Casey Wittenberg was groomed for greatness. A Leadbetter Academy prodigy with a former Tour pro dad, he went on to star at Oklahoma State, and later tied the scoring record for an amateur at the 2004 Masters.
But his reputation fairly or not was forged during his quarterfinal match at the 2003 U.S. Amateur. Playing against 53-year-old stockbroker George Zahringer, Wittenberg, in reflective-lens sunglasses, came off as arrogant. Or at least that's how the NBC analysts described him, most pointedly on the 13th hole when Wittenberg struck a 20-foot putt and strolled off the green before it dropped. Wittenberg, now 24, says he has matured since that week, but still insists he was misportrayed.
Nobody really knew me at the '03 Amateur. I was an 18-year-old kid, and the commentators didn't have much to talk about. Gary Koch [an NBC analyst] wanted to pick on me. Koch said I wasn't deserving because of my past, because I went to the Leadbetter Academy, that I was bred to be a golfer. I took a different route than George, whose dad worked in a blue-collar job.
Golf has always been a serious thing for me. My dad [Jimmy] played on the Tour. Where I went to high school, nobody cared who you were taking to prom. They cared about how many tournaments you won. The Williams sisters [Venus and Serena] were there, Paula Creamer. We had a good time, but it was very, very competitive.
My interpretation was that I had a pretty good idea that the putt [on the 13th green] was going in. I wasn't trying to show up anybody or showboat. It was just the job, and I got it done. We were trying to get into the Masters. I treated every match as businesslike as I possibly could. I was trying to be as courteous as I could. When George was asked about it by reporters, he didn't know what they were talking about. It wouldn't ever happen again. For two years, I was kind of portrayed like that.
I'm 24 now. I was 18 then. Nobody talks about the amateur anymore. I'm at a different level of golf now.
Gary Koch's a commentator, that's what he's paid to do. I wish he would've said something to me privately, but that's all behind me now.
Your perception, your handle on life changes when you get older. I had some growing up to do, but I don't take anything back about being confident on the golf course. It was unfortunate, but I've grown from that opportunity. It's made me mature.
My best memory from the 2004 Masters was when I eagled 15 on Sunday. I was on the green with my father [who was his caddy], and we knew then that we'd get to come back to the Masters the next year [for finishing in the top 15]. I was in Tiger's group the first couple days. Then I got away from that circus and played a little bit better on the weekend. But I didn't appreciate the moment like I should have. I didn't have the understanding that could let me appreciate it.
When I turned pro at 18, I wasn't as aware about everything that goes into professional golf. I wasn't used to the travel, the number of tournaments. It went from being something cool to do to being a 365-day-a-year job. That was an adjustment.
I don't think people understand how hard it is out here. It's totally different than a corporate job. Pretty much everything in my life revolves around my game. It's demanding on families, on coaches, and [on everyone] as far as travel is concerned. To be where I am and thinking about where my friends are who have graduated, I'm doing pretty good. It's a privilege.
No, I didn't have too much success too soon. Those were irreplaceable memories. You're fortunate when you're that successful that young. If that happens, you deserve the right to play at the Masters. If you put it on paper, this was my first full year out of school. I was on the Nationwide Tour this year and will be on the PGA Tour next year. If you would've told me that when I was a freshman, I would've said, "Book it."