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Big Time or Bust All business at age 19, promising amateur Casey Wittenberg will bring an old-school game and a new-school 'tude to his first Masters

April 06, 2004
April 06, 2004

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April 6, 2004

Big Time or Bust All business at age 19, promising amateur Casey Wittenberg will bring an old-school game and a new-school 'tude to his first Masters

It's 6:30 a.m. in Stillwater, Okla.--do you know where your golf
prodigy is? In the case of Casey Wittenberg, that would be in the
weight room beneath the Oklahoma State football stadium, where
right now he is pushing heavy metal in the company of a handful of
behemoth offensive linemen. On this March morning a thunderstorm
is drenching Stillwater. It's the perfect weather to persuade a
19-year-old kid to sleep in, but Wittenberg arrived early for his
workout, as he always does. A few nights ago he stayed up until
2:30 a.m., goofing around with his buddies, as a freshman is wont
to do, but less than four hours later he was in the weight room.

This is an article from the April 6, 2004 issue Original Layout

These mandatory early mornings are a foundation of the Oklahoma
State golf factory, but while his teammates shuffle around in
various states of glassy-eyed somnolence, Wittenberg radiates
intensity. After he grunts through the weight work, it's time to
run on an indoor oval, 10 hard minutes sprinting the straightaways
and walking the turns. As his teammates scamper off, Wittenberg
slouches against a wall for a few beats, giving them a head start.
When the 10 minutes are up, he is well ahead of the pack, as
usual, earning a knuckle-bump from Oklahoma State's strength and
conditioning coach, John Stemm. "He wants to be in top shape
because Augusta is a very tough course to walk," says Stemm.

Next week Wittenberg will be prowling the hills of Augusta
National as the youngest player in the Masters field, just as last
fall he was the youngest member of the U.S. Walker Cup team that
played in North Yorkshire, England. He earned his ticket to
Augusta--and to the U.S. Open in June--by reaching the final match
of the 2003 U.S. Amateur, where, at 18 years and eight months, he
had a chance to become the second-youngest champion in history,
behind Tiger Woods. Many players have a Eureka! moment following
their victory in the Amateur semifinals when they realize that,
regardless of what happens in the final, they're going to Augusta.
"I didn't even think about it," says Wittenberg, who is
disarmingly frank. "All I was thinking about was taking care of
business in the final match." (He lost in a taut playoff to
Nick Flanagan.)

O.K., but you're thrilled to be going to Augusta, right?

"This one tournament is not going to make or break my career," he
says. "I see it as a good chance to measure myself against the
best players in the world, and to find out what I need to work on."

Clearly Wittenberg considers this Masters not a once-in-a-lifetime
occasion but merely the first of many such appearances. Those
close to him even raise the unthinkable possibility that he might
earn a lifetime invitation while still a teen. "Casey's looking for
something a lot bigger than making the cut," says his older
brother, Witt, a senior at Ole Miss. "In his heart he believes
he's good enough to win."

Says Casey, "Why set limits? My goal is to go down there and play
the best golf I can. If I do that, you never know what can
happen."

There hasn't been a collegian this earnest about succeeding at the
next level since Justin Leonard was at Texas wearing slacks in
tournaments to replicate PGA Tour conditions while his bemused
teammates all cooled out in shorts. Leonard carried the nickname
Pro; among his teammates, Wittenberg answers to Big Time. But
while Leonard was celebrated for his singlemindedness, Wittenberg's
grim determination and bulletproof confidence on the course have
played to mixed reviews.

Though he is only 5'7", Wittenberg loomed large at the '03
Amateur. He arrived at storied Oakmont Country Club as the
top-ranked amateur in the country and strode the fairways hiding
behind mirrored sunglasses as if they were the tinted windows of a
limousine. Wittenberg is a handsome kid, his most prominent
feature the granite chin of an action-movie star. With his hat
pulled low, glasses on and chin out, he presented an intimidating
visage, and an easy target. After Wittenberg had a showy moment
of youthful exuberance in a quarterfinal match against 50-year-old
George Zahringer, the NBC announcing team spent the better part
of three days commenting on what they perceived to be his
cockiness and aloof manner.

All that chatter followed Wittenberg to North Yorkshire's Ganton
Golf Club for the Walker Cup. There he found himself in the
crosshairs of the Fleet Street rowdies who are always on watch for
Ugly Americanism. At the end of a contentious U.S. loss, The Daily
Telegraph opined that Wittenberg had "the disposition of someone
with a terminal toothache" and that "his blank expression reminds
you of a magistrate listening to some desperate excuse from a
speeding motorist." These were among the kinder clippings, all of
which Wittenberg saved for fuel.

After his turbulent summer Wittenberg knows that his game isn't
the only thing that will be scrutinized at the Masters. "I know
I'm watched, I know I'm judged," he says. "I'm a 19-year-old kid,
and I'm not supposed to have accomplished some of the things that I
have. So people are paying attention to what I do, but I'm
comfortable with that."

