POTOMAC - A year ago, Donnie Hammond was caught between two distinct worlds of professional golf.
After winning an event on the Buy.com Tour, some of Hammond's friends suggested that he stay in his sport's equivalent of Triple-A to earn a promotion back to the PGA Tour. But after finishing 10th in the Kemper Insurance Open, others told Hammond that he should keep playing in the big leagues.
Hammond, 44, is hoping his return trip to the Tournament Players Club at Avenel will help him make that choice. His 5-under-par 66 Friday put him at 5-under 137, four shots behind second-round leader Bradley Hughes of Australia, going into the final 36 holes of the rain-delayed, $3.5 million event today. Lee Porter and Frank Lickliter II were one stroke back, with Phil Mickelson among six players two shots off the lead.
Hammond remembers the advice offered last year by one of his best friends and regular practice partners, former PGA Tour pro Fulton Allem.
"He told me, 'Man, you've got to play on the big tour. You're in the twilight of a very mediocre career. You've got to try to win one,' " Hammond recalled yesterday with a laugh. "I said, 'If anyone knows about a mediocre career, it's you, Fulton.' I was kind of in the middle."
Hammond is far removed from those years when he was considered an up-and-coming star on the PGA Tour. It has been 12 years since his last tour victory, in the 1989 Texas Open, and 16 years since his win at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic opened many of golf's golden doors for Hammond.
The thought of winning again is not that far-fetched for the player who grew up in Frederick.
"Being a golfer, you look back to an area where you were competing with the top and winning some. You hope the ability is still there [and] you can use your brain to get back there," Hammond said.
"You're always thinking you can get back to that level. ... You've got to have that dream when you're playing golf that you can still win. It's not where you get the chance five or six times like you used to; it might be one or two chances for the year. That's where you really have to be focused."
Hammond has not played at that level for several years.
The last couple of years he spent on the Buy.com Tour, and his victory last year in Lakeland, Fla., gave him much the same feeling as he had in winning on the PGA Tour or in setting what is still a record with his 14-shot victory at the PGA Tour Qualifying School back in 1982.
"When you win, even when you win on the Buy.com Tour, it seems the confidence is there for the next four or five months," said Hammond. "Confidence is a big part of golf. That's more important than the perfect swing, I think. I'd like to get exempt again and see if I can keep my card a few more years."
Going into this week's tournament, Hammond had played in only four PGA Tour events this year, with his best finish a tie for 19th in last month's Greater Greensboro Classic. It has allowed Hammond to spent plenty of time with his wife, Trenny, and his four children at their home outside Orlando.
Some of those who followed his career might have thought he had retired.
"I got a funny letter about three weeks ago, a real kind letter," he said. "The person wrote, 'I'm really proud of guys like you'. He said, 'Lesser guys would have thrown in the towel years ago.' I showed it to my wife and we had a pretty good laugh about that one. It's been tough, but I'm hanging in there."
Aside from his two PGA Tour victories, the biggest thrill for Hammond came in the 1986 Masters when he found himself in contention after three rounds and being interviewed by Brent Musberger in Butler Cabin late Saturday afternoon. Hammond was in second place at the time.
"Brent said, 'You may be playing with Seve Ballesteros, perhaps the greatest player of this day. How do you think you'll respond?' " Hammond recalled. "It was my first Masters. I said, 'Well, I've played with Seve and enjoyed his company. I'm playing well myself. I might show Seve a few things tomorrow.' "
As he left the interview, Hammond asked a friend what he thought of his comments.
"He said, 'Well, you sounded confident,' " said Hammond, laughing at the memory. "I didn't show anybody anything the next day. I shot 2-over."
It didn't matter. Hammond wound up 11th, but other highlights from that Sunday in Augusta remain strong. It was the day that Jack Nicklaus won his sixth green jacket, and Hammond was playing in the next-to-last group with Germany's Bernhard Langer.
"It was the most exciting round I've ever played as far as being nervous before the round, and then I was sitting and watching Jack's name get on the board," said Hammond.
But that was a long time ago, and Hammond tries not to go back there while he's on the course.
"It's the way you're thinking on the golf course and the little things," he said. "I've been working on being more in the present, and not have so many thoughts going through my head when I'm on the golf course. That's tough when you get to be a little older."
The first two days at Avenel gave Hammond some time to see family and friends, and find his name on the leader board. Yesterday's rain delay allowed Hammond to relax a little, and get ready for today's 36-hole finish. It could be interesting if Hammond starts out hot this morning.
"Things are whipping through your brain like it's 495 on a Friday afternoon," he said. "You really have to try to slow down. You try to think about that after the round. It gives you confidence to know you can make enough birdies to get on the leader board."
Just like the old days.