The 22-year old Clemson senior and South Carolina native was convincingly beaten (7 and 5) by Byeong-Hun An in the 2009 U.S. Amateur finals, but he still gets to live his dream and play the Masters in April in front of a near-hometown crowd.
You grew up in Greenwood, S.C., an hour’s drive from Augusta National.
I’ve been coming to the tournament with my parents since I was 7-years-old.
How many times have you played the course since you got the invite in January?
Today (March 16) was my eighth time playing the golf course. I played with Edoardo Molinari, who won the U.S. Amateur in 2005. All I have to do is call one day ahead of time and let them know when I’m going to show up at the golf course. But of course there are no tee times.
What are the other rules?
I have to use an Augusta National caddie and if I play by myself I can bring one guest to walk the course with me. If I’m alone I have to play with a member. Usually I bring a friend along to just get the whole experience, but today I played with one of the club pros and Edoardo, whom I ran into on the range.
You will use an Augusta National caddie for the tournament?
Yes. Benji Thompson. He started caddying at the club when he was in high school and did it part time through college. Now he caddies full-time at the club. I’ve worked with him each time that I’ve played. It’s worked out really well so far. It helps to have a local guy to help read these greens.
How is the course?
Each time I go down it gets a little firmer and faster, closer and closer to what it’s going to be like for the tournament. It’s been playing really long with the fairways not getting much roll. Edoardo was telling me how much more firm the greens were going to be during the tournament. Today they were probably rolling 10.5 or 11 on the Stimpmeter, whereas during the tournament they’ll be around 13 or 14.
You have to take advantage of the par 5s.
Yes. The toughest one is the 570-yard eighth hole, which is uphill and usually plays into the wind. If it’s no wind or downwind you can probably reach it. Two is definitely reachable and 13 and 15 are also depending on where the pins are.
What’s the longest club you have had into a par 4?
I had a 3-wood into the 505-yard par-4 11th hole. It was into the wind and it had been raining so the fairways were wet. The pin was back and I think I had 260 in. But during the tournament some of the holes could play 20-30 yards shorter if it’s dry.
I’m always struck by how tight the fairways are.
That’s something else that Edoardo was talking about. During the tournament the fairways are closely mown toward the tee boxes. Even though they are firm, the grain of the fairway is coming back at you when you’re hitting those iron shots. So it’s easy to hit them a little chunky just because of the way they cut them back into you.
You’re on spring break now. Do you plan to play the course again before tournament week?
I have two more college tournaments between now and then. But I’ll probably try to sneak down there two or three more times before Masters week to bring a few more buddies to let them check it out.
Are you going to stay in the Crow’s Nest at the club during the tournament?
Yes. I think I’m going to stay there the first of the week to get the experience. But then once the tournament starts I’m going to stay off-site to get some rest and to get away from the golf course when I’m not playing.
What kind shape is your game in right now?
It’s been an up-and-down year. I started out good in the fall and finished bad. I started out a little shaky in the spring but I’m starting to come around. I had my first under-par round at Augusta National today, a 3-under 69. So I guess success builds your confidence.
Who is your teacher?
Billy Delk. He was a club pro at my home course in Greenwood and I’ve been taking lessons from him for almost 10 years now.
You earned your degree in financial management in December. What are you doing now?
I’m taking some Internet classes to stay eligible. I’m trying to get away with as little schoolwork as I can.
This will be your second major championship.
I played at the U.S. Open last year at Bethpage. I made it through as a qualifier and actually held the lead during the first round for a stretch before eventually missing the cut. But it was huge for me to be out there around the crowds and to be amongst the best players in the world.
The pros are a different breed from your typical good college player.
The pros definitely have more structured routines. They definitely have it down how they approach their practice round days, whether they are playing nine holes and practicing or playing 18 holes and taking a day off. Whereas I was out there playing 18 holes every day trying to do as much as I could. Amateurs tend to think about what they’re going to do when they reach the tee box, while the pros have their whole week well planned out in advance on every hole, depending on the conditions.
What do you need to do to take your game to the next level?
The short game is the key. All the top players can get it up and down from anywhere. You’re never going to hit it great all the time. I need more consistent wedges and a better putter.
What happened to your game in the finals at the U.S. Amateur?
It was a long week and by the finals I didn’t have anything left that day. From the start I could never get it going. It would have been nice to win but getting back to the U.S. Open and earning the Masters berth made the loss a little easier to swallow.
When do you turn pro?
I will turn pro after the U.S. Open and try to get some exemptions. I need to start writing some letters to some tournament directors, but I hope that playing in these majors will go a long way toward getting into some exemptions.
You are big Clemson sports fan.
I will be watching the NCAA tournament, but I don’t have a lot of confidence in Clemson doing that well.
What’s the last book you read?
I don’t do a whole lot of reading, but before the U.S. Amateur I read With Winning in Mind: The Mental Management System by Lanny Bassham, who was an Olympian rifle shooter. Going into the tournament I had been struggling and the book really helped me focus during competition.
You got enough Masters badges?
I could always use more. But I’m going to play golf and let my parents worry about that.