Garcia's autograph during a practice round.
And even last year, when Cauley was still in school at Alabama and hadn't yet turned pro, they were out following Tiger Woods when withdrew with an injury after nine holes.
For this year's tournament, the Cauleys already have more than 30 tickets set aside for friends and family.
"I'm more excited about this tournament than last year's U.S. Open," Bill Cauley said. "We can relate to this tournament. There are so many memories."
None, however, will be bigger than this one.
- Tiger Woods
- Bud Cauley
- PLAYERS Championship