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U.S. Am champ Kraft gives up exemptions to U.S., British Opens to make run at Tour card

Kelly Kraft, 2012 Masters
Robert Beck/SI
FULL SWING: Kraft, who made the cut on the number at the Masters, got a sponsor's exemption into this week's Texas Open.

Turning pro, Kelly Kraft just learned, is not that glamorous. You talk to the media, you sign a bunch of papers, you hire a caddie and -- presto-chango! -- you're an unranked golfer with zero earnings and no PGA Tour eligibility beyond a handful of sponsors' invitations, including one to this week's Valero Texas Open. "It's going to be great," Kraft said last week at his home in Dallas, but he was being brave. He had never attended a Texas Open, much less played in one. He had never laid eyes on the tournament course, TPC San Antonio.

Kraft's final week as an amateur, now that was glamorous. Playing the 2012 Masters as the reigning U.S. Amateur champion, the slender 23-year-old teed it up with defending Masters champ Charl Schwartzel and 2011 PGA winner Keegan Bradley, impressing both pros with a first-round streak of four birdies. The next day, needing to hole a treacherous eight-footer for bogey to make the cut, Kraft did exactly that. "The roar on 18," he said last week, "was probably the loudest I've heard in my career, louder than the Amateur or anything."

Three days hence, Kraft played his first professional round in an event with slightly less luster: the Hootie & the Blowfish Monday After the Masters Celebrity Pro-Am in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Not that Kraft saw turning pro as anything less than a thrill. "The only reason I stayed an amateur was to play in the Masters," he said. "I wanted the full Masters experience -- staying in the Crow's Nest, playing the par-3. . . ."

The Crow's Nest, for you incognoscenti, is the five-bed dormitory atop the Augusta National clubhouse reserved for amateur invitees to the Masters. (Kraft shared the penthouse with UCLA phenom Patrick Cantlay, who was runner-up to Kraft at last year's Amateur.) The par-3 is the loosey-goosey Wednesday competition on Augusta National's elegant par-3 course. (Kraft, with fiancée Tia Gannon caddying, shot a three-under 24.)

As his country's amateur champion, Kraft was also eligible to play in this summer's U.S. and British Opens. He forfeited both spots by turning pro. "To have stayed amateur for those would have cost me a whole summer," he explained, "and I couldn't wait that long." He added, "The U.S. Open and the British are nice, but they are not the Masters."

That's why, in the week after he finished a distant 62nd at Augusta, Kraft threw himself into the mundane aspects of his profession. He signed an agency agreement with Terry Reilly of the Wasserman Group. He signed an endorsement deal with Callaway. He hired lifelong friend Boston Brittain, his caddie at the Masters and the U.S. Am, as his full-time looper. Between ballpoint-pen workouts, Kraft squeezed in some practice sessions at Lakewood Country Club with his coach of four years, Pat O'Brien.

"It's a very exciting time for the entire family," said the new pro's building-contractor father, Tim Kraft, speaking for wife Barbara and daughter Anna. "Kelly has the talent and determination, and I think he's prepared for the ups and downs of the golf business."

Specifically, Kraft is prepared to be under­estimated. Despite his national amateur title, his 2011 Trans-Mississippi Amateur triumph and his two Texas Amateur crowns, Kraft never climbed higher than seventh in the World Amateur Ranking. He won only three college tournaments in his four seasons at SMU, he was 0–4 at last September's Walker Cup, and he was never a first-team All-America. That said, Kraft's profile is a lot higher than it was when he was a lightly recruited senior at Ryan High in Denton, Texas.

"When I first saw Kelly, I was impressed by his calm, confident demeanor and by the rhythm of his swing," says Jay Loar, Kraft's coach at SMU. "I thought he'd be a pretty good college player, but that's it."

He characterizes Kraft as "a cool character" with a great putting stroke and a good golf temperament. "Kelly is a classic feel player. He doesn't get bogged down in a lot of mechanical swing thoughts."

O'Brien, who has coached Zach Johnson and Vaughn Taylor, made a similar reassessment. "Kelly was a good player," O'Brien said, "but we sat down at the beginning of his senior year and had a talk. What did he want to do? What did he want to accomplish? That summer he tied for sixth at the Porter Cup, won the Texas Amateur, then the U.S. Amateur, and he was on his way. He showed he was ready for bigger things."

But first Kraft has to earn his PGA Tour card. He can do that by winning a Tour event; by winning enough official money to finish 125th or better on the money list; or by finishing in the top 25, come autumn, at the final stage of the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament. Seven is the maximum number of sponsors' invites, so Kraft has written or called every tournament director this side of Kapalua. (He has already achieved the Texas Trifecta, landing spots in next month's HP Byron Nelson Championship and the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial.) If it comes down to Q-school, Kraft is exempt into the second stage because he made the cut at the Masters.

Cantlay and the other amateur prodigies will be following Kraft's progress closely because of recent changes that will eliminate Q school as a direct path to the PGA Tour, starting next year. The new Q-school will still award cards to the Nationwide tour, but players will have to spend at least one year in the minors before moving up. That leaves the sponsor-exemption route -- or winning one of the Open championships -- as the only bypasses available to the best young pros.

Kraft is not exactly a Tour rookie; he's more of a young pro looking for opportunities. "I have a lot to learn, for sure," Kraft said. "But it's still golf. It's the same courses and the same players. I'm simply playing for money now. That's the only difference." A thousand once-promising pros would argue that point, but Kraft wasn't looking for an argument. Buoyant and eager, he just wanted to know his Thursday tee time.


 

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