Casey Wittenberg of Memphis, Tenn., who owns the distinction of being the only player besides Tiger Woods to be ranked the top amateur in the United States prior to beginning college, nailed down Canadian Tour playing privileges Friday by posting a final-round 2-under 70 at Black Bear GC. The 20-year-old finished the four-day event at 5-under 283 and was one of four players that tied for third, six shots behind medallist Chris Cureton of McKinney, Tex.
Taking a one-shot cushion into the final round, Cureton closed out with a 3-under 69 and wound up two shots clear of runner-up Scott McNeil of Calgary.
McNeil was one of three Canadians to earn a Tour card Friday. Glenn Collins of Winnipeg grabbed the final exempt spot by finishing at minus-4, while Edmontons Danny Sahl (-2) took one of the seven non-exempt cards handed out.
The Canadian Tour now moves west for next weeks second Q-School, which gets underway Tuesday at Los Serranos G&CC in Chino Hills, Calif.
The 20-year-old Wittenberg had a magical Sunday afternoon at The Masters last April. Wittenberg fired a back-nine 31 in the final round, the lowest inbound nine total by an amateur in history, en route to a 13-th place finish at Augusta National. Playing with the top players on the planet, the former U.S. Walker and Palmer Cup team member was the only player in the starting field to improve on his score each day (76-72-71-67). The 2003 U.S. Amateur runner-up also had strong showings at the U.S. Open (36th) and Bell Canadian Open (24th) last summer.
I was able to accomplish what I came here for, said Wittenberg, who began the day in fourth spot. I just tried to go out there and get the job done. There is no holding back at any level. I was in pretty good shape, so I just wanted to take it one shot at a time.
On Friday, he earned his first professional Tour card and is chomping at the bit as the Canadian Tour gets set to lift the curtain on the 2005 season two weeks from now in Austin, Tex.
Its going to be a learning process, but I am excited about the opportunity, he added. Ive played some good golf up in Canada, I love the country, and everyone knows there are a lot of doors that can open on this Tour. This is almost like a gateway to the big Tour (PGA), and I cant wait to get started.
For McNeil, gaining his Tour card Friday wiped out the memory of failing in his first attempt in Whitby, Ont. last September, just days after he turned pro. McNeil, who played amateur golf with Sahl, birdied his first hole and was 3-under as he turned for home.
I pretty much went into today wanting to play the golf course the same way I have all week, said the 23-year-old. I really didnt want to think about what the others were doing. I knew I was in pretty decent position.
This was a big week for me. Now I will get to experience the life of a professional. There have been a lot of great players to come off this Tour, and I know I am going to learn a lot.
Cureton had an early bogey on his third hole of the day but righted the ship from there on, knocking in a pair of birdie putts just before the turn. On the back nine, the only question left to answer was whether or not he would capture medallist honours.
I didnt have my great golf swing today, but it was a good week, admitted Cureton. I was trying to stay focused, but I didnt want to press it. I just wanted to play as smart as possible, although I started pushing a bit over the final few holes. I wanted to win this thing.
If Cureton was playing without any pressure Friday, the opposite held true for the 37-year-old Collins. In a seemingly comfortable third-place position as he stepped up to the first tee, Collins reeled off three bogeys in a row beginning on the seventh hole and was in danger of letting a Tour card slip from his grasp.
He found his touch just when he needed to.
On the 213-yard, par-3 11th, Collins dumped his tee shot into a bunker before blasting out to within three feet to save par. He followed that up with clutch birdie putts on 13 and 16 and ended up earning the final exempt card by one shot.
For Collins, Friday marked the end of a long road back to the pro ranks. He returned to the game a year and a half ago after a seven-year hiatus, mostly due to an arm injury that required surgery in 1996.
Man, oh man, I cant believe it, said a relieved Collins. That was an unbelievable day. At one point, I didnt know what to do. That bunker shot on 11 changed everything.
The hard work has paid off. Its been a long journey, but the real work is just starting.'
