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Aiming for the stars

August 16, 2015
ROSS THEDE - Central Iowa Press , Reinbeck Courier

His degree in hand, an exceptional golf game in tow, and stars in his eyes, Austin Peters started chasing this dream 10 years ago.

On Thursday, it becomes reality.

Peters, a 2005 Gladbrook-Reinbeck graduate, will be in the third group off the first tee for the opening round of the 2015 PGA Championship when the 97th annual PGA Tour event begins tomorrow along the shore of Lake Michigan at Whistling Straits Golf Course in Sheboygan, Wis.

"It's been such a good experience so far, and really it hasn't even started," Peters said Tuesday from his hotel room in Green Bay. "Growing up, watching these guys play, yeah I was a Tiger Woods fan, and now I'm playing against him. It's two ends of the spectrum and it's pretty cool.

"I always knew and thought I could get to this point, but until you get that opportunity to sit in front of you, it's one of those things you think 'yeah, you can do it,' but not really. Once you get here and you have that opportunity, this is what you've been waiting for."

Peters, 28, is grouped with fellow American Charles Howell III and Thomas Bjorn of Denmark for the first 36 holes. The trio tees off at 7:05 a.m. from the first tee on Thursday, and at 12:20 p.m. from the 10th hole on Friday.

It's Peters' PGA debut, and he's attacking it like any other tournament.

Peters is the PGA Professional at Wood Ranch Golf Club in Simi Valley, Calif., located less than an hour northwest of Los Angeles. He has bumped elbows with his share of celebrities and PGA pros, but never this many at the same time.

He took a direct flight from Los Angeles International Airport to Milwaukee early Saturday morning, picked up his courtesy car provided by the PGA Championship - a Mercedes-Benz - and stopped off at Whistling Straits on his way to stay with a family friend in suburban Green Bay. He met his caddy, checked out the property and ended up playing five holes.

"Everybody calls him Gordo but his name's Gordon and he's been a caddy there for 12 years," Peters said. "We have the same personality, we're both jokesters, and he knows the course for sure."

Peters' parents, Randy and Judi, arrived on Sunday, and Austin logged another nine holes of practice. On Monday, he got in another nine holes alongside Rickie Fowler and Jason Dufner. As he waited to tee off Tuesday, Peters said Rory McIlroy and Ian Poulter walked up and asked to join him.

"Yeah, why not?" he recalled.

Cedar Rapids native and reigning British Open champion Zach Johnson tagged along for the back nine.

"Seeing them all in once place is pretty cool," Peters said. "Dustin Johnson has played our course before, so I kind of think that's helped me from getting too awestruck. This allows me to have some eyes on me, and that's going to help me in the long run because I'm here to win a tournament. It's good to get used to having the crowd around you."

Signing autographs? Well, that's a new one.

"I'll be the first one to admit that 99 percent of those people had no idea who I am, but that was kind of cool," he said. "It's only been a few days but it feels like I've been here a week."

After graduating from Gladbrook-Reinbeck, Peters spent four and a half years at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs (UCCS) in the pro golf management program. It included multiple internships, and he cut his teeth in the business all across the country. His first internship was at Cherry Hills Country Club in suburban Denver, Colo., and the next at Geneva National Golf Club in Lake Geneva, Wis. Following his junior year at UCCS, he worked at Promontory Ranch Clubhouse in Park City, Utah, and completed his training at Bay Harbor Golf Club along the northern shore of Lake Michigan.

Shortly thereafter, he landed his first real job at Wood Ranch.

"As soon as I got the (high school) degree I took off for the door," Peters said. "I bounced around the country a little bit, ended up out in LA."

In the last year, Peters has played in eight events in the PGA's Southern California Section. He made the cut in each of them, finished as high as third, and tied for 13th at the Southern California PGA Professional Championship last September. He led that tournament after two days but shot a 6-over 77 on the final day to fall in the final leaderboard.

The top five earned automatic qualification into the 48th PGA Professional National Championships in suburban Philadelphia, while Peters was listed as an alternate. A week and a half before that June 28-July 1 tournament, he got the invite.

"I figured I might as well give it a shot," he said. "The defending champion, Michael Block, is from my section, and I know that I've beaten him before.

"I went out there and, honestly, I didn't really play all that well but nobody else did either. I led the first day, shot 4 under, hung around par and closed things out."

A top-20 finish was all Peters needed to earn automatic exemption into this week's PGA Championship. He tied for fifth.

"It was one of those moments you kind of always look back," he said. "I closed bogey-par-bogey so I was a little bit frustrated, but in the big picture I knew I was going to play in the PGA Championship and get an opportunity to do what I've always wanted to do - playing with the best of the best."

On Thursday he takes on the links-style course that tips the scales at over 7,500 yards this week. A pair of par-fives measure upwards of 600 yards apiece.

"They've had some rain recently so it's long because everything is nice and soft," Peters said of Whistling Straits. "The greens aren't terribly fast yet so there's going to be some pretty good scores. If the wind comes up it's going to cause some havoc.

"I have to thank my caddy, he's local. After he got used to my yardages and how I'm working stuff and how I like to move the ball, we came together pretty well," Peters said. "We have spots picked out off the tee, so now it's just getting used to subtle breaks in the green. So far, so good. I've got a good caddy reading the same lines that I am.

"I'm hitting the ball as well as I ever have, I think. My Achilles heel has been my putting, but I figured out a new stroke that's really taken to me well. Putting has almost become my strong point."

Of the 150 golfers entered in the PGA Championship, only the top 70 (plus ties) will advance past Friday. To make the weekend, Peters said, would be everything he's ever hoped for.

"I have high expectations right now," he said. "I've always said, if you aim at the moon and miss, you're still amongst the stars. That's my mindset. If I don't (make the cut), so be it, I'm happy to have this opportunity."



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