- The Washington Times - Friday, July 4, 2008

Oh, the things a young golfer must go through to gain entry to the PGA Tour.

Most young players, after all, aren’t Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson - guys so good they can play hooky from Qualifying School, guys who can command endorsement deals before they hit their first tee shot. Most young players spend several years MapQuest-ing their way around North America and entering off-the-beaten-path tournaments like the Gilligan’s Island Invitational. Anything to keep the keep the checks from bouncing. Anything to keep the college girlfriend from running off with some geek with a steady income and a dental plan.

Three years ago, Steve Marino, the 28-year-old from Fairfax who leads this week’s AT&T; National, found himself in a team event in Nevada set up like the World Series of Poker. Big Stakes Match Play, it was called - perhaps you saw it on the Golf Channel.

Marino and partner Steve Wheatcroft had to put up $100,000 to give themselves a shot at the “big stakes,” which included a top prize of about $3 million. Fortunately, given their modest circumstances, the 100 grand didn’t come out of their own pockets. Five well-heeled friends of Wheatcroft’s - call them venture golf capitalists - each invested $20,000 in the pair … with a written promise they would share in the spoils, if any.

“Had we won,” Marino said, “we would have split $1 million, and the other $2 million would have gone to [the investors].”

Team Marino didn’t win, but it did advance far enough to get its $100,000 stake back. It was just another stop, albeit a wacky one, on the road to the PGA Tour.

That road has led Marino to Congressional and to a bogey-free, 5-under 65 Thursday in the presence of family and “rowdy” friends from W.T. Woodson High School and the University of Virginia. It’s the first time in his two years on the tour he has had the first-round lead. Indeed, only once has he posted a lower score (a Saturday 64 in this year’s Mayakoba Golf Classic, which runs opposite the Match Play Championship).

Not that he’s started to spend the winner’s money in his head. “There’s a long way to go,” he said. “How many times do you see the guy that’s leading the first round … go on to win the tournament? You’ve just got to go out and try to keep doing what you’ve been doing. The tournament doesn’t really begin pretty much until the back nine on Sunday.”

Still, it’s a lot better result than he got in the AT&T; last year, when the putts refused to drop and he missed the cut. And, hey, at least he’s in the field. In 2005, he couldn’t even wangle an invite to the Booz Allen - local boy or not - when he wrote the tournament director asking for a sponsor’s exemption. Of course, back then, he wasn’t even playing on the Nationwide Tour; he was just knocking around mini-tours and trying to get his game in shape for the Big Time.

If he keeps playing the way he has been, though, Marino should join the ranks of Fred Funk, Olin Browne and others from the D.C. area recognized as Home Grown Pros. He has been more than earning his keep on the tour since getting his card in late 2006. Last year he won just under $1.2 million and placed 80th on the money list, and halfway through this year he has earned almost that much ($1,093,911) and threatened to break into the top 50 in money.

And all it has taken is two years on the Canadian tour, some time on the Golden Bear and Gateway tours and then a lap around the Nationwide Tour in ‘06 that saw him rack up 10 top-25s. At one point in his travels, Marino shot a 59 and ran off to a 10-stroke victory in something called the Gateway-Grey Goose Tour championship. Clearly, the man can play.

This year he has taken another spiked step forward, finishing second at Mayakoba and tying for fourth in the Sony Open, his two best finishes yet on the tour. He hit a bit of a lull after making 12 of his first 13 cuts, but he seems to have solved that by switching to a different set of Cleveland irons - the golf equivalent of changing the oil. He knocked his approaches so close yesterday that none of the five birdies he rolled in measured longer than 12 feet.

Let’s face it, Funk - now 52 and two-timing on the Champions Tour - and Browne (49) can’t play forever. Washington could use a new rooting interest in professional golf. Maybe Steve Marino has what it takes. Another strong finish, this one in his “home” tournament, certainly would raise his profile around here.



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