Kraft warms up for Jones Cup at Augusta National

Kelly Kraft, of Denton, Texas, poses with his championship trophy after the final round at the U.S. Amateur golf tournament Sunday, Aug. 28, 2011, at Erin Hills in Erin, Wis. Kraft defeated Patrick Cantlay, of Los Alamitos, Calif., 2-up to win the tournament.

Kelly Kraft was in awe Sunday as he played his first round at Augusta National. He'll have to be fully focused come Friday, for one of the toughest tests in amateur golf awaits. Kraft, the reigning U.S. Amateur champion, highlights the field for this week's Jones Cup at Ocean Forest Golf Club in St. Simons Island, Ga.

Kraft played 18 holes at Augusta National on Sunday and Monday before departing for St. Simons Island, Ga. He said the Jones Cup likely will be his final amateur competition before the Masters.

"I was just in awe, walking around and taking pictures," Kraft said about his first rounds at Augusta National. "I wasn’t really too focused on how I was playing. I was taking it all in.”

Kraft is coming off a recent trip to Australia, his second since winning the U.S. Amateur in August. He finished fourth Jan. 13 in the Master of the Amateurs at Royal Melbourne. Royal Melbourne hosted last year's Presidents Cup and, like Augusta National, is an Alister Mackenzie design. Kraft played three professional events Down Under in November, earning low-amateur honor at the Australian Open (T-19).

Kraft will be joined in the Jones Cup field by Walker Cup teammate Blayne Barber, who finished third at the 2010 Jones Cup. Rhys Pugh, who played for the victorious Great Britain & Ireland squad, also is in the field.

The Jones Cup features a strong field on a stern test. It's not just Ocean Forest's firm, fast conditions that make high scores commonplace. Marshland lines the fairways and fronts the greens on several holes. The 7,308-yard course has a 75.7 course rating and 148 slope. Winter weather on the Atlantic coast means the event is usually played in cold, wind and rain.

No one has broken par for 54 holes in the past three Jones Cup. One-over 217 won in 2009 (Kyle Stanley) and 2011 (John Peterson). Patrick Reed shot 6-over 222 to win in 2010.

“Ocean Forest is just a tough course," said Barber, No. 26 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings. "You have to hit quality shots. If you get it going one way or the other, you can certainly put up some high numbers. You have to drive it really well. There's a lot of tough pitch shots if you miss the greens. It's tough to get up-and-down consistently."

This week's forecast is tamer than in recent years, but things can change quickly on the Atlantic Coast in February. Temperatures are expected to be in the 60s, with only a 20-percent chance of rain. High winds, temperatures in the 40s and rain have been commonplace in the past two years.

"I imagine we’ll still get, like, a freak snowstorm or something,” joked Kraft, who tied for 12th in last year's Jones Cup with a 7-over 223 total (79-70-74).

Kraft is in the final stretches of his amateur career. He’ll turn pro after the Masters. Three amateurs who have earned invitations to Augusta are competing at the Jones Cup: Kraft, British Amateur champion Bryden Macpherson and Randal Lewis, winner of the U.S. Mid-Amateur.

Kraft won four times in 2011, claiming the Texas, Trans-Mississippi, U.S. and South Beach International amateurs. Adding the Jones Cup title to his resume will require overcoming another tough test. An even tougher one awaits, though.

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Five others to watch

Cody Proveaux: The 2011 AJGA player of the year won the 2010 Polo Golf Junior and 2011 Junior PGA Championship. He has signed with Clemson.

Shun Yat Hak: Hak is the No. 1 player in the Golfweek/Sagarin Junior Rankings and winner of last year’s Rolex Tournament of Champions. He tied for 46th at the European Tour’s Hong Kong Open in December.

Stephan Jaeger: Jaeger, No. 8 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, finished second at the recent New Year’s Invitational, losing a playoff with Jim Liu and winner Garland Green. Jaeger, a senior at Chattanooga, also won the Golfweek Conference Challenge in September. Liu, the 2010 U.S. Junior champ, also is in the Jones Cup field.

Matthew NeSmith: NeSmith, No. 2 in the Golfweek/Sagarin Juniors Rankings, has had recent success on St. Simons Island. He won last month’s Jones Cup Junior Invitational at nearby Sea Island Golf Club by eight strokes. NeSmith also won the Carolinas-Georgia Junior Invitational two weeks ago, and the 2011 Polo Golf Junior Classic and Heritage Junior, two of the country’s most prestigious junior titles. NeSmith, a high-school senior, has signed with South Carolina.

Cory Whitsett: Whitsett had a productive offseason, beating strong fields at the Western Refining All-American Classic and Patriot All-American. He’ll have plenty of company at the Jones Cup. Alabama teammates Hunter Hamrick, Bobby Wyatt and Justin Thomas also are in the field. Wyatt finished fifth in the 2010 Jones Cup, while Hamrick has finished eighth the past two years. Wyatt was second to Whitsett at the Patriot.

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