Sacramento region has produced many strong golfers, but its recent wave of amateurs may be its best.
By JIM McCUE | Contributor
Viewers tuning in to a PGA or LPGA event on television will hear the rare reference to Sacramento on occasions when Spencer Levin, Nick Watney, and Natalie Gulbis are contending. For the most part, Sacramento is not considered a fertile breeding ground for professional golfers.
But the next generation of golfers from the Sacramento region are hoping to change that perception.
“It would be nice to see multiple locals on the pro tours soon,” said Christian Brothers golfer and Elk Grove resident Hunter Rappleye. “That’s the ultimate goal for a lot of the young golfers from Sacramento, and the talent is here to make that happen.”
Local golfers have been busy — and successful — in the last few months. Recent high school graduates and other junior golfers have won high-profile tournaments and qualified to play in national and international fields, so that the state capital of California might be more synonymous with the golf capital of California.
“Sacramento has always been a hotbed for golf,” said Angie Dixon, Executive Director of The First Tee of Greater Sacramento. “We have had some great players come through before, but we definitely have some kids with a lot of talent. It has definitely been a banner year.”
The region’s “banner year” started back in early June when the Sac-Joaquin Section sent one team and five individuals to the California Interscholastic Federation State Golf Championships at San Gabriel Country Club in Southern California. Granite Bay won the team title, Austin Smotherman of Del Oro-Loomis captured the individual championship, and two other individuals finished in the top 10.
Local boys’ golfers have carried that momentum into the summer and built on it to make an impact in numerous events. Ponderosa High School’s Corey Pereira, who will be a senior in the fall, tied for first at the 83rd Annual Northern California Golf Association (NCGA) Junior Championship at Spyglass Hill Golf Club in Pebble Beach earlier this month before falling to Dublin’s Taylor Bromley on the first playoff hole.
Several local players also participated at the California State Amateur in Santa Barbara in June. Taylor Knoll, a 2011 graduate of Folsom High School, advanced to match play and advanced to the final 16 for the highest area finish.
Rappleye and Christian Brothers teammate Andrej Bevins qualified for the U.S. Junior Amateur in New England (July 16-21) with top-four finishes at the Yolo Fliers qualifier in June. Cameron Champ, a 16-year-old amateur from Rocklin, also qualified for the U.S. Junior Amateur with a victory in a qualifier in Long Beach. The quick trip entailed a flight to Southern California, a round of golf, and a flight home in the span of 36 hours, but the payoff was a week-long trip to the East Coast to join other locals in competition with the nation’s best young golfers.
Champ, who is home-schooled and has committed to play collegiately at Texas A&M in two years, believes that the local golf scene is in a definite high cycle.
“It comes in waves sometimes, but we have some great talents from around Sacramento,” he said. “I think that once this group of kids matures further, it can get even better.”
Champ also participated in the Nature Valley First Tee Open at Pebble Beach, a Champions Tour event that featured junior players from more than 60 national First Tee chapters. The First Tee of Greater Sacramento (TFTGS) had six golfers in the field where juniors were paired with senior golfers to compete as teams and individuals on the courses at Del Monte and Pebble Beach. Champ finished in a tie for second place as TFTGS placed three golfers in the top five.
Kit Carson, a recent Christian Brothers graduate, finished in fourth place — one shot behind Champ — to cap off his golf season before heading to Reno where he will play collegiately for the University of Nevada. The experience at Pebble Beach, and his senior season at Christian Brothers, were crowning achievements for a young athlete who began his sole focus on golf at an older age than most on the junior golf scene.
“I played all sports as a kid and didn’t really know that golf was going to be my thing,” Carson said. “I started with The First Tee at 11 and played a little, but finally came into my game last summer.”
The success and business of the summer junior amateur circuit is not exclusive to boys.
Local girls golfers, including St. Francis-Sacramento’s Emily Laskin, have been equally active. Laskin was part of the local First Tee contingent at Pebble Beach and was selected to be one of six junior golfers to be paired with a senior teammate for a five-hole alternate-shot skins game. Laskin, along with pro Scott Simpson, birdied the final hole of the competition — No. 18 at Pebble Beach — to win a pair of skins and $8,000 for TFTGS.
Laskin has not restricted her summer golf travel to car trips down the coast, either. She recently flew to San Diego to play in the Callaway Junior World Golf Championship and will visit North Carolina and Florida for international junior events before her focus reverts to returning the Troubadours to elite status in the Sac-Joaquin Section.
“We are still rebuilding with me being one of five juniors for next year,” she said. “It’s harder to stay on top in the SJS because everyone locally is so passionate and driven. There is a lot of great talent in the area and we all put pressure on ourselves to do well. We expect a high level of play now from everyone around here.”
The girls’ high school golf season will ramp up immediately when school starts in August, allowing some of the local junior golfers the opportunity to carry the momentum of elite competition from the summer into league and section play. Local golfers — both boys and girls — will aim for a berth in the U.S. Amateur Championships in early August before heading back to school with a select few competitors possibly missing classes to tee it up against the nation’s best amateurs.
Regardless of how Sacramento golfers fare at the U.S. Amateur events, there is little argument that the region is rising at the amateur level and could be a bigger player on the professional tours in the near future.
“I think that the quality of junior golf in Sacramento is as good as it has been in a long time,” Rappleye said. “There are some premiere players with lots of talent and I think that we can put Sacramento on the map.” J
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