Time, Perspective Have Cassini Enjoying Competitive Golf Again September 23, 2018 | Charlotte, N.C. By Stuart Hall

Past USA Walker Cupper Nick Cassini is enjoying competitive amateur golf again after a 10-year hiatus from the game. (USGA/Chris Keane)

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Seventeen years ago, Nick Cassini was asked a question for which he had no definitive answer.

“’If you win the [2001] U.S. Amateur, will you turn pro or wait to play in the Masters?’” recalls Cassini, who arrived at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta that week as one of the country’s top amateurs. “I said, ‘I don’t know, I will think about it.’

“At the time, you have this vision that you’re going to be one of the great players in the world and play in plenty of Masters and that opportunity is going to be there many more times.”

Cassini neither won the U.S. Amateur that year nor had his mailbox filled with Masters invitations in the roughly five years he played professionally. While he was the Hooters Tour Rookie of the Year in 2003, he mostly played on the Nationwide Tour, now known as the Web.com Tour, with a modicum of success with nine top-10 finishes between 2003-06.

“Looking back, it’s crazy,” said Cassini, 39, who is playing in his first U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship this week at Charlotte Country Club and Carolina Golf Club. “Of course you would wait for the Masters, right? I am much more mature now and I look back now and really do appreciate the experiences I had and the success that I had.”

The high-wattage PGA Tour career never materialized and at the end of 2006, Cassini dimmed the lights, opting to choose a different career path. A growth-plate issue in his left shoulder played a mitigating factor in the decision.

He was going to have surgery following the 2005 season, but held only conditional status for 2006 and, as a result, wouldn’t qualify for a medical extension. To have the surgery to insert a plate and fuse the growth plate would have required nearly a 12-month recovery/rehab window.

“I tried to play through it to regain full status in 2006 and it just didn’t go very well,” said Cassini, now the president at IMI Worldwide Properties. “So I decided to go into business world with the idea that I could come back at a later date and it just never happened.”

The years 2007-2017 can be considered Cassini’s dark period in golf. Aside from an appearance in the Asian Tour’s 2012 Venetian Macau Open, the former member of the University of Georgia’s 1999 NCAA championship team and 2001 USA Walker Cup Team averaged about 10 rounds of golf a year. During a two-year working stint in Montenegro, Cassini played no golf, because “there wasn’t a golf course.”

“There was a period of time when I settled in and didn’t really miss the game,” he said, “but then once I started gaining a foothold in the business world, I began to realize there was a good part of me missing – it was obviously golf and competitive golf since I had been playing my whole life.”

Now living in Roswell, Ga., Cassini began a comeback of sorts late last year, reapplying for and receiving his amateur status. The goal for 2018 was to play a handful of competitive tournaments to set a baseline for his progress.

The results have been promising. In May, Cassini tied for fourth in the Georgia State Golf Association’s Mid-Amateur Championship and tied for 10th in the John T. Lupton Memorial Mid-Amateur at The Honors Course in Ooltewah, Tenn. Two months later, he tied for 36th in the Georgia Amateur Championship and qualified for his first USGA championship in 17 years.

Cassini never wavered in believing he could return to a competitive level, he just was not sure how long it would take.

“My mind still believes I am a great player,” said Cassini, whose father Igor once played in tennis’ Davis Cup and whose uncle is renown fashion designer Oleg Cassini. “I think I have been bred since I began playing competitive golf when I was a child that when you enter competition, you’re going to win. Or at least do as well as you can. So I know how to practice, I know how to get my game ready still. My body doesn’t respond as quickly and there is still a lot of rust in my game overall compared to where I was in the game at one point.

“But my mind still tells me I am good enough. When I have good results it doesn’t surprise me. I am pleased to see that it has come back quicker than I probably would have been expected. I would not have entered the qualifier if I didn’t think I was somewhat ready.”

Time and playing in this week’s USGA championship have given Cassini a better appreciation for his younger self.

“You forget how great USGA events are,” said Cassini, who opened stroke play with a disappointing 10-over 81 at Carolina Golf Club on Saturday. “It’s something you lose sight of when you haven’t played in one for 17 years. The Walker Cup was far and away my best memory. That’s the pinnacle of amateur golf in my opinion.”

But there was also the 2001 U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship at Pecan Valley Golf Club in San Antonio. Cassini was medalist, then defeated 1999 U.S. Junior Amateur champion and future PGA Tour winner Hunter Mahan, 2 and 1 in the Round of 32, before losing to Andy Sanders, 3 and 2, in the next round. Sanders now caddies for PGA Tour player Jimmy Walker.

Later that summer, at the Walker Cup in Sea Island, Ga., Cassini went 2-2 in the USA’s 15-9 loss to Great Britain and Ireland. Two weeks later in the U.S. Amateur, he advanced to the Round of 32. He also won that year’s Porter Cup.

But Cassini no longer is playing to advance his own golf agenda. 

“Obviously I want to win and play well, and that would make the week even better,” said Cassini, who laughs at the irony of possibly winning and receiving a likely Masters invitation as well as an exemption into the 2019 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. “Regardless I’m going to have a good time. Back in the day, if I had a bad week, then it would be on to the next thing. Now, it’s more about let’s enjoy the experience. This is awesome. Who knows how many more you’re going to get?”

No longer will Cassini take the future for granted.

Stuart Hall is a North Carolina-based freelance writer whose work frequently appears on USGA digital channels.

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