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Pressure tourneys nothing new for top-ranked boy
Paolucci played in the junior Ryder Cup.
Under the lazy clouds dotting an otherwise blue sky Tuesday at Dalhousie Golf Club, Anthony Paolucci practiced on the driving range with fellow competitor Danny Lee to his left and his former junior Ryder Cup teammate Jeffrey Kang to his right.
Paolucci, who had played in the Junior-Am in the morning, unleashed one crisp shot after another as he methodically worked his way through the clubs in his bag amid 90-degree conditions, which were relatively mild for the 16-year-old who calls Dallas home. With a club to his toes for alignment, Paolucci, slender at 6 foot 1 and 160 pounds, launched one missile after another before a sparse gathering that included his mother Aixa and a couple of college scouts.
His 5-iron show was as picturesque as the country club surroundings, as he sent off ball after ball with a solid thwack and watched each follow the same straight, piercing trajectory, falling some 200 yards away.
Paolucci occasionally turned to Lee and Kang for feedback on his foot technique, and on another occasion the trio talked lightheartedly about a movie that would lead to laughter.
It was a far cry from the fiery competition that promises to begin today in the first of four rounds of the AJGA Rolex Tournament of Champions, which has invited competitors from seven countries and 30 states.
"It kind of sounds really weird, while we're all competitors out here, we're all good friends with each other and try to help each other as much as we can," Kang said.
Paolucci, the top-ranked player in the field at No. 7 in the Polo rankings, will pair with Kang, last year's runner-up in the Rolex tournament and currently No. 9 in the Polo rankings.
While the two will be going against each other today, they were on the same American side in September in a 22-2 victory against the Europeans in the Junior Ryder Cup at Old Stone Golf Club in Kentucky.
"That was kind of fun together," Kang said. "It made us a lot closer than we were before. It was a great opportunity to get together. Like now, we're so much closer."
Paolucci went 3-0 in the competition and Kang said his teammate made his presence felt beyond that.
"He's a good player first of all," Kang said. "But he likes to help people, as well as get along with them. It's just great to have someone like that on your team."
The Junior Ryder Cup has been part of the perks that have accompanied Paolucci's ascent in junior golf over the past few years.
His father Mike played college golf at Ohio State and was part of a team that won the national championship and included PGA Tour players John Cook and Joey Sindelar.
Mike Paolucci was not among the starting five on the national champions, but he had the talent and love of the game that has fueled his son. Anthony was swinging plastic clubs when he was 18 months old and began to play real golf by 3.
Paolucci played in local tournaments around Dallas and was involved in other sports during his earlier years. Golf was always his favorite, but basketball ran a close second.
Basketball was left in the wake of golf after Paolucci won the 2005 Future Masters tournament in Alabama at age 12. He shot a final-round 65 to beat an elite field.
"That's when I found out I could play on a national level," Paolucci said.
His next major step came in 2007, when he unexpectedly advanced to the championship match of the U.S. Junior Amateur at the end of his eighth-grade year. Paolucci entered the tournament ranked No. 257 by Golfweek among junior golfers and took out the No. 1- and No. 2-ranked players to reach the final.
Paolucci beat 17-year-old Bud Cauley, the No. 2 player, in his first-round match, which surprised many, including his father.
"In fact, my dad had made reservations for us to leave that night, knowing there was no chance for me to beat this kid," Paolucci said with a smile.
Paolucci won the first two holes and ultimately beat Cauley 5 and 4. He won his next three matches.
He ultimately lost 8 and 7 to Cory Whitsett, currently No. 3 in the rankings, in the final.
"Something happened that week," Paolucci said. "I had two good swing thoughts and I got the putter rolling. Even in the last match against Cory, I hit the ball good. I just didn't make enough putts.
"After I made the cut that week, everything else was a bonus. Obviously I would have loved to walk away as the youngest player ever to win the tournament, and I would have replaced Tiger [Woods]'s record if I would of won -- Tiger was 15 when he won and I was 14 -- but being the runner-up gave me a lot of attention from other people for a while."
The runner-up finish opened doors for Paolucci.
"I was able to get into the bigger tournaments, which was a bonus for me and allowed me to test my game against the best players in the country, because I had not been able to do that so far," he said. "Once I got to the runner-up, I realized I cannot only get in the best tournaments in the country, but I can also compete with those players. So pretty much from then on, I had the mindset that, 'I can win this week.'"
Last year, at the end of his freshman season of high school, Paolucci built on that success by winning the Junior PGA Championship in Maineville, Ohio. He had rounds of 68, 66, 69 and 73 on his way to claiming the Jack Nicklaus Trophy, which also has been won by future PGA Tour golfers Billy Andrade (1981), Billy Mayfair (1982), David Toms (1984), Sean O'Hair (1998) and Trevor Immelman (1996). Paolucci birdied the 72nd hole to force a playoff, where he defeated Jordan Spieth (No. 2 in rankings) on the second hole of sudden death.
"Last year I played well, but never really contended for much, and then at the Junior PGA I started making some putts that I had been missing all summer," Paolucci said. "The putts dropped and that's one reason I won that week."
That win led to a place in the Junior Ryder Cup.
"I'm just trying to keep everything in perspective," Paolucci said. "My long goal is I want to be on the PGA Tour, and I want to be a great PGA Tour player. But right now I'm not trying to become the best junior or amateur. Rather than the best junior-amateur, ahead of that I want to develop a game where I'm a very successful pro. If I don't meet my expectations as a junior or amateur, that will not change my long ambition of going on Tour."
Paolucci finished seventh in the tournament last year, and thus far has a pair of top-10 AJGA finishes this year, including a runner-up finish at the FootJoy Invitational. He recently finished eighth in the Texas amateur, which had a heavy flavor of college golfers.
Since college-aged players aren't allowed in the field, this week may be better suited for success. And while Kang has gotten to better know Paolucci, he said he has not played a round of golf with him in the couple of years where Paolucci has improved his game and standing in junior golf. That will change today.
"Playing with people you know is so better than playing with people I don't know," Kang said. "It's going to be comfortable out there. I'm looking forward to tomorrow."