AT&T National 2012: Beau Hossler, Jordan Spieth among exciting young amateurs invited to play

JEFF HAYNES/REUTERS - Beau Hossler during the U.S. Open earlier this month at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. Hossler, 17, led the tournament briefly during the second round and finished tied for 29th.

Beau Hossler was supposed to leave for the California State Amateur golf tournament Friday, driving from his home in Rancho Santa Margarita, south of Los Angeles, up to Santa Barbara. For most 17-year-olds, that would amount to a brightly lit golfing stage, the best amateur players from the nation’s most populous state playing for a prestigious title.

But Thursday — when, by most measures, Hossler’s life should have been returning to normal — he received a phone call with an invitation to a different tournament. Goodbye, amateur hour. Hello, PGA Tour.

“I’m pretty happy about it,” Hossler said by phone Saturday. “I feel like I can compete on the PGA Tour.”

There is evidence that he’s right. When the AT&T National begins Thursday at Bethesda’s Congressional Country Club, Hossler will be the youngest member of a 120-man field. Eleven of those players, most notably tournament host Tiger Woods, have won major championships. But only three of them led the most recent major, the U.S. Open: Woods, Jim Furyk — and Hossler.

“The whole experience just helped my confidence,” Hossler said. “I just respect the games of those players so much. They’re the best in the world. But now, I think if I play well, I can play with them and compete.”

Hossler is one of several prominent, precocious players who will try to handle Congressional, which hosts the AT&T National for the first time since 2009. (The tournament moved to suburban Philadelphia for two years so Congressional could prepare for and host the 2011 U.S. Open.) Jordan Spieth, a freshman at the University of Texas — where Hossler is committed to play after his high school graduation in 2013 — will be there just two weeks after beating Hossler to take low amateur honors at the Open. Patrick Cantlay, a 20-year-old who turned pro last week following his sophomore year at UCLA, was also invited.

None, though, has the current notoriety of Hossler.

“We always like to support the amateurs and foster new talent in the world of professional golf,” said Greg McLaughlin, the tournament director of the AT&T National who also oversees Woods’s foundation, in an e-mail Saturday. “Beau made headlines with his exceptional performance at the U.S. Open. The fans loved him, and we’re excited to welcome him to the AT&T National.”

Hossler needed an invitation from McLaughlin to appear in this week’s event. But he gained entry into the U.S. Open by playing in two qualifying tournaments in the preceding months. He did the same a year ago, when his advancement through local and sectional qualifying brought him to Congressional for the 111th U.S. Open at 16. He arrived a week after getting his driver’s license, and was understandably nervous.

“To be honest with you, I really didn’t play my best at that tournament,” Hossler said. “I never got anything going. I didn’t have anything that kind of saved me from the bogey train.”

In two rounds, he made two birdies, nine bogeys and two double bogeys, and missed the cut by seven shots. No shame, of course. He learned, and moved on. “It was so different from anything I’d done,” he said.

This spring, during his junior year of high school, he again advanced through qualifying and ended up at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. All week, he said he was far more comfortable than he had been the previous year. And in the middle of the second round, after he birdied the difficult first hole, Woods and Furyk stood tied for second. Hossler led the tournament.

All that led to an unprecedented spotlight. When Hossler smiled, he revealed his braces. When he arrived at a green, the gallery chanted his name. And even when he made a mistake, he gained admirers – and confidence.

“I think the biggest hole for me was No. 5 on Friday,” he said. This came after he had fallen from the lead, when he could have been fuming about a double bogey at the fourth. He hit his drive off the fifth tee so far right, it landed in a bunker alongside the fourth fairway. His next move: Pull a 6-iron and sky it over the trees, back into the proper fairway, a gorgeous shot that showed guts and talent. He ended up making bogey.

“But it could have been so much worse,” he said. “I think that calmed me down.”

That kind of poise led to Hossler contending all weekend, and he finished tied for 29th after a final-round 76. Only a double bogey at 18 prevented him from matching Spieth, his friend and future college teammate, as the low amateur. Everyone, from the top to the bottom of the leader board, took notice.

“Even in college, I would have been scared to death to play in a U.S. Open,” said Webb Simpson after he won the championship. “And these guys are playing like they’re trying to win the tournament.”

Hossler said he spoke to Spieth on Friday, and the pair will try to hook up for a practice round Wednesday. He will fly from California on Monday with his caddie, Bill Schellenberg, who also happens to be his godfather. Other family members will arrive Wednesday. Together, once play begins Thursday, they’ll try to make sense of this whole ride.

“I’ve got to think about what my goal is for the week,” he said. For a kid who’s already led a major championship, what would be good enough?

 
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