Sahl, a Canadian Tour member back in 2002, was the first-round leader but slipped off the tracks Thursday with four three-putts on his way to a 5-over 77. He rebounded Friday with a 2-under 70 to play his way back on Tour.
Im back on the circuit, and that is what I came here to do, he said. My goal was to get status back out here. I had a rough third round and caught some bad breaks. When that happens, you start to grind your way around the course. Ive just got to go out, play well in the first event and Ill be fine (getting into tournaments) the rest of the way.
Marc Savard of the Atlanta Thrashers had his struggles all week long at Black Bear, closing out with a final-round 77. The fourth-round pick of the New York Rangers ended up at 24-over (78-79-78-77).
Six months ago, Cureton travelled to Whitby for the Tours Fall Q-School, only to see it end before it began when he missed his morning wake up call and was disqualified before the opening round.
He was not about to let it happen again.
That wasnt going to be a problem today, he laughed. We woke up about three hours early.
Scores Friday after the final round of the Canadian Tours Winter Qualifying School held at the 7,000-yard, par-72 Black Bear GC (A-denotes amateur):
1. Cureton, Chris McKinney, TX 72 67 69 69 277
2. McNeil, Scott Calgary, AB 71 68 70 70 279
3. Davis, Brien Las Vegas, NV 72 73 69 69 283
3. Heinen, Eddie Las Vegas, NV 70 71 73 69 283
3. Humphries, John Baton Rouge, LA 70 70 74 69 283
3. Wittenberg, Casey Memphis, TN 73 66 74 70 283
7. Collins, Glenn Winnipeg, MB 70 68 74 72 284
8. Horowitz, Joe Long Beach, N.Y. 70 75 72 69 286
8. Lydiatt, Chad Omaha, NE 73 71 72 70 286
8. Sahl, Danny Twinsburg, OH 69 70 77 70 286
8. Seki, Jim Palo Alto, CA 74 68 72 72 286
12. Smith, Jesse Barrington, NH 74 67 75 71 287
13. Mulder, Brock Dallas, TX 72 71 74 71 288
14. Snelling, Justin Boise, ID 71 72 75 71 289
15. Ferlic, Gavin South Bend, IN 73 72 76 69 290
15. Meierling, Jan Germany 72 71 74 73 290
17. McLeod, Mac Winnipeg, MB 73 72 76 71 292
18. Kings, Ryan Kitchener, ON 72 73 73 75 293
18. Zihala, Billy Little Rock, AR 70 71 77 75 293
20. Hibler, Jesse Boise, ID 75 68 78 73 294
21. Makino, Yuji Japan 76 70 75 74 295
22. Guetz, Bret Scottsdale, AZ 81 71 72 72 296
22. Kennedy, Robert Phoenix, AZ 78 73 76 69 296
22. Peterson, Brett Mesa, AZ 79 69 78 70 296
25. Hospodar, Michael Brantford, ON 76 72 71 78 297
25. Kilduff, Lynn Dallas, TX 75 73 80 69 297
27. Parker, Adrian Jupiter, FL 77 74 74 73 298
28. Brown, Michael Cheltenham, PA 81 74 70 74 299
28. Yopchick, Scott Chicago, IL 79 77 70 73 299
30. Martin, Greg Austin, TX 72 77 78 73 300
31. Hoenig, Ron Hobe Sound, FL 78 76 77 70 301
32. Dickenson, Billy Haines City, FL 74 77 76 76 303
33. Noble, Scott Cartersville, GA 77 76 81 72 306
34. Cook, Dan Charleston, SC 79 74 77 78 308
34. Johnstone, Evan Orinda, CA 78 76 77 77 308
34. Sherriff, Justin London, ON 75 79 73 81 308
34. Williams, JJ Palm Beach Gardens, FL 75 75 77 81 308
38. Deschaine, Matt Bay Minette, AL 74 74 82 79 309
39. Savard, Marc (A) Peterborough, ON 78 79 78 77 312
39. Sitterley, Rob Orlando, FL 78 78 75 81 312
41. Ryan, Jeffery Key West, FL 76 84 77 77 314
42. Petrie, Michael Inverary, ON 78 79 79 86 322