- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 24, 2007

The hottest golfer on the planet has brought his game to our backyard.

No, it’s not Tiger Woods, though this man will be forever linked to the sport’s undisputed king.

The pro game’s man of the moment is Nick Flanagan, the 22-year-old Australian who will attempt to collect his third victory in as many consecutive starts and earn an instant promotion to the PGA Tour when the Nationwide Tour’s inaugural Melwood Prince George’s County Open begins today at the Country Club at Woodmore.

“It’s a big task — three in a row,” said Flanagan, who sits atop the Nationwide Tour’s money list ($229,077) after adding the title at last week’s BMW Charity Pro-Am to his breakthrough victory at last month’s Henrico County Open. “But if I continue to hit it well and carry a hot putter, who knows? I’m certainly riding a nice wave of confidence at the moment.”

In Flanagan’s last eight tournament rounds, he had a blistering scoring average of 68.25.

“Don’t tell him I said this because I don’t want him to get the big head, but [Flanagan] was pretty much walking on water down the back nine last week,” a fellow Nationwide Tour competitor said.

Flanagan hit all 14 fairways during his final round at the Cliffs in Travelers Rest, S.C., and closed with a back-nine 30 that included three finishing birdies to bolt from the bottom of the leader board to a one-stroke victory.

It was exactly the kind of stunning display from Flanagan the golf world had been awaiting since he broke out in 2003. That August at Oakmont, a 19-year-old Flanagan arrived at the U.S. Amateur as an absolute unknown, got up-and-down from practically everywhere and walked away with the Havemeyer Trophy after trumping heavily favored Casey Wittenberg in the finals (37 holes).

As the first non-American champion in more than three decades and the second youngest U.S. Amateur champion after Woods (18), Flanagan was instantly labeled a prodigy.

And why not? At the time he had only been playing the game for six years.

The first tangible product of the “Tiger Effect,” Flanagan was a soccer star in New South Wales before tuning in to the 1997 Masters.

“I had barely mucked about with golf before,” Flanagan said. “But I got up and watched the final round of the 1997 Masters, was pretty much mesmerized by Tiger’s performance and decided to completely commit myself to golf.”

With as much pluck as game, Flanagan trekked to the United States in 2003 with no assurances. He and fellow Aussies Ben Bunny and Luke Hickmott (both now on the Canadian Tour) spent the summer on the amateur circuit.

“Those were crazy times,” Flanagan said. “We had some interesting nights in hotels with four guys fighting over two beds. I slept on a lot of floors that summer, but it was great fun because we had no idea we were in over our heads.”

After his summer of fun culminated with the U.S. Amateur victory, Flanagan turned pro in 2004. Then reality paid a visit.

Attempting to play his way onto the PGA Tour via sponsor’s exemptions, Flanagan made just one cut in 10 starts in 2004 and spent 2005 without any playing status on either the PGA or Nationwide tours.

“It was a serious eye-opener,” Flanagan said. “All signs pointed to me turning pro after the Amateur, but I found out in a hurry that I wasn’t really ready. The short cut didn’t work out for me, but I grew from the experience. I had to go back and go the conventional route, through Q-school and the Nationwide Tour. Last year, I had some success as a rookie on the Nationwide Tour (finishing 32nd on the money list). And this year, my goal was to win early and put that hurdle behind me.”

Flanagan’s breakthrough victory at last month’s Henrico County Open in Glen Allen, Va., was a stressful affair, requiring a birdie-par-birdie finish in a four-way playoff. But if last week’s follow-up salvo is any indication, perhaps the only thing standing between the young Aussie and a sprint to superstardom was that initial victory hurdle.

“We’ll see,” Flanagan said. “The true test of whether I’m ready comes next year.”

Flanagan likely already has cemented his place among the top 25 on this year’s final Nationwide Tour money list, earning him an automatic PGA Tour card for next season. But with one more victory this season, he could earn an instant “battlefield promotion” to the big time and join the seven other players who have taken that route to the PGA Tour. The most recent of those players was Jason Gore (2005), who, coincidentally, is the only player in Nationwide Tour history to win in three consecutive starts.

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