By SEAN MARTIN
One day after beating Phil Mickelson at the Buick Invitational, USC freshman Jamie Lovemark was back with his Trojan teammates.
At 6:45 a.m. For an optional practice.
“I would’ve said I had some homework to do or something,” teammate Jordan Nasser said.
Lovemark finished tied for 39th at the Buick, but it was hard to tell. One of the first things he did when he saw USC head coach Chris Zambri was ask for help with his putting stroke.
“He was nonchalant about it, like everything else,” Nasser added. “I think the rest of us were talking about (the Buick) more than him.”
A lot of people are talking about Lovemark. He’s already won the Western Amateur, made two PGA Tour cuts and ascended to No. 1 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings halfway through his first season.
Lovemark – who finished outside the top 3 just once in the fall and won the Big Ten/Pac-10 Challenge by eight shots – started his spring season Feb. 7 at the Hawaii-Hilo Intercollegiate.
Despite the success, Lovemark said he plans on staying four years at USC.
That makes life easier for Zambri, who was hired last summer, long after Lovemark had signed his letter of intent. He led USC to victory in Zambri’s coaching debut at the Inverness Intercollegiate; Lovemark’s laid-back demeanor, sense of humor and work ethic have made him one of the Trojans’ most popular players.
Other players have even started benchmarking themselves against Lovemark. Stanford’s Zack Miller is No. 7 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings after winning three titles this fall, but admitted being excited to play with Lovemark at the CordeValle Collegiate.
“I really emphasized playing well against him,” Miller said. “In the second round, I shot 63. It was the best round I had ever played. We fed off each other, went birdie for birdie. He helped me play well.”
Lovemark’s length and iron play already fit in with the Tour’s best. He averaged 307.5 yards per tee shot at the Buick Invitational, and hit 73.6 percent of the greens in regulation at Torrey Pines’ difficult South Course. Three of the Buick Invitational’s four rounds were played on the 7,628-yard layout, which will host next year’s U.S. Open. Lovemark hit some wild shots with his driver and struggled with his putter, though.
“There are things he can clean up, but … he could go out and make some money (on the PGA Tour) right now. He’s got all the tools.” said Bob Heintz, who was paired with Lovemark the first two rounds of the Buick and lost to the freshman by five shots. “He came right out of the gate and hit the ball really well.”
Lovemark’s college career got off to a similarly hot start. Lovemark started with three consecutive birdies at the Inverness Intercollegiate and lipped out a 15-foot birdie putt on his fourth hole.
He had seven birdies in his opening-round 66 at the Buick, which tied him for 14th. Five of his 12 rounds in the fall were in the 60s.
“The best advice I’ve received … is to play fearless,” Lovemark said.
His final-round 67 at Bandon Dunes in the Big Ten/Pac-10 Challenge came on a day when the field’s average score was more than 75. He was cruising to the individual title after starting the day with a three-shot lead, but Zambri told Lovemark after his 14th hole that the Trojans needed birdies to have a chance at the team title. Instead of protecting his victory, Lovemark played aggressively and birdied three of his final four holes. The Trojans finished second, five shots behind UCLA.
Lovemark’s long drives and soaring iron shots aren’t what first impressed Zambri, though. It happened while the two were waiting for a green to clear during one of the season’s first practices. Lovemark started taking full swings with his wedge, hitting flop shots off the fairway that travelled straight up in the air and landed softly 6 feet away. A couple holes later, Lovemark hit a bunker shot to a tight pin to within a foot.
“I knew he was tall and athletic and hit it high and long, but so often when you’re growing up and have a … strength, you can create another weakness (by relying too much on your strengths),” Zambri said. “I was surprised he had as good a short game as a little guy.”
Zambri, who finished 19th on the 1998 Nationwide Tour money list, knows about good short games. He was a grinder during his career. That’s why he gets enjoyment out of beating Lovemark – a 6-foot-4 natural talent who can dunk a basketball and excelled at multiple sports before focusing on golf.
Zambri shot 4-under 67 during practice at Los Angeles Country Club earlier this year, a score his hot-shot freshman has yet to match. Zambri likes to remind Lovemark by flashing four fingers in front of him. Lovemark returns fire by blowing a drive by his coach or joking about Zambri’s swing.
Lovemark could also give Zambri a hard time about this statistic – at 19, Lovemark has made one more PGA Tour cut than Zambri. Lovemark also finished tied for 54th at the 2006 Western Open. He finished one shot out of a playoff in Monday qualifying for this year’s Sony Open in Hawaii. He said he may get a sponsor exemption into the Nationwide Tour’s Showdown at Somerby July 12-15 in Minnesota.
For now, he’s content competing against collegians the next three years. That’s fine with Mickelson, who Lovemark’s beaten both times he’s played the PGA Tour. They played together the final round of the Buick.
“He looked at me and said, ‘We’re not going to miss you. We’ll be seeing plenty of you in the future,’” Lovemark said. “That was a good compliment.”
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Sean Martin is a Golfweek assistant editor. To reach him e-mail email@example.com.