ATHENS – Georgia’s Brian Carter is playing in his first professional golf tournament on Thursday. He’s worried, but it’s not what you’d think.
Weighing most heavily on Carter’s mind on the eve of the Stadion Classic at UGA golf tournament – a Nationwide Tour event — was how he was going to do in three final exams. While the professionals were practicing on the UGA Golf Course and playing in Wednesday’s pro-am, Carter was going to be in the middle of a comprehensive final in consumer economics.
“I’m probably more nervous about that than I am the golf,” said Carter, a sophomore from Augusta.
Carter had nothing on teammate Nicholas Reach. The freshman from Moscow, Pa., had finals Wednesday in calculus and economics. He, too, is going to be teeing off with the pros on Thursday.
“I’ve been grinding on the books all night and grinding on the golf course all day,” Reach said. “I’m kind of tired right now.”
But they’re not complaining. Carter and Reach are beneficiaries of one of the better perks to be found in college golf. Georgia has a deal with the Stadion Classic in which the two players on the team with the lowest stroke average are annually granted sponsor exemptions into the 156-player field.
It was a logical arrangement since the tournament is being played on the Bulldogs’ home course and is being underwritten by the university. Ohio State and Maryland have similar set-ups in professional tournaments played in their respective backyards.
“From my standpoint, just having the tournament here itself was great,” Georgia golf coach Chris Haack said. “We get to show off the golf course; we get to show off the university. Then to have the extra bonus of having a couple of our guys play just makes it that much more special.”
It was a pretty big bonus already, then Russell Henley went out and won the whole thing this past year As a UGA senior playing on a sponsor exemption in 2011, Henley shot 12-under-par to become only the second amateur to win a Nationwide Tour event.
Henley was unable to claim the $99,000 winner’s check – he remained an amateur for the rest of the year — but he was able to claim the tour status that comes with any golf championship. So he’s back in Athens this week not only as defending champion but also as a fully exempt member of the Nationwide Tour.
“I don’t think I’d be standing right here today if I hadn’t gotten that opportunity,” said Henley, who finally turned pro last fall after competing on the U.S. Walker Cup team. “I got to play in two Nationwide Tour events here and one up in Columbus [Ohio] and a couple of other pro events before I graduated. But this was a starting point for me.”
After playing in his first Nationwide event in 2010 as a junior at UGA, Henley qualified for the U.S. Open at Pebblebeach and finished as low amateur. A three-time All-American with the Bulldogs, he also played in the 2011 U.S. Open before finally cashing his first paycheck as a professional in the Soboba Golf Classic last September.
Henley’s former teammates Harris English and Hudson Swafford also benefited from the Stadion experience. English finished 18th and 27th in his two appearances as a UGA student and went on to win a Nationwide event soon after turning pro last summer. Swafford missed getting an exemption by a quarter of a stroke, but he actually caddied for English in the Stadion. He, too, has since won a professional event. Both UGA graduates are among seven former Bulldogs in this week’s field.
“Any time you can get your guys exposed to this level it’s good,” Haack said. “I think even the guys who aren’t playing this week will be able to come out here and see how these guys practice and how much they work on certain aspects of the game and that’s a big thing.”
But the UGA players will catch no breaks a strong field that will battle for a $550,000 purse. There are grizzled PGA veterans such as Joe Durant, Lee Janzen and Woody Austin, who are trying to claw their way back onto the big tours. And there are talented up-and-comers such as Andres Gonzales, last week’s winner Luke List and Georgia Tech grad Paul Haley II. They’re the Nationwide’s top three earners and they’re not about to let some wide-eyed undergrad deter them from their goals.
“I’m just coming out here to have fun,” Carter said. “I know most of these guys are trying to make a living. I just want to compare myself and see where my game ranks. But I’m a nobody to them. I’m just going to try to stay out of their way, I guess.”
Reach won’t be intimidated. A highly-decorated junior golfer, he’ll actually be playing in his fourth Nationwide event. Thus far, however, he hasn’t made a cut.
“The entire week is just so much fun,” Reach said. “This is my dream job for the rest of my life, so getting an opportunity to do this at my age is just really, really fun.”
Especially if he aces this exam.