Welcome to the Big Time
Former Missouri golfer Peter Malnati on winning his first PGA Tour event, becoming a viral sensation and cheering on his beloved Royals
One of the perks of being a PGA Tour winner is getting to play the Hyundai Tournament of Champions in Maui in January to open the calendar year. Then, the tour makes an island-hop to Oahu the following week for the Sony Open in Hawaii.
And for the first time in his career, Peter Malnati got to play both.
"It's a tough life I've got," Malnati says jokingly from Honolulu, two days before he teed off at the Sony.
Malnati, who played his college golf at the University of Missouri, was in the field at Kapalua by virtue of his first victory as a PGA Tour pro on Nov. 9, 2015, winning the Sanderson Farms Championship in Jackson, Mississippi. Professionally, it opens every conceivable door — notably, a two-year exemption on tour, and Malnati now tees it up alongside the best players in the game. World No. 1 Jordan Spieth eventually won the Hyundai by a whopping eight strokes in a field that included Rickie Fowler and Jason Day, but Malnati started 2016 strong at that tournament by finishing in a tie for sixth.
"To be there at Kapalua was everything I imagined it would be and even more. It was really cool. That was something that I sort of dreamed about doing back in my days when I was at Mizzou," Malnati says. "The thought of playing in that event was kind of a dream.”
Malnati confesses that he wasn't the greatest golfer when he played at Missouri from 2005-09, but the most important thing he learned as a member of Mizzou's golf team was how to practice. Anyone can mindlessly slap around golf balls on the range, so genuine goal-oriented practice was what Malnati needed to try to accomplish something.
By his junior year, there were signs of improvement in his game, but it was his senior year when Malnati really showed some form. "It was then that I decided I wanted to turn pro," Malnati says.
After playing on mini-tour circuits, Malnati got his first big break in 2013 by Monday-qualifying his way on to the Web.com Tour, golf's version of Triple-A Baseball. And in August 2013, Malnati won his first Web.com tournament at the News Sentinel Open in Knoxville, close to where he grew up in Dandridge, Tennessee. He had three other Top 10 finishes in 2013 and ranked 18th on the money list, which was good enough to earn his PGA Tour card for the next season.
"So I started the 2013-14 season on the PGA Tour. And … yeah. I was a little overwhelmed," Malnati recalls. "I wasn't ready for it."
Malnati struggled mightily in his rookie year on tour, playing in 18 events and missing 13 cuts. He finished 178th in the FedEx Cup standings, well outside the Top 125 who maintain their PGA Tour status. In what seemed like a flash, Malnati lost his PGA card. In 2015 he instead played a full schedule on the Web.com Tour, skipping only one event.
"For me, learning how to play a full season from beginning to end and focus on one shot at a time, staying in the moment, was really important. When I got on the PGA Tour as a rookie, I never had that experience before," Malnati says.
The grind of playing almost every tournament on the Web.com Tour paid dividends for Malnati. He won the Web.com Tour's event in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in March 2015 and finished second on the money list, cruising to his return to the PGA Tour. But not before he made a literal splash that didn't take long to go viral.
While playing in the Web.com event in Portland in 2015, Malnati botched the par-3 12th hole, hitting his second shot into the water hazard to the left of the green. It was playable though, and with both feet submerged in the water and mud, Malnati made a valiant attempt to extricate himself from his predicament. But the ball landed short and trundled back into the hazard, prompting a mud-spattered Malnati to say incredulously, "Are you kidding me? All that for THAT?"
The video is the first thing you see when you search Malnati's name on YouTube. It has more than 100,000 views.
"Looking back, I really like that, because I think the whole two minutes of it that's captured on camera there paints a pretty good picture of who I am on the golf course," he says.
Elsewhere online, Malnati maintains a personal blog that he's kept since 2009, where he openly and honestly discusses the state of his game. In October 2015, he posted a picture of three "Outcome Goals" he had written on a whiteboard for this season, and the second goal he listed was to score a win on the PGA Tour.
Not even one month after that post, and in his third tournament since rejoining the PGA Tour, Malnati landed his win at the Country Club of Jackson by one stroke over William McGirt and former major champion David Toms.
"It was definitely a little bit of a surprise, but not a big one for me. I knew I was ready to do that. And to have it actually happen the way it did and have it happen so early in the season was a huge thrill."
His dominant putting performance was the story of the tournament. To borrow former tour winner Loren Roberts' famous nickname, Malnati turned into The Boss of the Moss 2.0, making more than 500 feet of putts on a course so soggy from repeated rounds of storms that the final round was pushed to Monday.
"The greens were phenomenal,” he says. "It was all just trying to…trust my natural feel for the pace. That doesn't always happen, believe it or not. Some weeks from the beginning of the tournament to the end, I'm still struggling to get a feel for the pace of the greens. That week, I had it early."
Malnati hoisted the trophy barely a week after his Royals won the World Series, and only five days after he wrote about how the Royals were a source of inspiration on his blog. His Royals fandom dates to the spring of 2007, when he went to Royals games as a student at Mizzou. He was surrounded by Cardinals fans on campus and thought that was too easy, so at his first Royals game at a relatively empty Kauffman Stadium, he enjoyed watching them play despite their lack of success at the time.
The next game he saw at the K, against none other than the Cardinals, helped seal the deal. "The stadium was more red than blue in Kansas City. That was the day I put my foot down," he says. "I bought a hat and said, 'Dang it, I'm a Royals fan.'"
The cover photo on Malnati's Twitter account shows him with Sluggerrr after throwing the first pitch at a Royals game.
"From a fan's perspective it was just really, really fun to watch," Malnati says of the Royals' road to a championship. "But from an athlete's perspective, it's really inspiring to see how much value there is to having that energy and having that ‘want-to,’ for lack of a better way of saying it, and how far that can carry you. That was really cool to see. They set out to resolve what they left unresolved at the end of 2014, and they did it."
His wife, Alicia, grew up in Blue Springs, and she was wearing a Royals hat during the trophy presentation at the Sanderson Farms Championship. A former gymnast at Mizzou, she works for the University of Tennessee at its Center for Sport, Peace, and Society, and they make their home in Knoxville. But Alicia travels with her husband to most of his tournaments, since she's able to work from her computer. “For us to be together makes things easier and better for me. I have more fun," says Malnati.
And the couple have fun whenever they're in Kansas City, whether it's for a Royals game or he's working on his own golf game. Malnati is getting to be quite the barbecue connoisseur too. If he and Alicia want something with a date-night feel, it's Jack Stack every time. But he's also partial to the sauce at Gates.
"The people are what makes Kansas City special," says Malnati. "Where my wife is from and where she grew up will always feel like a second home to me. Kansas City is definitely special to us."