By LANCE RINGLER
LAS VEGAS – When you’re a three-time All-American and three-time player of the year in a major conference in a sport like basketball or football, odds are you’re on your way to a fancy draft party and a nice signing bonus when you turn pro.
That’s not the case for college golfers. They must earn their way to the big paydays. Finishing up his senior year at Indiana University, Randy Leen had those credentials. His biggest payday to date is $110,000 check for winning the Gateway Tour Championship, though.
The Dayton, Ohio native has struggled to get through PGA Tour Q-School and has yet to find that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow walking the fairways on the PGA Tour. However, he may be just 18 holes away from the largest paycheck in competitive golf – a $2 million check for winning The Ultimate Game.
Leen, who was a three-time All-American and the Big Ten Conference player of the year three times carded an even-par 70 in the first round of The Ultimate Game being played on the par-70, 7,042-yard Wynn Las Vegas Golf Course.
Leen trails Byron Smith of Palm Desert, Calif., by three shots. Las Vegas residents Scott Piercy and Ken Jarner shot 68, followed by 17-year-old Tony Finau of Salt Lake City. Finau, who turned pro just prior to this event shot 69. Leen shares fifth place with Kevin Streelman of Westfield, Ill.
The 40-player field, which was limited to players who have never been a fully-exempt member of the PGA Tour, PGA European Tour, Champions Tour or Nationwide Tour, was trimmed down from via match play May 29-30 at Reflection Bay Golf Club. It cost $50,000 to enter this event, but the 12 finalists are guaranteed at least $100,000.
Smith was 4 under before a double bogey on the par-4, 14th hole brought him back to the pack. His second shot from the right fairway bunker hit the lip and caromed into another fairway bunker. Forced to chip out of the second bunker, Smith hit is fourth shot on the green and two putted. He then made birdie on the next hole.
“I came back on the next hole and made birdie,” said Smith, who played two years at Pepperdine before quitting to concentrate on school and later graduate with a degree in philosophy. “It’s always been the strength of my game to grind and come back.”
Scoring conditions were ideal. With temperatures unseasonably comfortable and no wind, the 12-player field failed to go low.
“It’s perfect out here,” said Smith, who won a Canadian Tour event in April. “These greens are so good and you can make putts out here and I am surprised there was not anything much lower, but I am figuring tomorrow there will probably be something low.”
Leen agreed with Smith, but added that the thought of $2 million to the winner may be factoring into the play: “It’s perfect, but just a lot of pressure.”
Leen managed to earn a conditional card on the Nationwide Tour in his second attempt, but made just five of 17 cuts that year.
“I spent a year out there and for whatever reason I didn’t have a good year and I realized how good those guys are and how many good players there are,” said Leen, who was the low amateur at the 1996 U.S. Open and member of the 1997 Walker Cup team. “I really wanted to get my game better and where it could hold up under pressure, because I saw a lot of things under pressure that I did not like.”
He went to work on his swing for the next few seasons, but said he got to technical and struggled. Leen then turned to Todd Sapere, a friend and teaching professional at the Breakers Hotel in West Palm Beach, Fla., where things have made a turn for the better.
“From where I was three years ago, with zero money and thinking about quitting to where I am now… I won the tour championship on the Gateway Tour last year and I had a pretty good year and then this year I had a good finish on the Nationwide Tour earlier this year and am playing well again.”
Just three shots back with 18 holes to go, Leen is hoping to apply what he has tried to improve on and have a shot at a couple million bucks.
Scores with relation to par from the first round of The Ultimate Game, played on the par-70, 7,042-yard Wynn Las Vegas Golf Course in Las Vegas:
1. Byron Smith 31-36–67
-3 2. Scott Piercy 34-34–68
-2 2. Ken Jarner 33-35–68
-2 4. Tony Finau 34-35–69
-1 5. Kevin Streelman 34-36–70
E 5. Randy Leen 34-36–70
E 7. Erik Compton 36-35–71
1 8. Ron Faria 31-41–72 + 2 9. Nate Whitson 35-38–73 + 3 10. Travis Johnson 35-39–74 + 4 11. Chris Berry 39-36–75 + 5 12. Rick Rhoden 38-41–79 + 9