Augusta Next Stop on Flanagan Express

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Who is the reigning U.S. Amateur champion?
 
This isnt a thought-provoking question. Not presented to seek some deep, philosophical insight.
 
Its just a simple question, in need of a simple two-word answer.
 
Who is the reigning U.S. Amateur champion?
 
Nick Flanagan.
 
Maybe you knew that, maybe you didnt. Maybe seeing his name triggered a light bulb: Oh, yeah, the Australian kid.
 
Believe it or not, Flanagan, a physically unimposing 19-year-old from New South Wales, may be more recognizable in the U.S. than in his native country.
 
Its not really that big of a thing in Australia, Flanagan said in regards to becoming the first Australian in 100 years to win the U.S. Amateur championship. People dont realize how big of a thing it is, back home in Australia. Unless youre a golfer you might not know a thing about it.
 
Seven years ago, few who didnt have Flanagan blood running through their veins were familiar with Nick.
 
I never heard of him until that week last year at the U.S. Amateur, said fellow Aussie Adam Scott.
 
No, not really, replied Stuart Appleby, when asked if Flanagan was much of a name in Australian golfing circles prior to his major triumph.
 
Flanagan, the son of a coal mine electrician and a grocery store clerk, wasnt much of a golfer until one of the most inspirational moments in golf history became his most influential.
 
I watched the 1997 Masters ' its what got me started playing, he said. That was the first golf tournament I ever watched on TV.
 
The medium of television and the mastery of Tiger Woods combined to create some kind of addictive elixir in Flanagans golfing soul.
 
Tiger is the guy that ' thats what got me started playing golf pretty much. I had been playing for probably a year or so and I watched that and then went crazy on the practice range for the next few years and just gone from there, he said.
 
Tiger Woods in 97 was really the main thing that influenced my life.
 
Woods has had an impact on many a youthful life, but never, when considering a players rise through the golfing ranks, the straight adrenaline affect it had on Flanagan.
 
To go from nothing to being a top, world-class amateur in six, seven years ' thats probably never happened in the history of modern golf, as I can remember, said Appleby.
 
Appleby was Flanagans host when the now accomplished amateur competed in the Bay Hill Invitational, which offers an invitation each year to the reigning U.S. Amateur champion.
 
Nick, who shares the same instructor as Appleby, Steven Bann, was extremely appreciative for the room and board, as well as the opportunity to play his first PGA Tour event ' where he shot 72-76 to miss the cut.
 
But the highlight of the week came before the tournament ever started.
 
The Sunday before Bay Hill week, Appleby and Flanagan participated in a little practice session on the range at Isleworth Country Club ' alongside one of the exclusive community's more famous residents.
 
Stuart introduced me to Tiger. That was good, he said with still a hint of awe. Hes been my idol since I was 13, 14 years old. Hitting balls next to him for a half-hour or so ' out of this world.
 
In Flanagans world, golf barely had a pulse B.T. ' Before Tiger.
 
I didnt really know much about golf history before 97, he readily admits.
 
He knew of countryman Greg Norman, but couldnt have told you ' at least B.T. ' of his Masters misfortunes.
 
He knew of golf about as much as it knew of him.
 
Of course, then Tiger came along and changed everything. Hes now more knowledgeable of its past ' and the realm of what hes accomplished ' even if he still relates everything to his golfing Buddha.
 
The Australian Amateur is nothing compared to the U.S. Amateur. As an amateur, the U.S. Amateur is The Tournament. I grew up watching the Tiger Triple tape where he won three in a row, Flanagan said.
 
In addition to his recent PGA Tour foray, Flanagan has competed in three events on the Australasian Tour since winning the Havemeyer Trophy.
 
He made the cut in all three, and even tied for third in this years ANZ Championship. The week before, he tied for 32nd in the Heineken Classic, where he shot 67 in the opening round while grouped with Ernie Els, who had a 60 that day, and Adam Scott.
 
It was interesting to see him play with me and Ernie in Melbourne. I thought he would be really nervous, but he came out and birdied the first three holes, Scott said.
 
Aside from not being game enough to approach Tiger on his own during their mutual practice session, Flanagan doesnt appear to be the testy type.
 
He received an encouraging and calming letter from Norman prior to his 36-hole match against Casey Whittenberg in the U.S. Am. final, and then kept his poise long enough to dispose of the American favorite on the first hole of sudden death.
 
Now hes at Augusta National, where he lived two dreams Monday: playing the course for the first time and doing so alongside Woods.
 
He will play with defending champion Mike Weir over the first two rounds, and will use the invaluable services of veteran caddie Tony Navarro, who is on loan from Norman.
 
Courtesy his Amateur victory, Flanagan can compete in the first three major championships this year so long as shuns professional status ' and he plans to do just that for the time being. He also has his broadening sights set on adding the British Amateur title to his resume.
 
I would like to play Memorial (for which he has an exemption to compete), but the British Amateur is at St. Andrews (the same week) this year and I would like to go over there and play, he said. I would like to try and hold both titles at the same time.
 
After that, his playing status is in question; though, he said there is a possibility that he would turn professional after the British Open ' which would be a month before the U.S. Amateur.
 
I want to see how it goes after the majors this year, and take it from there, he said. Well have to see how it goes.
 
Whenever he makes that decision, he will have a bank vault of valuable advice ' from Norman to Appleby to Els ' upon which to draw.
 
Ernie asked me when I was turning pro. Its good to hear from guys like that, top 20 players in the world, Flanagan said.
 
He told me what he thought was probably the best thing for me to do. I just said to him, I just want to see if I can go out here and compete with these guys, and Ernie said that Im right there at the moment.
 
For someone like that to say that at this time is pretty amazing.
 
That kind of praise has been prevalent from those with whom he has played.
 
Theres no doubt that hes good enough to turn pro. But as long as he just enjoys himself, doesnt pressure himself to be the next Tiger Woods, hell be fine, Scott said.
 
Added Appleby: Hes got a good attitude; hes down to earth. Hes a good Aussie kid.
 
Hes got a lot of fight in him. Hes got a lot of what we call mongrel in him that pushed him to where he is today so quickly.
 
Email your thoughts to Mercer Baggs at mbaggs@golfchannel.com
 
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