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Driving For Excellence

Dallesport golfer Tyler Austin aims to qualify for U.S. Amateur championships

By JODI NOFZIGER

Gorge News Sports Report

On Monday, Tyler Austin took a big swing toward his dreams.

The 20-year-old Dallesport resident joined 71 other golfers at the Illahe Hills Country Club in Salem, Ore., shooting for a spot in the world's largest amateur golf tournament.

The top three golfers at the 36-hole, one-day qualifying tournament will advance to the U.S. Amateur golf championships, Aug. 22-28, at Merion Country Club in Ardmore, Pa. It's the same prestigious tournament that Tiger Woods won three years in a row before he turned pro.

"I've always wanted to qualify for this tournament and compete against the best," says Austin, who credits The Dalles Country Club golf pro Bob Sproule as well as the experience and coaching he picked up from high school and college (Lyle and Walla Walla Community College) in helping his game progress.

It will be his second year of attempting to qualify for the U.S. Amateur.

While Austin's sights remain high of qualifying for the U.S. Amateur, he's has a solid back-up plan, including the near future where he will play in the Aug. 20-21 Goldendale member-guest tournament with hopes of breaking the course record.

The affable, energetic athlete has been playing the sport since he was 2 or 3, the reason that some people think he'll get burned out on it.

He disagrees. "I love it," he says, eyes shining.

And why not?

He recently highlighted his golf career by tying The Dalles Country Club's course record, shooting a 10-under 61 on a windy day to tie the mark.

Austin sunk a 25-foot putt to par hole No. 18 to tie the mark and place a big hand-written scorecard up on the pro shop wall above Donnell Smith's scorecard from 28 years ago, when the course was slightly easier with fewer trees, water hazards and putting slopes.

He shot 11 birdies with just one bogey that came on hole No. 12.

"I lost my tee shot a little to the right and had a tree problem, and the wind was blowing," he says, grinning. "And No. 18 is a hard hole and after I hit it in the middle of the fairway, I told my grandpa [Charlie Austin] that I just had to hit the middle of the green and have a shot at it because I was putting pretty well that day."

Chipping and putting are his strengths and, he says, his tee shots have improved since he's working on relaxing and not going for so much distance.

"My biggest problem is getting the ball off the tee and keeping it in play. I would spray it everywhere. Now I trust my swing and maybe I hit a shorter ball, but I put it in play. If you cannot chip and putt, you cannot play this game."

And, he readily admits that the mental part of golf needs some shoring up; he needs to keep his temper in check because it doesn't help lower his scores.

"I'm a lot stronger [mentally] than last year and years past," he says. "You've gotta be calm as you can be. You can't be erratic. You've got to be easy-going. The best personality to have is like Fred Couples...

"I get frustrated and angry. I don't know how many times Bob [Sproule] has worked with me on that. I'll miss a putt and slam the putter into my foot...or I'll just grab the putter and clench it and say, `What are you doing?'

"I've been told I've got all the shots, I'm just not there mentally yet."

Austin has also proved he owns Husum Hills Golf Course, breaking the course record with a 60. His eagle putt chipped out, but his birdie putt went in to break the previous record--held by Jerry Smith of Husum--by three strokes.

"The day I shot 61 [at The Dalles Country Club], I wasn't expecting it. And Bob [Sproule] told me you can't go out there and expect to shoot it every time."

Still, after his June 24 record-tying score of 61, Austin blazed through the week. He followed up with a 62 on June 25 at TDCC, then hit a 66 that same week and, in the week's "worst" round, he shot a 2-under 69.

For now, Austin, who's in his second year as TDCC's pro shop assistant, helps teach juniors every Tuesday morning and also works with talented 14-year-old Damian Telles, who's playing the summer junior circuit.

"His dad [Dan Telles] has got that kid on the right track. He's great now because his dad has mentored him so well," says Austin. "He's learned that you can't let a bad round or a bad shot or a bad hole get to you. Damian is the best kid [to let it go and move on] that I've ever seen."

Austin's other back-up plans include employing his professional golf management two-year degree he earned from Walla Walla CC, where he also played golf. He was never out of the top ten in any tournament he played this past spring, finishing second twice.

"Going to school at Walla Walla I learned a lot more of the mental aspect. I finally relaxed myself to trust what I've learned. You can go on the range and hit balls great but you've got to trust it."

This fall he's heading to Concordia University in Portland, to work on a business management degree and play golf for the Crusaders.

"I want to make sure I have my schooling done first. And you don't hit your prime in golf until your late 20s to early 40s. It's still a goal of mine to make [the pro tour], I always have that goal. But I think right now, while I'm still young, I want to go to college and play college golf. Nothing can beat that experience.

"If I can't make it on the tour, then I can be around the game of golf and teach and give back to the game. It's fun teaching juniors because they are the future of the game."

Only a couple years older than junior status himself, Austin just might have his own successful golfing future.

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