Wittenberg is clearly ready for stardom. The question remains, Is
the golf world ready for him?

Wittenberg grew up in Memphis surrounded by the game. The family's
home course was the TPC of Southwind, site of the Tour's annual
FedEx-St. Jude Classic. Casey's father, Jimmy, was a graduate of
the Tour's Q school in 1974, part of a class that included Fuzzy
Zoeller, Bill Rogers, Roger Maltbie and Bobby Wadkins. Jimmy knocked
around the Tour for three years but gave it up for a more stable
life as a homebuilder. (He now owns his own company.)

Casey and Witt grew up competing against their father, the kids
teaming together as a best-ball twosome. "The matches were always
the talk of the dinner table," says Jimmy.

Casey's competitive drive, and his toughness, were also shaped by
having a brother four years his senior. "He always insisted on
playing sports with me and my friends," says Witt. "And we didn't
take it easy on him."

As Casey grew more serious about golf, he took on another role
model--David Gossett, the 1999 U.S. Amateur champ who is now in
his fourth year on Tour. The Gossetts lived only a couple of miles
from the Wittenbergs, and David also played out of Southwind. "I
remember him always wanting to have putting contests on the
practice green," says Gossett. "He was a feisty kid. I like him--I
always have. He's got fight."

Casey took note when Gossett moved to Bradenton, Fla., to enroll
at the ultraexclusive David Leadbetter Academy, a boarding
school-boot camp for golf prodigies. Wittenberg visited the
Academy while in junior high and enrolled there as an eighth-
grader. "I thrived on the competitiveness of the environment, the
competitiveness of the other athletes," says Wittenberg. His game
was further refined by Leadbetter and his disciples. His textbook
form now produces ball striking that's straighter than six
o'clock, but Wittenberg is not just a driving-range automaton.
"He has all the shots," says Zahringer, a Walker Cup teammate.
"He's very creative, and his short game is out of sight."

Wittenberg's Oklahoma State roommate and best friend, Tyler Leon,
says, "He always pulls off the shot or makes the putt when he
absolutely has to. His mental toughness is pretty incredible."

Wittenberg showed no fear as a 17-year-old when he received a
sponsor's exemption into the 2002 FedEx and missed the cut by just
a stroke. Last summer he went to another level, winning the
Southern Amateur with a final-round 64 that included an
eagle-birdie-par finish. The following week he won the prestigious
Porter Cup, becoming the event's youngest champion since 1978,
when he shot a tournament-record 14-under 266 (64-67-69-66).

Just as striking as Wittenberg's scores was his clinical approach
to the game, including an on-course manner that some see as aloof
but NBC's Gary Koch called "robotic." Says Jimmy Wittenberg, who
doubles as his son's caddie, "Since Casey started playing, I've
talked a lot about not showing emotion, especially negative
emotion. If the other guy is banging his driver on the ground,
good, that means he's beat."

The squawking about Casey's 'tude began at last year's U.S.
Amateur during his quarterfinal match against Zahringer, a fixture
on the amateur circuit. The match was all square on the par-3
13th.Wittenberg was facing a frighteningly fast downhill 20-footer
with six feet of break for birdie. With his ball halfway to the
cup, Wittenberg began backpedaling in excitement. At six feet from
the hole he was so sure the ball was going in that he turned and
began walking off the green toward the next tee. He never saw the
putt drop. (Jimmy retrieved the ball from the cup.) This act of
hubris was replayed repeatedly on the telecast. As it unfolded
live, NBC's Dan Hicks said, "That's an example of that confidence.
That went over the line."

"That's cocky," said Koch.

Wittenberg was in the 14th fairway when Koch revisited the
postbirdie strut. "Guys don't like that, I'm going to tell you,"
he said. "It's one thing if a guy makes a nice putt and beats you
on a hole, but don't give me the showmanship as well." (Koch
parroted the criticism the following day, when the replay of the
putt was shown yet again.)

Wittenberg remains baffled about all the hoopla created by that
one spontaneous reaction. "My dad's been on me about my attitude
and on-course demeanor ever since I started playing," he says.
"He's my harshest critic, and he didn't say anything [about what
happened at 13]. George didn't say anything. We're good friends
and still write each other all the time. Obviously he wasn't upset.
It really wasn't a big deal. One person blew it into something
Really big. I guess he had to have something to talk about. But I
Saw Gary Koch shoot 62 the other day [on the Champions tour], and
he didn't smile once. Should I go on TV and rip him for it?"

Zahringer, a soft-spoken investment banker, is supportive of
Wittenberg--to a point. "In the course of the match, it was a
nonevent," he says. "It didn't bother me at all. As a competitor I
understood the emotion of the moment. But Casey has to realize the
public interprets things differently."

Wittenberg was again cast as the heavy in the Amateur's
championship match against Flanagan, an unknown 19-year-old
Australian. In what seems like a Hollywood embellishment,
Flanagan's dad is a coal miner who was following his son's
progress at home on the Internet. NBC shamelessly milked the
storyline, repeatedly reminding viewers of Wittenberg's
Leadbetter Academy background, adding a class-war twist to
David vs. Goliath.

