Ron Agostini

Nationwide Tour nothing to sneeze at

One bad sneeze may have cost Matt Hansen a return trip to the PGA Tour.

We're not kidding, and neither is Hansen.

The product of Atwater High and the University of the Pacific would rather not dredge up an excuse, but a fact is a painful fact. He'll remember one seemingly inconsequential "gesundheit" during each step on the 2008 Nationwide Tour, once again his place of employment.

"I'll make my money on the Nationwide and try again next year for the Tour," he said.

The numbers showed Hansen, 27, still performed commendably at the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament earlier this month. He shot 10 under par for six grueling rounds (67-73-70-68-71-73) at Orange County National in Winter Garden Fla., and tied for 47th in the field of 158.

Though he missed his Tour card by four strokes -- he competed on golf's biggest stage in 2006 -- Hansen didn't embarrass himself that week. In fact, he forged through a major physical crisis.

Two days before the tournament as he stood on the 14th tee during a practice round, Hansen turned away from his group and sneezed. Immediately, he felt a twinge in his side.

"The most painful thing I've ever gone through," he said.

He struck his tee shot, but his 3-wood second shot resulted in sharp pain and forced him to walk off the course. Incredibly, he later learned he had dislodged two ribs via a simple sneeze. He didn't swing another club until his warmup for the opening round two days later.

Just getting to the first tee, however, was an ordeal. A chiropractor jolted the ribs into place, but Hansen understood the consequentials: Pain would accompany each swing for the next six days, and there was no escape hatch.

"If it was any other tournament, I would have withdrawn," he said.

Hansen, hobbled during the year's most important tournament, resorted to Plan B. The pain in his side limited his torque and extension, musts for all golfers.

His normal right-to-left tee shot was replaced by a weak left-to-right fade about 40 yards shorter than his normal distance. To compensate, he also added at least a club for each iron shot. His every-day 6-iron shot now required a 5-iron.

Put simply, Hansen spotted the field

Simply, he spotted the field more than a few shots per round. But something else happened: There were some unexpected merits to Plan B. His smaller and more controlled game kept him in the fairway. He also enjoyed a good week putting, normally a weakness. He had resorted to a conventional putting grip -- ditching his career-long crosshanded style -- with success the final six Nationwide events.

Hansen's opening 67, a revelation, indicated he could stay with the contenders all week. It wasn't until the windy final round, during which he failed to control his ball-flight with his gerryrigged swing, that he fell behind the Tour qualifiers.

"I was swinging at about 60 percent and tried to keep it in the fairway," he said. "My putting was my saving grace. I think my putting will continue to be a good thing for me."

Hansen also believes his familiarity with the Nationwide courses will help him next year. He won only $47,072 this year, 112th on the money list, and knows he can improve. More important, the ribs have healed.

He's also got an answer for golf skeptics who will point to his accident as another testimonial for golfers not being athletes.

"I was told my accident is more common than one may think," he said. "I just tell them, 'If you think what we do is not a sport, why don't you come out here and play.' Look at Tiger Woods. You have to be an athlete."

Regardless, Hansen will be careful the next time he feels an upcoming sneeze.

Bee sports columnist Ron Agostini can be reached at ragostini@modbee.com or 578-2302.

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