Marcos Montenegro’s golf game has come a long way, literally and figuratively, to make it to this week’s U.S. Junior Amateur Championship at Colleton River Plantation Club. It’s the only way he knows.
As a kid growing up in the small town of Loberia, Argentina, Montenegro had to travel 30 miles daily by bus to a taxi terminal, then catch a ride to Necochea Golf Club in Buenos Aires to play. Then someone at the club drove him back to the taxi terminal for him to make the reverse commute home.
Playing opportunities simply weren’t as abundant in the soccer-crazed country, but Montenegro was hooked on the game after his father, Juan Carlos, took him to hit balls for the first time, at the age of 5.
While his friends were playing soccer and doing typical kid things, Montenegro caught the first bus to Buenos Aires once school finished at 1 p.m., a routine he repeated for seven years.
"I lost a lot of time with my friends to play golf, but it's what I like and want to do,” he said. “I want to be a very good professional golfer."
Montenegro, 17, now lives in the U.S., where he attends Bishops Gate Golf Academy in Howie-in-the-Hills, Fla.The transition to life in America hasn’t been seamless, but definitely worthwhile.
"The first semester was hard, because I missed my friends and family,” he said. “But it's been a very good thing for me, because my golf has improved. I worked hard in Argentina, but the competition is higher here, so I have gotten to see what it takes to play at the best level."
Playing against the best juniors in the world, Montenegro struggled to an 8-over-par 80 in Monday’s first round, but improved by six strokes in Tuesday’s second round, ultimately missing the match-play cut.
Undeterred, Montengro’s goal remains to play professionally, something more and more Argentine children are aspiring to thanks to fellow countryman Angel Cabrera, who won the 2007 U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club, as well as the 2009 Masters.
"Angel Cabrera and [PGA Tour winner] Andres Romero are great players and they have done a lot to make golf more popular,” said Montengro. “In Argentina, more players golf and now there is a very good level of junior players coming out of Argentina. It's very special for me to play in an event like this and represent my country."
Golf Takes Backseat for Special-Needs Volunteer Kuhl
As Pete Kuhl played a practice round on Colleton River’s Dye Course last weekend, the iPhone of his caddie, cousin Jack Zern, started receiving FaceTime requests from back home in Morton, Ill.
“The kids just love those two,” said Michele Kuhl, Pete’s mother.
The requests were coming from members of the Morton Red Wings, the town’s Special Olympics basketball and track program of which Kuhl and Zern are volunteer assistant coaches.
“They teach you a lot,” said Kuhl of the special-needs athletes, many of whom have either Down syndrome, cerebral palsy or autism. “The relationships are probably the best part. They always seem to have a smile on their face and they wave and say hi when they see you.”
In the seventh grade, Kuhl, now 17 and a rising senior at Morton High, began volunteering for his school’s special-needs department. He then got involved with the Red Wings.
Kuhl thinks nothing of volunteering three to five hours a week to help build relationships with the athletes. He has another cousin, Bennett Huibregtse, who also has special needs.
"So, it just seemed natural to get involved with the school,” Kuhl said.
When Kuhl completed his 15-over 159 total on Tuesday in his first U.S. Junior Amateur, he was able to keep his brief Lowcountry appearance in perspective.
“You gain a lot of patience,” said Kuhl, who was a member of Morton’s Illinois High School Association’s 2-A state championship team. “It helps my attitude. I never have a bad attitude out on the course, because I get to play something I love.
“Many of them can’t play golf or it’s very difficult. They can’t play golf like I can, so it makes you enjoy it more and maybe cherish it a little more.”
Kuhl was quick to qualify his comment because a member of his Morton High team, Jordan Brix, has special needs. Last summer, Brix and his father, Allan, won a silver medal in the Special Olympics USA Games’ alternate-shot competition in New Jersey.
At some point soon, Kuhl will be in touch with his special friends. Neither his score nor his finish will matter.
Just the way it should be.
It’s no surprise that Westlake High in Westlake Village, Calif., is a state powerhouse in boys’ golf. Need proof? Look no further than this week’s U.S. Junior Amateur Championship. Three members of the Warriors’ 2015 California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) state championship team that edged Torrey Pines High by four strokes at Poppy Hills Golf Course in Pebble Beach earned their way to Colleton River.
