It isn't normally in Stephen Ames' nature to be cautious. He plays golf with bold confidence and he's seldom shy about expressing his opinions. But he's approaching today's final round of the PGA Championship, right in the thick of the fight for the Wannamaker Trophy, with a careful "I'm-just-happy-to-be-here" attitude.
At the age of 40, Ames is in the midst of a breakthrough season on the PGA Tour. He has been making a rather tidy, if largely anonymous, living for the better part of a decade but suddenly he's sharing the limelight with some of the game's household names.
Ames already has earned $2.7 million US this season and is well on his way to earning more in 2004 than in all his years as a professional combined.
As he prepares for what could be the biggest day of his golfing career, there is little indication of anxiety. More curiosity, actually.
"I'm looking at this as a good experience," he said after yesterday's solid round of three-under-par 68, "and I want to take it all in stride, keep it in perspective if you like.
"I've never been in this situation before and I'm happy for the experience but the hunger for a major championship is not something that is burning inside me. It has been important to me to play well week in and week out, to be consistently competitive, this year. This is a stepping stone and maybe after I've gone through it (today) I'll feel differently (about majors)."
Born and raised in Trinidad, Ames has played all over the world but when he married his wife, Jodi, in the late 1990s, they settled down in Calgary where they now have two children. Last fall, Ames became a Canadian citizen, just as his career was ready to take off.
"It's funny how confidence works," he said recently. "But once you start believing in yourself, I mean really believing, then things tend to come more easily.
"Somewhere along the way this year it became clear to me it wasn't a matter or if but when I was going to win a Tour event. It's just a feeling you get."
That became a self-fulfilling prophecy when Ames won the Western Open last month. Since then, he hasn't performed nearly as well as he had in the run-up to it but, in hindsight, he believes it was a matter of fatigue.
"I should have taken some time off to charge my batteries," he said earlier this week. "I realize that now."
Maybe Ames figures he has already come too far, too fast this season but you can bet if things go his way today, he'll adjust to the situation. He may not be experienced in this realm of major championships but the quality of his play says that he should be.
Yesterday, he began the day more or less off the radar screen, five shots off the lead shared by Justin Leonard and Vijay Singh. After a day of being happily ignored, Ames found himself tied for third place, just four shots in arrears of Singh and three behind Leonard.
"I was very happy with it," he said. "The golf course played a little easier again. For some reason, the golf ball is going a little further for me. Overall, I was very happy with the way I putted and played."
Early yesterday, he made birdies at No.'s 3 and 5, with a bogey sandwiched in between at No. 4. On the back nine, where most players were losing ground, Ames made three birdies, at 10, 15 and 16, before stumbling on the 18th to make a bogey that deprived him of third place alone.
He hit what he thought was a perfect drive off the 18th but it caromed into the rough. His 5-iron fell short of the green and he wasn't able to get it up and down.
A LITTLE SHORT
"When I looked at the lie, I thought it was down but actually it was sitting up and I caught it high on the clubface and that's why it came up a little short."
Ames is a bit surprised to be in contention after his recent form that included an early exit from the British Open and an indifferent performance at last week's International in Colorado.
"I've been confident overall this year but this week I wasn't confident at all coming in here because of my golf swing. Now that I've kind of fixed it, I'm just feeling comfortable over the ball."
It just proves that expectations don't really mean anything. By day's end, Ames might just agree.