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Rodgers could make Spieth-like splash in pro ranks

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PEBBLE BEACH, CA - FEBRUARY 13: Dustin Johnson plays a shot from the ninth fairway during round three of the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am at the Pebble Beach Golf Links on February 13, 2016 in Pebble Beach, California. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)  - 

Stanford coach Conrad Ray first saw Patrick Rodgers at a Future Collegians World Tour event in Monterey, Calif.

Rodgers was a ninth-grader from Avon, Ind., as thin as a 3-iron, and the only junior player in the field wearing slacks. Unlike most of the Midwestern kids, he didn’t show up to escape the cold and snow and knock off the rust. He was there, quite simply, to win.

“He was so put together,” Ray recalled this week, “that he looked like he’d been in college and on Tour already.”

After the event, Rodgers headed north to Stanford to tour the campus and facilities. Six years later, he is the No. 1-ranked amateur in the world; he is on the verge of becoming the second-best player in school history (behind only Tiger Woods); and he is just three months away from beginning his pro career, having announced this week that he will forgo his final year of eligibility.

Of the many immensely talented players currently in the college and amateur game, Rodgers, 21, is the most polished and Tour-ready. He’s an old soul and a meticulous grinder with a game that can quickly translate to the play-for-pay ranks, much like Jordan Spieth, his former amateur-golf rival and Walker Cup teammate who has enjoyed a meteoric rise on the PGA Tour.

Rodgers, of course, could already be working toward his card. He tied for 15th at the John Deere Classic last summer and has two tours of duty with the U.S. Walker Cup team. Had he turned pro last fall, his window to secure playing privileges would have been wider.

But he opted to return to Palo Alto because he wanted to address his weaknesses, or at least the few that he discovered while playing with Zach Johnson at the Deere. Rodgers realized it wasn’t about how high or how hard or how far he was hitting the ball. For the game’s elite, the goal is proximity and repeatability. Every time Johnson hit a shot it was struck in the center of the clubface and the ball traveled through the same small window.

“He had to take a real critical look,” Ray said, “and he told me, ‘I’m not even scratching the surface about how good I can and need to be.’”

With a solid, 6-foot-2 frame, Rodgers also knew that he needed to get leaner and stronger if he wanted to survive a 30-week schedule. Guided by Stanford sports performance coach Jason Quan, Rodgers and Ray now engage in friendly competitions to compare caloric and nutrient intake using an iPhone app.

Rodgers is always looking to fine-tune his mental edge, too. Carol Dweck, Stanford’s renowned psychology professor, occasionally will meet with the team to discuss the mental aspects of the sport. One message in particular has resonated with Rodgers – about how it’s important to be in a place mentally where you can reward yourself for the process and improvement and not necessarily be grounded in prizes and results.

It was sage advice, particularly for a player set to embark on a pro career filled with peaks and valleys.

A two-time first-team All-American, Rodgers has obviously endured few setbacks during his two-plus years with the Cardinal. He has seven college wins, just four shy of Woods’ all-time record, and he currently holds the career scoring average mark (70.55).

Still, he has needed to deal with a couple of disappointments, especially in the postseason. Last May, Rodgers played poorly on the back nine at NCAA regionals and Stanford finished a few shots off the cut line for nationals. In team play, the failures can sting even more.

“You can’t just experience roses all the time to know what you’re going after,” Ray said. “I talk about that at length with him, about how golf is really cyclical and that you’d rather have down days and ugly golf at a time where you can manage that. In the pro ranks, you have endorsement deals and people watching you closely and you’re going to struggle, eventually. He’s so well-equipped mentally and physically to deal with those downturns.”

With this foundation, Rodgers has effectively dismissed the ridiculous notion that a modern-day athlete can’t receive a high-level education and also adequately prepare himself for a pro sports career. When former Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck was taken No. 1 overall in the 2012 NFL draft, pundits and team officials repeatedly cited not only his talent and intangibles but also his smarts and maturity.

Rodgers is no different, and it’s why those in amateur golf circles have been salivating at his pro potential. He even consulted with the signal-caller, now with his hometown Indianapolis Colts, before making his decision to leave school early.

“When you combine physical ability with preparation and a sound approach, that’s pretty powerful,” Ray said. “Patrick has that physical presence and the ability to hit shots, but he also doesn’t shy away from the pressure. He likes the brighter lights. He has all the tools that match up well with what they’re doing at the highest levels – he just has to get there.”