- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Bill Haas might have been the only player at Shinnecock Hills thinking about the Booz Allen Classic.

“Next week is probably my biggest as a golfer,” said Haas, who makes his pro debut at TPC at Avenel after finishing tied for 40th at last week’s U.S. Open. “This is an incredible experience, playing in a U.S. Open. But next week when I sign that ‘P’ box on the first tee, I won’t just be some college kid walking around with a kick-stand bag.”

Haas was never just any college kid. The son of ageless PGA Tour stalwart Jay and the nephew of Wake Forest coach Jerry, Bill was blessed with serious ball-striker’s bloodlines. And though he probably wishes he could bank a birdie for every question he has answered about his golf-famous family, Haas never balks when asked to discuss his dad.

“People always ask me if it’s been tough or a lot of pressure growing up as his son and trying to live up to expectations or whatever,” Bill said. “I try to explain that it’s just not like that with us. Don’t get me wrong; he’s the reason I play golf. He’s been my teacher, mentor and idol as a golfer growing up. But he’s never put pressure on me, and he was just as supportive when I was younger and concentrating on basketball. He’s been a great role model as a golfer and a father.”

And 22-year-old Bill has been a model son, both as a student and a golfer. A dean’s list regular, Haas graduated from Wake Forest last month with a degree in religious studies a day before he was given the Ben Hogan Award, presented annually to the top college golfer in the country.

As a senior, Haas won five individual titles and set an NCAA record for scoring average (68.93 in 42 rounds), besting second-ranked Ryan Moore of UNLV by nearly half a stroke. He finished second to Moore in the NCAA championships at the Homestead in Hot Springs, Va., earlier this month, completing his college career with rounds of 70-68-67-68 on the par-70 Cascades course. But he understands — and actually relishes — that none of that amateur success means a thing once he steps on the tee as a professional for the first time at Avenel on Thursday.

“I’m nervous, but I’m certainly not intimidated,” said Haas, who made his first cut last week in four PGA Tour starts as an amateur. “I haven’t done so well in previous PGA Tour starts, but I’m anxious to see what happens once I get out there a little more regularly. I really think the toughest part is going to be mental because I feel good about my game. If I can get out there and make a few cuts and start to feel like I belong, I think I’ll settle in and do pretty well.”

What Haas will be trying to do throughout the remainder of the season is short-cut the system by playing his way onto the PGA Tour using only his seven allotted sponsor’s exemptions. Thanks to a series of introductory letters to tournament directors, Haas already has received sponsor’s invites to the Booz Allen, John Deere Classic (July 8-11), B.C. Open (July 15-18), International (Aug. 5-8), Reno-Tahoe Open (Aug. 19-22), Buick Championship (Aug. 26-29) and Chrysler Classic of Greensboro (Oct. 14-17).

He can earn extra starts by finishing in the top 10 at any of those events, a result that automatically exempts him into the next week’s PGA Tour field. And he earns unlimited starts if he equals the earnings of last season’s 150th finisher on the money list ($348,976).

The season goal is to finish in the top 125 on the money list, thereby earning a tour card for next season. Though there’s no way to put a price tag on No.125, last season Esteban Toledo finished in that slot with $487,495 in winnings.

Though navigating this route to a tour card is far more demanding than the two more conventional channels (Q-School and the Nationwide Tour), a handful of high-profile players have managed it over the last dozen years. This short list of sponsor’s exemption success stories includes Phil Mickelson (1992), Justin Leonard (1994), Tiger Woods (1996), Charles Howell (2001) and Hank Kuehne (2003).

“It’s a tough thing to do because obviously it places so much more emphasis on each start,” Mickelson said recently. “But I think it’s great for the game to have a guy or two trying that each season because it’s an added angle of interest for the fans. It can lead to some pretty cool stories.”

Haas obviously is hoping to become one of those stories this year. And the PGA Tour is probably secretly pulling for him. The game can never have too many big-name draws, and Haas certainly has the look of a gate goliath. Between his long, textbook swing, sleek build, confidently erect gait, striking good looks and matchless bloodlines, Haas could be his generation’s Fred Couples.

More than two decades ago, the local tour stop played a pivotal role in Couples’ career by introducing him to the winner’s circle (1983 Kemper Open). This week, Booz Allen could do the same for Bill Haas.

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