Two of those players – Spencer Soosman and Matt Wolff – helped Westlake to a nine-stroke win in the 2014 state championship at San Gabriel Country Club. That team also included 2014 U.S. Junior quarterfinalist Sean Crocker. Westlake is the only school to successfully defend its title in the short history of the CIF state tournament.
“We have a bunch of good players on our team,” said Wolff, a 16-year-old rising junior.
And Westlake might be a favorite in 2016, considering Soosman, Wolff and Justin Egelske all return.
“We also have Preston Smith, Brandon Jacobs and a new freshman from Ireland, so we’re looking good,” said Wolff.
Added Soosman: “Every time we play [as a team], it prepares me for tournaments like [the Junior Amateur]. Even when Crocker was on the team, we pushed each other to be the best.”
This week, Wolff said the players have only seen each other at Colleton River. Wolff, who carded a second-round 75 on Tuesday and was hovering near the match-play cut, is staying in private housing, while Soosman and Egelske are at separate hotels. Egelske, who carded an 80 in Monday’s first round, and Wolff did play practice rounds together on Saturday and Sunday.
All three qualified differently as well. Soosman was exempt via the top 400 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking™. Egelske was the medalist in the Victorville, Calif., qualifier, and Wolff shared medalist honors in the San Marcos, Calif., qualifier.
“I signed up a little later than they did,” said Wolff, who lost to Soosman in the final match of last year’s American Junior Golf Association Polo Golf Junior Classic at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. “I had to rearrange my qualifier for certain tournaments that I had [planned].”
Soosman, who opened stroke play with an even-par 72, has a hectic schedule over the next month. After the Junior Amateur, he will team with Wolff for the West Team in next week’s Wyndham Cup, a Ryder Cup-style competition. He’ll then head to Cape Cod where the family has a summer home, and on Aug. 22, he flies to San Francisco to meet the rest of his teammates headed to China for a youth match sponsored by the USGA and the China Golf Association. The 17-year-old then returns to Cape Cod before traveling to Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., to compete in the Junior Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass Sept. 3-6.
“Then I go to school,” said Soosman, who plans to attend UCLA in 2016. “I am missing my first eight days of school.”
Baumgarten Follows Sutherland’s Standard
Walking the 17th and 18th holes of Del Paso Country Club during last month’s U.S. Senior Open, Bryan Baumgarten got the chills. The vocal Sacramento, Calif., crowd was roaring for hometown hero Kevin Sutherland, and the 17-year-old Baumgarten experienced the excitement from inside the ropes.
The Granite Bay, Calif., resident had the chance to serve as a third-round volunteer standard bearer for Sutherland’s group. Because Baumgarten knew Sutherland – they share the same swing instructor (Don Baucom) and were paired in the 2014 First Tee Open at Pebble Beach – the chairman handling the standard bearers assigned him for Saturday’s third round, provided Sutherland made the cut.
“He had his nephew standard bearing the first two days,” said Baumgarten. “He didn’t play as well as he would have liked [on Saturday], but the whole atmosphere around him was awesome. On 18, I just looked at him and just shook my head. I said, ‘This is ridiculous.’ He looked at me and said, ‘I know.’”
Baumgarten, a rising senior at Granite Bay High, absorbed a lot from watching Sutherland perform under the pressure of a USGA championship and brought it into this week’s U.S. Junior Amateur. Keeping a level head and knowing the value of making pars has served him well the first two days of stroke play on Colleton River’s Dye Course, where he posted consecutive rounds of even-par 72 to easily qualify for match play.
“He doesn’t let anything faze him,” said Baumgarten of Sutherland’s on-course demeanor. “If he makes a bogey, it’s not a big deal. If he makes a birdie, it’s not a big deal. He goes about his whole day with the same thoughts and approaches each shot with the same energy and the same focus.
“I tried to keep my head right. I tried to focus on every shot because you can hit one bad shot here and it can eat you alive. I wanted to make it to match play and I achieved my goal.”
Baumgarten said he is a “late-bloomer” compared to a lot of his fellow competitors. He failed to make the varsity golf team as a freshman and it wasn’t until this past season when his game began to improve. This summer, he not only qualified for the U.S. Junior Amateur, but he also earned a spot in next month’s U.S. Amateur at Olympia Fields (Ill.) Country Club.
College coaches are just starting to take notice. His older brother, Brandon, will be a junior this fall at the University of Oregon, but Bryan is still undecided.
Joey Flyntz is an associate writer for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Stuart Hall is a North Carolina-based freelance writer whose work frequently appears on USGA websites. David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.