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One small step leads to one big boast

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Two tournaments came down to the last hole and produced emotions as different as the tours themselves.

There were tears on the PGA Tour.

There were boasts on the Nationwide Tour.

Moments after Sean O’Hair won on the strongest tour in the world, his eyes filled with tears and he broke down during his brief TV interview. He had gone more than two years without winning, and his confidence was still fragile on the eve of the Canadian Open.

 It was a reminder how hard it is to win on the PGA Tour.

Hours earlier, NCAA champion John Peterson from LSU had a one-shot lead going into the final hole until he missed the fairway and took bogey. Harris English made a 10-foot birdie for a two-shot swing and the victory, joining Georgia teammate Russell Henley as amateurs to win on the Nationwide Tour this year.

That two college players could contend in golf’s version of Triple-A was not nearly as shocking as the comments that followed.

“I knew I could beat all those guys,” Peterson told Golf World magazine.

And he was just getting warmed up.

“The top guys in college, the top 20 or 30 guys, can beat the top 20, 30 guys on the PGA Tour,” Peterson said. “Maybe with the exception of two or three guys who are constantly up there, like a Matt Kuchar or Luke Donald … those top 20 college guys will beat those top 20 or 30 PGA Tour guys, if given the opportunity.”

The outrageous comment drew a chuckle from Scott Verplank, who won a PGA Tour event in 1985 before his senior year at Oklahoma State.

“Great to have that enthusiasm, isn’t it?” Verplank said Tuesday, sarcastic as ever.

Verplank didn’t entirely disagree. He often plays with some of the best college players, such as U.S. Amateur champion Peter Uihlein, Kevin Tway and Morgan Hoffman. He knows how good they are and what they’re capable of doing.

He just figures Peterson was off by a digit.

“It’s not 20 or 30 guys on tour,” Verplank said. “It’s about 200 or 300 players out here who are just as good. That’s really not a wise statement. They also were playing on the Nationwide Tour. If you’re going to compare that with the PGA Tour, you’re making a mistake.”

No doubt, this has been a remarkable summer for amateur golf.

UCLA freshman Patrick Cantlay has been the headliner, finishing in the top 25 in all four PGA Tour starts. That includes being low amateur at the U.S. Open, setting a course record with a 60 in the Travelers Championship and finishing in a tie for ninth in the Canadian Open.

Across the Atlantic, 20-year-old Tom Lewis of England opened with a 65 at Royal St. George’s for the lowest score ever by an amateur in the British Open. He became the first amateur in 43 years to be atop the leaderboard at golf’s oldest championship.

No doubt, these kids can play.

“On any given week, when you give amateurs a shot, they’re going to do it because we’re ruthless,” English said. “All college events are very competitive, and you learn how to go out there and win. The college golf system is awesome. You see guys coming out every year ready to compete and showing it off.”

What they’ll figure out soon enough is that in golf at the highest level - the pro level - is not measured by one week or one month, or even one year.

“Frankly, there aren’t 30 guys in college who are going to be on our tour in three years,” said David Duval, who as a junior at Georgia Tech had the 54-hole lead at a PGA Tour event until he closed with a 79 and tied for 13th.

There’s a reason it has been 20 years since an amateur - Phil Mickelson - won on the PGA Tour.

Verplank won the U.S. Amateur in 1984, then won the Western Open a year later in a playoff over Jim Thorpe (they finished three shots ahead of Seve Ballesteros and reigning U.S. Open champion Andy North). The next year, he tied for fourth in the season-opening Tournament of Champions, won an NCAA title that spring and tied for 15th in the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills in his pro debut.

He then missed the cut in 16 of his first 20 events on the PGA Tour.

There’s a difference between playing as an amateur and playing for a living.

“The attitude is easier when you’re an amateur because you’ve got nothing to lose,” Verplank said. “Having said that, it ought to be like that as a pro. When I won, it was just golf. When you’re an amateur, you’re just trying to see how good you can get.

“It’s still golf,” he said. “You still have to shoot the scores and make the putts. You’d like to think it wouldn’t change. But everything is based on money out there, and that changes a lot of people.”

English and Peterson want to be part of the Walker Cup team in September before turning pro. English at least has the Nationwide Tour to fall back on next year if he doesn’t get his PGA Tour card through Q-school.

A more difficult decision awaits Cantlay, who sounded a lot more determined to stay at UCLA before he began his splendid summer run. Had he been a pro, Cantlay would have earned $343,088. Would he have played the same way if he were playing for money? Tough to say. Two agents estimate Cantlay could probably get about $500,000 in endorsement contracts by turning pro.

The more critical question is whether he can improve by staying at UCLA.

And whether he realizes that once he starts playing for a living, the game might not seem as fun as it once was.