A superstar waiting to happen

On the eve of Tiger Woods‘ arrival at Congressional for this week’s inaugural AT&T; National, another golf prodigy from Southern California took Old Blue for a test drive yesterday.

For a sports culture obsessed with identifying generation next, golf’s most logical answer is Southern Cal’s Jamie Lovemark.

Saddling any young player with the mantle of greatness is a risky business, particularly in a sport in which patience and experience are at such a premium and mature course management routinely trumps raw talent. Just ask Michelle Wie, Ty Tryon, Aaron Baddeley, Justin Rose or Ryan Moore. But occasionally a player comes along who is so far ahead of the standard learning curve that it’s hard not to defy discretion.

Lovemark, who is playing this week via sponsor’s exemption, looks like precisely such a player. If the 19-year-old freshman’s parents were a bit more pushy or financially ambitious, Lovemark’s would be virtually a household name among golf fans. His resume is that good.

Two years ago, the 6-foot-4 native of Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., quietly announced himself to insiders by becoming the youngest winner of the Western Amateur. And this season he mocked the college record books, cruising to a wire-to-wire victory at the Pacific-10 Championship and becoming the first freshman to win both the Jack Nicklaus Award as player of the year and the NCAA Division I individual title.

Lovemark won the NCAAs last month in Williamsburg after rallying from 11 strokes behind after 36 holes to finish with consecutive rounds of 64.

“That feels like a long time ago now,” Lovemark said yesterday. “That was actually unbelievable, to play two rounds like that in the NCAAs in the last two rounds. It was the greatest accomplishment of my golfing career.”

At least his collegiate career. Three weeks ago, Lovemark nearly pulled off a stunner at the Rochester Area Charities Showdown, shooting a Sunday 65 to flirt with the unthinkable before falling to PGA Tour veteran Chris Riley in a playoff.

It was the best finish by an amateur in Nationwide Tour history. But after his showings in two previous PGA Tour events, a tie for 54th at the 2006 Western Open and a tie for 39th at the Buick Invitational earlier this year, Lovemark wasn’t all that surprised by his near miss.

“Technically speaking, each professional event I’ve played I’ve gotten better and better,” Lovemark said yesterday. “I got second at the Nationwide Tour event three weeks ago. If I did better than second this week, that means I would win, which would be crazy, but there’s an outside chance.”

Lovemark has the athletic potential to do so. Built like an extra large version of Charles Howell, Lovemark’s maternal uncle and current caddie Glen Holroyd was a pro tennis player, and his father, Gary, was a 6-foot-7 forward at Drake in the mid-1960s who once bested Wes Unseld in a game at Louisville.

“Our center, who actually went on to have a very successful career in the ABA, was getting pulverized by Unseld, and the coach comes to me at halftime and says, ‘You’ve got Unseld,’ ” recalled Gary Lovemark, who owns a company that manufactures clothing for prison inmates. “I couldn’t dribble, run, shoot or jump, but I leaned on, held and elbowed big Wes for a half, and he was nice enough not to kill me.”

Gary introduced his son to golf on the same course outside San Diego where world No. 2 Phil Mickelson plays his casual golf, Rancho Santa Fe Country Club. Lovemark began playing “tag-along” golf at age 4, hitting a handful of shots here and there during dad’s rounds.

“I’m not a very good golfer at all, but I emphasized posture, alignment, setup and rhythm, and he took it from there,” Gary said. “He’s never really had a teacher. He’s just worked and worked to progress on his own. He’s had pretty much the same swing you see now since he was 14, when he dropped most other sports to concentrate on golf.”

A healthy dose of Gary’s size gives Lovemark a huge swing arc, providing power and distance. And the touch provided by mother’s side gives him a formidable short game. The total package, topped with a shock of spiky blond hair and a 500-watt smile, makes Lovemark perhaps the most marketable newcomer since Woods in 1996. But belying the “faster, sooner, more” sports standard, Lovemark has no plans to turn professional in the near future.

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