Another junior standout is getting an opportunity to play the PGA Tour – this time, against one of the strongest fields of the season.
Anthony Paolucci, the No. 1-ranked junior in the country, has been granted a sponsor exemption into next week’s Farmers Insurance Open. Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson are among the Tour players expected to tee it up at Torrey Pines, about a 20-minute drive from Paolucci’s home in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif.
“I’m just going to try to have some fun,” Paolucci told Golfweek. “It’s pretty special that my first event is going to be in my new home city. It’s only going to happen once, this first Tour event, so I might as well enjoy it.”
Long considered one of the brightest prospects in golf, Paolucci, 18, was named the 2010 AJGA Player of the Year after winning two national tournaments, representing the U.S. at the Junior Ryder Cup and reaching the quarterfinals of the U.S. Junior Amateur. He will play for USC this fall.
Paolucci is the latest in a growing list of prep stars to compete on Tour. Two years ago, Justin Thomas became the third-youngest player to make the cut in a PGA Tour event when he played the weekend at the Wyndham Championship. And last May, Jordan Spieth, No. 2 in Golfweek’s Junior Rankings, captured national attention when he was in contention on the back nine Sunday at the Byron Nelson before eventually tying for 16th. (He also nearly made the cut a month later, at the St. Jude Classic in Memphis.)
Paolucci’s debut is perhaps more noteworthy because of the tournament he’s entered. Traditionally Torrey Pines serves as the start of Woods’ season, and all indications are that he’ll play in San Diego next week for the first time since winning the 2008 U.S. Open. Paolucci has already scheduled a practice round with Woods’ chief rival, Mickelson, with whom he played a friendly round last weekend.
“It’s obviously really exciting to play at Torrey,” said Paolucci, who, at the behest of his coach and supporters, wrote a letter to the tournament committee, asking for a sponsor exemption. He said tournament officials received about 70 requests. “When my dad (Michael) called me and told me I got it, I didn’t believe him at first. I thought he was playing a joke on me. I asked him six or seven times, ‘Are you serious?’ It was the middle of the school day, too. I was not able to focus at all.”
How’s he expecting to play? Paolucci set modest goals – making the cut, perhaps – and referred to the experience as merely “another step in the journey.”
“It’d be cool to compare myself with them, in the same tournament, on the same course, under the same conditions,” he said. “Walking the same course as those stars, it’s pretty cool.”