"That was a bunch of hooey," says Jimmy Wittenberg. "They played
up the the coal-mining angle, but Nick Flanagan has been groomed
by the Australian Golf Federation. They pay his expenses, and he
doesn't go to school at all. Yet Casey's the spoiled one with all
these advantages? Come on."

Wittenberg was in the spotlight again two weeks later at the
Walker Cup. Tired from his whirlwind summer, he was not at the
top of his game, particularly in a crucial singles loss to
crafty 42-year-old Gary Wolstenholme, who birdied four holes in
a row on the back nine to roar to a 3-and-2 win. "On the 10th
hole Casey didn't hit his best shot and he swished his
club"--that is, banged it on the turf--"and it was not construed
as a proper thing to do," says Wolstenholme, who famously
defeated Tiger Woods in singles at the 1995 Walker Cup. "A few
holes later he walked off the green and headed toward the next
tee while I was still putting. A comment was made by a member of
the gallery and Casey came back to watch the putt. It was simply
frustration on his part, and it was understandable given the
situation. It certainly had no effect on me or the match, but it
was not greeted favorably by the spectators or by Peter Alliss
on the BBC.

"Casey's a good kid, but he gives off an air of being implacable.
People like to see someone like that knocked down a peg or two,
whether that's fair or not."

Thus a transatlantic reputation was born. Looking back, Wittenberg
says, "I have nothing to apologize for. I played my heart out last
summer." But he also admits, "I didn't like how I came off." He is
not worried about how he will be perceived at the Masters, or
beyond. "I've grown up," he says. "I'm different than I was last
summer."

This broader perspective comes from having left the cloistered
world of the Leadbetter Academy for life at a large university.
Wittenberg is studying everything from Beethoven's sonatas for a
classical music course to the reproductive cycle of fruit flies for
Entomology 101. His girlfriend of nearly a year, Austin Varner,
also helps him stay grounded. It is a reminder of Wittenberg's
youth that she is still in high school back in Memphis. (An honor
student and standout cross-country runner, Varner will attend
Southern Methodist or Texas in the fall.)

"On the course Casey is so serious, but there's a whole different
side to him," says Varner. "He has a big personality and a great
sense of humor." According to Varner, "We talk all the time, and
never about golf. He's not obsessed with the game."

Of course, in a brown paper bag next to the TV in his messy dorm
room are a pile of videotapes of Masters past, going as far back as
1960. Wittenberg has been doing his homework. It is a measure of
Wittenberg's sophistication that he is hoping to play with David
Toms, a friend of the family whose brand of ball control Wittenberg
can relate to. But Toms is eager to instruct him on more than
simply the quirks of Amen Corner. Of Wittenberg's walk-off birdie
at the Amateur, Toms says, "I would never even think to do
something like that, but I guess that's the new generation. It's a
different attitude. There are other things. I'd take the sunglasses
off once in a while, but maybe I'm old school."

Wittenberg is not. He's part of a golfing generation raised on
Woods's fist-pumps and celebrating Ryder Cup teams that dance
across opponents' putting lines, with a competitive edge sharpened
at hypercompetitive junior tournaments and exclusive golf
factories. Don't expect Wittenberg to be awed by the Masters'
hoary traditions, or to play with anything less than his usual
intensity.

"I'm a confident kid, definitely," he says. "I think you need that
confidence to succeed, and my goals are very high. I want to be
the Number 1 player in the world. All of this"--Koch's zingers, the
Walker Cup brouhaha, predawn workouts, a first Masters--"is part
of the learning curve."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JEFFREY LOWECOLOR PHOTO: DARREN CARROLL/ICON SMI MADE IN SHADES At the U.S. Amateur, Wittenberg caught heat for his ever-present sunglasses.COLOR PHOTO: DOUG PENSINGER/GETTY IMAGES DEEP THOUGHT Wittenberg, waiting to putt during the Amateur, says that he's learned a lot from his 2003 experiences.COLOR PHOTO: DARREN CARROLL/ICON SMI SHAKING IT OFF In a gentlemanly gesture Wittenberg doffed both cap and glasses after beating Lee Williams in the semis.COLOR PHOTO: AL MESSERSCHMIDT/ICON SMI NAYSAYER Koch, an NBC analyst at the Amateur, let Wittenberg have it more than once for behavior he deemed too "cocky."COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JEFFREY LOWE ON EDGE Wittenberg admits he didn't like "how I came off" last summer, yet he's talking about winning at Augusta.
Clearly Wittenberg doesn't consider this Masters a
once-in-a-lifetime occasion, and some raise the possibility he
could earn a lifetime invitation while still a teen.
I know I'm watched, I know I'm judged," Wittenberg says. "I'm a
19-year-old kid, and I'm not supposed to have accomplished some
of the things I have."
I'm a confident kid, definitely," Wittenberg says. "I think you
need that confidence to succeed, and my goals are very high. I
want to be Number 1."