ORLANDO, Fla. – Only a handful of fans stuck around to witness Alex Carpenter’s PGA Tour debut. The sun was setting at Bay Hill Club & Lodge, and the hottest player in college golf, the winner of seven events this season, was on his way to an 82 in the opening round of last week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational. Carpenter, 20, a sophomore at NCAA Division II Abilene Christian, wasn’t used to failure. And he certainly wasn’t used to post-round protocol at Tour events. While his playing competitors, William McGirt and Jarrod Lyle, strolled across the range and into the scoring trailer, Carpenter scrawled autographs on hats near the ninth green. He was offered words of encouragement – “Keep your head up, kid. You’ve got a bright future!” – and a couple of fans slapped him on the back.
One problem when he finally went to sign his card: Carpenter didn’t know where to go. He tried to walk toward the range, but couldn’t navigate the barricades. He tried to walk around the putting green, but volunteers pointed in the opposite direction. Finally, five minutes after tapping in for a closing bogey, he made his way back inside the gates, opened the door to the scoring trailer and sat down in a folding chair, apologetic.
Alex’s father, Larry, was on his son’s bag last week at Bay Hill. As Larry put a few balls, tees and gloves back into the bag, he said, “Alex is heartbroken right now, but he’ll be back. He’s a resilient kid.”
The next day, with expectations lowered, Carpenter shot 69, playing his last 15 holes in 4 under. He missed the cut by three strokes, but finished ahead of recent Tour winners Gary Woodland and Jhonattan Vegas, as well as reigning U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell.
“I was nervous, but I didn’t show it,” Carpenter said. “Just two or three bad swings there, and it ballooned in a hurry (in Round 1). In college, you walk off those holes with a bogey, but here it’s a 9. . . . I know my game is where it needs to be, I know I’m playing well, and I’m not gonna be too hard on myself. It’s just amazing how crazy this game is.”
Late in the opening round, as the wind was blowing 25 mph and the greens were dotted with spike marks, Carpenter was 3 over before driving into the water twice on the par-4 sixth; he took a quadruple-bogey 9. Forgotten was his second shot into his opening hole, the par-4 10th, when he clanked his approach off the flagstick from 160 yards. The only thing spectators saw on the scoreboard was 82.
Carpenter’s hot streak has made him arguably one of the top players in college golf, not just Division II. (On March 29, he won his seventh title in eight starts.) Last July, Carpenter, of Little Rock, Ark., captured the Southern Amateur – beating the likes of UCLA’s Patrick Cantlay, Georgia’s Russell Henley and Alabama’s Bud Cauley – to earn a special exemption into Bay Hill.
In Orlando, Carpenter played a practice round with Bubba Watson and Rickie Fowler. He hit balls with Hunter Haas, Brandt Jobe and Stephen Ames. He was invited by Aaron Baddeley to the PGA Tour Bible study on Wednesday night of tournament week.
“It’s been a fun week; it spoils me,” Carpenter said. “But it reminds me that this is where I want to be, and this is where I’m going to be in a few years.”
Unlike his post-round navigation, he says his route back to the PGA Tour will be more direct.