The scene on the practice range before last month's PGA Tour event in Charlotte, N.C., spoke to Robert Garrigus' spot in the golf world. He smacked shot after towering shot into a faraway galaxy, stirring wide-eyed wonder among those watching.
Garrigus made it look so easy, so effortless. He paused between swings to chat with Tiger Woods, hitting balls on an adjacent patch of grass. Garrigus smiled and chuckled at one point, clearly enjoying the moment.
His life wasn't always this good.
Garrigus counts as one of the most compelling, under-the-radar stories entering next week's U.S. Open at the Olympic Club. His journey to San Francisco included a long detour through drug and alcohol addiction -- an eight-year stretch in which he spent more time smoking marijuana than hitting towering shots on the range.
Now, as Garrigus crisscrosses the country playing on the PGA Tour, reminders of his previous path lurk nearby. Spectators routinely approach him to share their stories of fighting drug or alcohol addiction, and he willingly engages them in conversation.
"It's nice to hear the stories of people saying they've been sober for 10 or 15 years, because then you know it can be done," Garrigus said that day in Charlotte.
Garrigus wasn't especially interested in getting sober from 1995, when he enrolled at Scottsdale Community College outside Phoenix, until the moment in 2003 when he finally recognized the scope of his problem. His life in Arizona during those years was "all golf and partying," as he once described it.
"The smoking got to be habitual -- five, 10, maybe 20 times a day," Garrigus told Golf Digest in July 2011. "I constantly needed to be high, and I took it to the max every single day. Mostly just smoking, smoking, smoking."
In many ways, though, Garrigus needed to hit rock bottom before he could jump-start his career. His epiphany occurred in April 2003, after another long night out. He was sitting on his couch in Scottsdale about 4 a.m., watching television, when he saw an infomercial for Calvary Ranch, a spiritually based drug and alcohol recovery facility near San Diego.
A few hours later, he packed his belongings into his car and drove straight to Calvary Ranch. Garrigus spent 45 days there combining treatment and prayer -- and emerged a changed man, to hear him tell it.
"After that, I haven't touched (marijuana) and haven't thought about it," he said last month. "It's not part of my life anymore."
Garrigus grew up in Oregon, first in Banks (a small town outside Portland) and later in Corvallis, where he attended high school. He always was a terrific athlete -- he threw harder than other kids on his baseball team and ran faster than those on his soccer team -- but he hit speed bumps away from sports.
David Crowell, a good friend since childhood and a high-school golf teammate, recalled Garrigus hanging with the wrong crowd. He also struggled academically, so the importance of carving out a career on the course was clear.
"He always knew if he didn't make it in golf, he'd be in a lot of trouble," Crowell said. "For him, it was golf or nothing."
Garrigus had mostly bounced around mini-tours before his stint in rehab, but he soon pumped life into his career. He showed signs of progress on the Nationwide Tour in 2004 and '05, then made it through PGA Tour Qualifying School in December 2005.
He's been on the big tour ever since, simultaneously distancing himself from his previous life and embracing it.
"I tell my story to help other people," Garrigus said. "If I can help one person, then it's successful."
Many players hit the ball far. Garrigus hits the ball crazy far.
He led the PGA Tour in driving distance in 2009 and '10, and he ranks second this year behind Bubba Watson (at 309.1 yards per measured drive). Garrigus has finished in the top five in driving distance every year since he joined the tour in 2006.
The power traces to genetics, in his mind -- his mom was an athlete and his dad won the silver medal in trap shooting at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Garrigus isn't physically imposing (5-11, 190), but he's always had "stringy muscles and powerful legs," enabling him to generate swing speed.
But Garrigus' putting and wedge games held him back, to the point he once told swing coach Jim Ahern he'd rather be 150 yards from the hole than 80 to 100 yards.
That was in October 2010, when Ahern began working with Garrigus and four months after he blew a three-shot lead on the 72nd hole of the St. Jude Classic. Ahern helped fix some flaws in his short-iron swing, and Garrigus picked up his first PGA Tour win a month later.
But his biggest breakthrough might have come in last year's U.S. Open. His tie for third earned him a spot in the British Open and PGA Championship (in 2011) and this year's Masters and U.S. Open.
Garrigus still can be erratic -- he missed the cut at the Masters and Players Championship, but he also gave himself chances to win in Maui and Tampa. And he walked the emerald fairways of Augusta National for the first time.
When they were kids, Garrigus and Crowell made a pact: If either played in the Masters, the other would caddie in the Par-3 Contest. The dream came true in April, when Crowell wore the white overalls and carried his friend's bag -- well aware of the treacherous road Garrigus traveled.
"My past makes everything I do more gratifying," he said, "and it also makes everything I do now look like nothing."
PGA Tour win: Children's Miracle Network Classic, November 2010
Major moment: Tied for 3rd in last year's U.S. Open
This year: Garrigus ranks 30th on the money list. He has two runner-up finishes, including a playoff loss outside Tampa (where Luke Donald won).
Memorable collapse: Took a three-shot lead to the 72nd hole of the tour event in Memphis, Tenn., in June 2010. He hit his tee shot into the water, made triple bogey and lost in a playoff to Lee Westwood.
Big hitter: Second on the tour in driving distance (309.1 yards), behind Bubba Watson.