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Hometown Hammer seeks victory, not just experience, in Houston

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HUMBLE, Texas – When Cole Hammer was younger, he drilled two golf holes, about 12 feet apart, into the hardwood floor of his bedroom so that he could practice his putting into the night. The rug that was laid over it runs about a 10 on the Stimpmeter. The putters and balls scattered about make Hammer’s room look like a mini-PGA Tour Superstore.

These days, it’s Hammer’s dad, Gregg, who gets the most use out of the one-of-a-kind practice area, as the 20-year-old Cole is away at college, currently a star sophomore at the University of Texas. But this week, it’s back at Cole’s disposal.

The Longhorns stud, who first made headlines as a 15-year-old prodigy playing in the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, is making his first non-major PGA Tour start this week at the Houston Open, which is being played about a half-hour from the Hammer family’s home in the River Oaks community, just west of downtown.

“The fact that it’s in Houston, my hometown, makes it extra special,” said Hammer, who will sleep in his own bed this week, just feet from that putting setup. “This is the first PGA Tour event I ever came and watched and to have kind of my first [Tour] start being here where I’ve grown up – I’ve played this course quite a bit – is really cool.”

Hammer remembers attending tournaments at the Golf Club of Houston long before he received a sponsor invite to play in one. One year, he scored a parking pass in the players’ lot and spent the whole day getting autographs, including the signature of his favorite player, Rory McIlroy. He recalls a 3-wood that Lee Westwood hit on the third hole, still calling it “the purest golf shot I’ve ever seen hit in my life.”

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Of course, living close by, Hammer also got to play the course many times. He and his family were members for a year while he was in high school as their home course, River Oaks, was being renovated. And for several years, beginning when Hammer was 11 years old, he and current Texas teammate Mason Nome would play the course with their dads in the weeks before the pros arrived.

“It was fun for us to come out and see a PGA Tour setup with stands,” Hammer said. “We were probably playing like the ladies tees out here and looking back at the back tees thinking, ‘Man, how do they hit the ball so far?’ But that was really special time for me. … To kind of look back on that tomorrow when I'm standing on the first tee will be something I'll remember for a while.”

But make no mistake, this experience isn’t all sentimental for Hammer.

“I’m trying to win the tournament,” Hammer exclaimed Tuesday.

He’s seen former peers Matthew Wolff and Collin Morikawa win this summer on Tour, and it was just in June, at the NCAA Championship, when Hammer drilled Wolff in a semifinal match. Gregg Hammer said that the success of those guys has created “unreasonable” expectations for young stars such as his son, but that doesn’t mean that Cole can’t meet them, even as quickly as this week.

For much of his short golf career, Hammer has played up a level – or three. A major championship as a high-schooler. Top amateur events as a junior. The Walker Cup before his sophomore year of college.

“He has gotten a comfort level with being in those positions,” Gregg Hammer said.

Hammer is coming off finishes of T-9 at Olympia Fields and T-42 at the Nike Collegiate to kick off his fall with the Longhorns. He’ll miss this weekend’s Big 12 Match Play, also in Houston, but for good reason. He’s ready to win himself a Tour event.

“It's cool to see these guys play well, and obviously I've played with them a bunch and I've had some success against them,” Hammer said. “Sure, it gives me confidence, but it's not confidence that I haven't had before.

"I’ve always known that the top amateurs have a great chance against these guys.”

And with that, it’s officially Hammer Time in Houston.