I’ve had the pleasure of acting as referee for some of the most outstanding junior and collegiate golfers in the nation.
Now I’m watching those same players winning on the PGA and European Tours. As I scrutinized them practicing at Augusta National Golf Club on Wednesday, I couldn’t help but think about when they were sporting their mascots and carry bags.
Lucky enough to draw Peter Uihlein’s match at The Honors Course in Tennessee in 2010, I witnessed a young man who was cordial under all situations, even when I declined to give him a drop on the par-3 third hole. After missing the green left, he simply addressed his ball on the 220-yard monster as it lay on hardpan and sliced a low-bounce sand wedge onto an elevated green, resulting in an improbable 10-footer that he drained for par.
In 2011, I was a match play referee for Hudson Swafford and Patrick Reed in the quarters and semis. Their 300+ drives that split Karsten Creek’s closely mown areas carried them to wins. I caught up with Swafford as he completed his practice Wednesday and asked the difference between him as a collegiate player and a PGA Tour winner.
“Managing your game,” he quickly said. “When I was a college player, I tried to birdie every hole. You quickly realize that out here par is a good score. I was terrible at managing my game back then, but now I feel that I’ve grown in that respect. A two-putt par is a good thing out here.”
Swafford won the Career Builder earlier this year with a 20-under total.
When I refereed Jordan Spieth’s match in the semifinals at Riviera Country Club in 2012, I was inspired by his short game. Having watched him in the U.S. Junior a few years before, I knew he was destined for stardom, but after witnessing up close and personal his prowess in Riviera’s deep bunkers, I was certain he would win quickly on the PGA Tour.
At Eugene Country Club last year, I drew Jon Rahm’s group in the last round of medal play. Wow! The big guy from Spain hit monster drives, but his touch and imagination around the putting surfaces reminded me of other golfers from that country. On Wednesday, he picked 1994 and 1999 Masters champion Jose Mara Olazabal’s brain as he sat in front of the class on every green.
The elite collegiate players don’t take long to hoist PGA Tour trophies, some even before graduation. In 1985, Scott Verplank beat all pros in the Western Open as an Oklahoma State Cowboy, and soon after, Mickelson won the 1991 Northern Telecom Open as an Arizona State Sun Devil.
Some might say collegiate golfers are more mature than ever before, but the privileged students who just happen to play golf have been winning for several years.
San Diego State University alum Gene Littler won the 1954 San Diego Open and turned pro later that year, and former Florida Gator Doug Sanders won the 1956 Canadian Open without accepting any prize money. Collegiate golfers are just that good. It will be fun to watch their progress again in this year’s Masters.