APOPKA, Fla. – Golf prodigies don’t belong here. Amid the smoke from a compost pile, and the incessant crows of a rooster, and the cars whizzing by on the expressway, it sure seems like an ideal proving ground . . . but only for the upstarts, the journeymen, the flameouts, guys who need the reps, who crave the competition. Yet here we find Casey Wittenberg (yes, the erstwhile golf prodigy), now a humbled man in search of progress. This Hooters Tour Winter Series event, at Forest Lake Golf Club, is just another stop on his 2011 schedule. He was supposed to be golf’s next big thing, remember, and now he’s seemingly one underwhelming season from being forgotten.
“I’ve been doing it now for six years,” Wittenberg said, snapping his chewing gum. “I’ve chilled out. It’s a job now, and you’ve got to treat it that way. You have to take responsibility for what you’re doing out there.”
And that helps explain why he’s here, plopping down the entry fees, trying to stay sharp before his season begins in earnest in late March. Wittenberg, now 26, was 91st on the 2010 Nationwide Tour money list, enough to retain conditional status, but his next six weeks will be filled with days like these. It’s a stretch of mini-tour events, small cash games, long hours on the range at the Ritz-Carlton in Sarasota.
At a juncture like this, it’s only natural to wonder, Will he ever get it back? Will he ever live up to his potential? One round at Forest Lake – a 2-under 69, after closing with eight consecutive pars – won’t provide a definitive answer. But it will provide insight into how turbulent times have affected one of the sport’s most decorated amateurs.
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Eight years. Can you believe it’s been eight years since Wittenberg’s standout summer? In 2003, he had all the tools to be the next great American player: a flawless swing, a deft short game, good looks, a certain cockiness. It didn’t hurt, either, that he won with regularity. He captured two major amateur titles that year, and later was named to the Walker Cup team before freshman orientation at Oklahoma State. His 2003 U.S. Amateur was memorable, too, for one of the tournament’s defining moments, when during his quarterfinal match against 50-year-old George Zahringer, Wittenberg walked off the green as his ball tracked into the cup, an act of hubris that famously rankled the NBC announcing team.
Wittenberg went on to reach the finals, securing a spot in the Masters the following spring. Only 18, he finished 13th at Augusta National, the best result by an amateur in 41 years, and he also made the cut at the U.S. Open. Wittenberg turned pro after only one season at Oklahoma State, cashing in with an equipment deal (Callaway) and a bevy of sponsor exemptions.
Success proved fleeting, however, at least on the big stage. He didn’t play the PGA Tour full time until 2009, but even then he was unable to keep his card after making the cut in less than half of his starts (10/25). And last year, he experienced similar results on the Nationwide circuit, with only one top 10 in 27 events.
“I’ve been blessed as an amateur and young pro to have a fair bit of success, and to have that success and lose it can be frustrating,” he said. “I need to enjoy it, work hard, be comfortable with who I am, because my scores will dictate who I am in the pro golf world.”
This winter, he played multiple events on the Hooters Tour for the first time since 2007, when he played full time and recorded two wins, a runner-up and three other top-10 finishes. Why the change? In the past, Wittenberg had approached the offseason as a time to relax, to decompress, but found that when the season began a few weeks later, he was ill-prepared. Not this year.
“I’ve been pretty humbled these past two years,” he said. “I needed to get some work in, and hopefully I’ll see the results of that. It’s my sole responsibility to get myself in better shape to be able to do that.”
In five events this winter, he has earned $5,895, the majority of which ($3,870) came from a T-3 last week at Sugarloaf Mountain. He figures his season doesn’t truly begin until late next month, with the Nationwide Tour’s domestic opener in Louisiana. That means he’s got about six more weeks to prepare. “By no means am I where I want to be,” he said, “but I think I’m starting to do some things a little better.”
But one question remains unanswered: With a swing so pure, and a putting stroke so steady, and a demeanor so steely . . . how could you not stick on Tour?
A long pause ensues, and the former golf prodigy searches for the answer, again.
“A lot of it, to be perfectly honest, is taking advantage of the opportunities that present themselves,” he said. “When you play amateur golf, you have a lot of opportunities because you’re always near the top of the leaderboard. In pro golf, everything compresses a little bit, especially on the PGA Tour. The courses are harder, the guys are shooting lower scores, and it’s definitely a transition.
“I know what I need to do, and I know the direction I need to take, but there’s just a little disconnect between knowing it and applying it and committing to it on the course. And until I get better at that, I’m going to struggle.”