Velasquez primed for final college season

Oregon State's Diego Velasquez is becoming a breakout star in 2009-10.

Oregon State's Diego Velasquez is becoming a breakout star in 2009-10.

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1Joey GarberGeorgia  68.65 
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On his bio sheet in the Oregon State media guide, Diego Velasquez’s favorite thing about golf is listed thusly: “How challenging this sport is, and the motivation you feel to get better every day.”

Since arriving in Corvallis, Ore., from Bogota, Colombia, 3 1/2 years ago to begin his college career, Velasquez certainly has experienced his share of challenges and acquired plenty of motivation from the improving stages of his game, both physical and mental.

Now, as he prepares to enter the final spring season of his college career, he is among the nation’s best players, finishing the fall No. 4 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, behind only 2009 U.S. Walker Cup players Peter Uihlein of Oklahoma State, and Bud Cauley of Alabama as well as Russell Henley of Georgia.

“I think the big thing about this fall season is it helped me have more self belief,” Velasquez said. “I know I can compete with the best players, and I know I can win at this level.”

Velasquez, a four-year starter for the Beavers, posted a 72.7 scoring average in each of his first two years. But it was last season, as a junior, when he really stepped it up. Though his scoring average was slightly higher at 72.79, he notched his first two tournament victories, becoming only the third golfer in OSU history to have multiple titles in one season.

Still, Velasquez knows that to be considered one of the best, you have to beat the best. And that’s what he did this past fall. He opened the season with a third at the Giustina Memorial, then tied for third at the Alistar MacKenzie. He followed with a victory at the Bank of Tennessee event and closed with a second at St. Mary’s.

That run gave him a head-to-head record of 2-0 against top-25 players, 7-2 vs. the top 50, 25-2-1 vs. the top 100 and 283-5-2 overall.

His performances also lifted his team, helping the Beavers place first at Giustina, tied for first at the Bank of Tennessee, fourth at the MacKenzie and second at St. Mary’s, lifting them to No. 17 in the Golfweek/Sagarin Rankings.

The Tennessee victory was the big one. He shot 66-70-70 for a 10-under 206 total and won by seven strokes in horrible weather conditions. In the process, he beat North Carolina State’s Matt Hill, the defending NCAA champion and Jack Nicklaus Award winner as Player of the Year, who tied for second. Also in the field were 2009 U.S. Walker Cup player Brendan Gielow of Wake Forest and 2009 Western Amateur champion John Hahn of Kent State.

“That was a real confidence builder,” Velasquez said. “I’ve really been working hard on my mental game over the past year or so. It comes down to having a positive attitude all the time. I was able to do that in Tennessee, even with the bad weather.”

After his win, Velasquez was named Golfweek’s Player of the Week and later was chosen as the Pac-10’s Player of the Month for October.

Oregon State coach Brian Watts says the biggest difference in Velasquez this year is his mental approach.

“He’s always been very talented and always been an aggressive player,” Watts said. “But over the past year, the mental side has really come to fruition. He stays very calm on the golf course. 

“Now he has the mentality to keep things very simple and not get down on himself. He plays a little more conservatively when things aren’t going well, which lets his bad rounds be around par as opposed to over par.”

Velasquez grew up in Bogota, then lived in England and then Texas for a couple of years each as his father, Luis, a real estate developer, worked various projects. He started playing golf at age 6 with his father and grandfather at a Bogota country club. By age 12, he had given up his other sports passion, soccer, to concentrate on golf, climbing to No. 2 in the Colombia junior rankings at one point.

Still, one has to wonder how a kid from Colombia happened to end up in the Pacific Northwest.

It was fate, no doubt.

While playing in the South American Amateur, former Oregon State golfer Eric Fiskum was paired with Velasquez. When the young and talented player told him he wanted to play college golf in the U.S., Fiskum suggested he look into the Beavers.

Velasquez and Watts established a relationship through e-mails and set up a time for a recruiting visit for early spring, a time of year at which the weather in Corvallis can be downright miserable.

“It just so happened the day he came for his visit, it was sunny and 75 degrees,” said Watts, who added with a laugh, “you know, like it is in Corvallis 365 days a year.

“His parents really liked it, and so did he. It turned out to be a perfect fit for everyone.”

You won’t get any argument from Velasquez.

“Here, I still get to compete against the best players in the country and can do it in a more relaxed, family atmosphere,” he said. “I grew up in a big city and wanted something in a smaller, more peaceful setting. It’s just perfect here. This was the place I was looking for.”

Like almost every young golfer coming out of Colombia, Velasquez looks to PGA Tour star Camilo Villegas as a role model.

“He represents our country in such a very positive way,” Velasquez said. “All the young players see what he’s done and want to reach the level where Camilo is at.”

For Velasquez, though, that quest won’t start the moment his college career comes to an end. One of his goals when he first stepped onto the Oregon State campus was to earn his bachelor’s degree. That won’t happen until December.

“I will definitely finish school and get my degree (in communications),” he said. “Depending on my school schedule in the fall, I’ll try to go to (PGA Tour) Q-school. More than likely, I’ll turn pro in January 2011.”

For the next few months, however, the plan is simpler: keep conquering challenges and staying motivated, most importantly by the goal of leading the Beavers into the NCAA postseason.

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