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ecause of a limb protruding high into the fairway right on his line, Bryce Molder decided on a lower trajectory for his tee shot on the 10th hole in Sunday's final round of the St. Jude Classic.

He felt he hit the ball almost perfectly. Too perfectly.

The line drive glanced off a yardage marker and the ball headed straight into the trees, exactly the spot he was trying to avoid. He should have least won a teddy bear or a barbecue dinner for being able to hit a marker with his tee shot.

Molder, who cut his teeth on golf as a youth in Conway, had to hit his second shot from the trees, exactly the situation he was trying to avoid with the tee shot he thought he hit as well as any all day. His second shot landed in a trap, but he got up-and-down for par and actually gained a stroke on leader Brian Gay on the hole.

All's well that ended well. Friends joked that it was a great par, not for the fairway but from the neighborhood.

And it illustrated how Molder has matured in his eight years as a pro golfer after phenomenal high school and college days.

He played four rounds at St. Jude with as much poise and confidence as friends and family have seen him in awhile.

He's learned that his game is adaptable with all the crazy quirks golf offers and he is now comfortable in adapting.

"A year ago, I began to find out exactly who I was and the shots I could hit under pressure," he said.

He thinks his tie for second in Memphis last weekend may be a watershed moment in a pro career that has had more downs than ups.

"The big thing is for the first time as a pro, I don't feel I'm playing from behind," he said. "I'm not trying to play just to get in tourneys or just to make cuts. I can take some deep breaths and relax out there now. I feel like I can go out and win."

And often that takes awhile -- even for the best.

Gay, who was a wire-to-wire winner at the St. Jude tournament and is now one of the hottest golfers on tour (even getting a bit of an upstart buzz for the U.S. Open this week), turned pro in 1994 after an outstanding college career at the University of Florida.

He's just now discovered one of the things that all young golfers have to discover: How to win and to reach a comfort level in not winning.

It's tough because you almost have to win to learn how to win. And it's difficult to learn to win if you don't win.

"You can just tell that he (Gay) is comfortable with who is now and he can play within himself," Molder said. "He's not afraid to win. He's not afraid to have his name up there."

And Molder, who was born without a left pectoral muscle, changed the mechanics of his swing after he turned pro to allow him to have greater ball-striking capacity to be more competitive, long-term, as a pro.

"WHen you're young playing, it's all about talent," said Molder, who from his junior days was a top-ranked amateur nationally. "Later on, it's about working through issues. You're going to have some issues whether putting, ball strking, clipping, mental, whatever. Every golfer has some issue. Once you get through that, you're more mature with who you are."

And that's where Molder seems to be right now. He's not overthinking his game. He's even comfortable with being erratic at times, confident that he can do enough good things to challenge for a top spot.

"Five weeks ago, I was playing in San Antonio and I didn't have one ball flight I could trust," he said. "I ended up missing the cut by a shot, but I found a little something the last few holes.

"That's just kind of how I am. I've never had a golf swing to where I wake up in the morning and I can hit it the exact way as the day before and next year at this time, I'll hit it the same way. I can't go out round to round and hit the ball to almost the same divot I did the day before. I'm just not that way. So now, I play by what it feels like, whatever shot and can hit. And right now, I feel very comfortable about that.

"I know I didn't play my best this week (St. Jude), but I also know that a few more things go right and I still could have won. I'm discovering what I can do under pressure."

He stills the pressure. He admits that he regularly says prayers on the course. But not necessarily to win.

"I pray to find a peace so whatever talent I have can take over," he said.

In college at Georgia Tech, Molder was a model of consistency, almost never failing to finish out of the top 10 in a tournament.

One of his problems as a pro has been hitting fairways and greens and setting himself up on the course to shoot a low score.

Through three rounds of the St. Jude Classic, Molder led the field in greens in regulation, an achievement almost foreign to his game.

That tells me he's finding peace and confidence. His natural ability (particularly with his marvelous touch on the greens and in his short game) is starting to show again.

And he's not just a young up-and-coming guy with a fantastic amateur resume.

He's becoming a mature professional golfer. And that creates its own comfort zone.

(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 505-1235 or david.mccollum@thecabin.net)