AUGUSTA, Ga. – For many golf insiders, Masters week starts today. For the past five years, my Masters week has begun a day earlier at a public golf course four miles from Augusta National.
Forest Hills Golf Club, a 1926 Donald Ross design, tests some of the best college teams in the country each spring.
This year, Central Florida won the 3M Augusta Invitational by four shots over Wake Forest, coming from two shots back Sunday against first-day co-leaders Illinois and New Mexico.
Illinois junior Dylan Meyer broke through with a wire-to-wire victory on rounds of 67-66-72–205 after three runners-up this year.
For UCF, it was the Orlando school’s second consecutive victory, after having won the FAU Slomin Autism Invite one week earlier. The Knights are setting themselves up nicely for the American Athletic Conference tournament and a likely NCAA regional bid.
The biggest hook for the coaches to bring their teams to Augusta occurs today, when the college golfers receive practice-round tickets for Augusta National.
For some, it likely will be the first of many spring trips to Augusta National.
Davis Love III, Phil Mickelson (1989), Brad Faxon, Justin Leonard (1992), Vaughn Taylor (1998), Oliver Wilson (2001, ’03), Chris Kirk (2005), Scott Brown (2006), Dustin Johnson (2007), Henrik Norlander (2010), Jordan Spieth, Patrick Reed and Beau Hossler (2016) played in the Augusta Invitational as collegians.
Oklahoma sophomore Brad Dalke will enjoy an enviable view of Augusta National this week: inside the ropes. Dalke qualified for the Masters via a runner-up finish in the U.S. Amateur. He struggled at Forest Hills before a final-round 66 and T-38 finish.
Wake Forest’s Will Zalatoris, who shared second with UCF’s Bobby Bai, one stroke behind Meyer, already has a strong connection with the Masters and one of Augusta National’s most celebrated members. Zalatoris, a junior from Plano, Texas, attends Wake Forest on the Arnold Palmer Scholarship.
Zalatoris displays the long and controlled game of an older, more experienced player. Trailing Meyer by seven shots entering the final round at Forest Hills, Zalatoris knew that he needed to summon the sort of charge that propelled Palmer to 62 PGA Tour victories, including four Masters green jackets.
“I didn’t have a choice. All I thought about doing today was just trying to go as low as possible,” he said after a nine-birdie, three-bogey effort resulted in a final-round 66. “I got a little more aggressive, and I found something on the range this morning.”
This is the first year that Wake Forest’s heralded golf program, which has produced two NCAA team champions and three medalists, is without Palmer, who closely followed his alma mater. He established the Arnold Palmer/Buddy Worsham Scholarship, in honor of his former roommate who was killed in an auto accident while they were students, for a first-year player.
“We found out right before everybody else found out,” said Zalatoris, recalling how the team got the news of Palmer’s death Sept. 25. “It’s really bizarre to have him not around anymore.”
Zalatoris said that discussions with Palmer covered more about life and less about golf.
So, upon receiving the news of Palmer’s death on that ill-fated Sunday last year, the team gathered around the 13-foot statue of Palmer on Wake Forest’s campus in Winston-Salem, N.C., and raised a toast: his eponymous drink, a mix of tea and lemonade.
“The whole year has been kind of dedicated to him,” said Zalatoris, whose Deacons have won three times in eight stroke-play tournaments in the 2016-17 season. “Hopefully, we can put something special together for him this year.”
Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @AlexMiceli