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Local golfer back to having fun as he heads to U.S. Amateur again

Jake Koppenberg knows what pressure feels like. He’s played against the top golfers in the sport several times throughout his career.

At Western Washington University he was a two-time Great Northwest Athletic Conference Player of the year and still holds the record for career scoring average for the Vikings.

While still in college, he qualified for the 2008 U.S. Amateur, where he ended up losing in the Round of 32 to Rickie Fowler, who has since gone on to be one of golf’s top players.

After college, he tested the waters of the professional mini-tours in Arizona, where he was spending his last dimes on entry fees and hoping to place well enough to make a paycheck for the week.

So when Koppenberg, 28, steps onto the first tee at 7:50 a.m. Monday, Aug. 17, at Olympia Fields Country Club — located just outside Chicago — for the 2015 U.S. Amateur, the nerves will be minimal.

“The pressure is still the same. There are a few first tee jitters and the first couple shots, but you generally get in the same mindset that you’re playing a tournament and they’re all kind of the same,” Koppenberg said in an interview at his home course, Bellingham Golf and Country Club, on Friday, Aug. 7. “There’s not a ton of difference once you’re actually playing. There are some butterflies and stuff when you first start out because you see how big it is but it doesn’t change too much. Once you’re there, you’re there and once you’re playing, it’s golf.”

That seemingly care-free mindset doesn’t mean Koppenberg isn’t competitive — quite the contrary. Koppenberg says he can turn anything into competition — from mountain biking to go-karts.

But after fighting for a paycheck on the mini-tours and stressing over a shot knowing it could be the difference of $1,000, Koppenberg can enjoy amateur golf for what it is.

With a wife, Camille, two yellow labradors, George and Luna, and a fulltime job at XYZ Media, Koppenberg knows time on the course doesn’t come as often as it once did, so he needs to enjoy it.

“It’s not life or death anymore. I’m not doing it to make money, so I’m just trying to have fun on the course and enjoy it and try to learn from bad shots and get better that way,” Koppenberg said. “That’s the beauty of amateur golf. ... Playing in these amateur tournaments, all of a sudden it brings you back. There’s no paycheck looming. ... It’s a different kind of pressure; it’s more fun. You’re competing for the love of competing.”

A qualifying journey

That “just having fun” state of mind showed its strength at the U.S. Amateur sectional qualifier on July 20.

Koppenberg had signed up too late for the Washington qualifier and the nearest location left to qualify was located in Caldwell, Idaho — a mere 552 miles and 8 1/2-hour drive from Bellingham.

As Koppenberg and his friend who was also competing were preparing to make the drive, they learned there would be only one qualifier from the tournament.

“It was like a nine-hour drive thinking that it’s going to be a long way for nobody to make it,” Koppenberg said.

That thought appeared to be coming to fruition when Koppenberg started out the front nine 2-over. Since the tournament allowed players to use cell phones to track scores from the rest of the field, Koppenberg opened up the scoreboard on his phone. The leader was at 7-under through 13 holes.

“I knew I was already nine strokes down and I decided I needed to relax and have fun,” Koppenberg said. “That’s the attitude I took from that point on, knowing that I just drove nine hours, I might as well enjoy 36 holes of golf at a course I hadn’t played.”

Koppenberg started rolling in some putts and by the end of the day was 2-under, five strokes off the lead.

“The greens were fast and there was a little breeze out there so I knew it was pretty easy for a guy to shoot a few over that second. So I thought if I was under par again, I’d have a chance,” Koppenberg said.

He shot 4-under the second day, one clear of the field and guaranteed himself a spot at his second U.S. Amateur.

‘The old guy’

The U.S. Amateur is often a kickstarter for professional careers. Young golfers are given the opportunity to get their name out there and the winner is given a spot at The Masters, the U.S. Open and the Open Championship. The runner-up gets a spot at The Masters and U.S. Open.

Players from the Amateur that Koppenberg competed at in 2008 that have gone on to be big names in the sport include Jhonattan Vegas, Fowler, Billy Horschel, Lee and Patrick Reed, so Koppenberg knows what a strong showing at the U.S. Amateur can do for his golf career.

But for a guy that hasn’t set any long-term golf goals, it’s a go-and-do-your best type of week.

However, Koppenberg is hoping he can at least make it past the 36 holes of stroke play, where he finished T-20 last time and will likely need to shoot 1 or 2-over through 36 holes to make the cut from 312 to 64.

From there, anything can happen.

“I think in the U.S. Am, if you make it to match play, you have as good a chance as anybody in the field to win it. You just got to play consistent golf and can’t run into a buzzsaw of somebody else getting hot,” Koppenberg said. “That’s my goal right now, is to shoot a couple good stroke play rounds and get into match play. When it’s one-on-one, you just got one guy to beat instead of the whole field so your chances increase dramatically.”

And Koppenberg has somewhat of a secret weapon — his age.

At 28, he’s older than most of the 312-man field, which has an average age of 22.16 but has golfers as old as 62 and as young as 14.

“There’s not too many old guys. I don’t think of myself as an old guy but being 28, I’m sure most of these guys haven’t heard of me. I didn’t play college golf with them,” Koppenberg said. “I’ve got nothing to lose; people don’t expect anything from you over there. I’m kind of a nobody so I’m going to go out there and show them what I got.”

One thing he knows for sure:

If he makes it to the final match, “it would be a pretty different year coming next year than the year I just had. That would mean a lot.”

Reach Joshua Hart at 360-715-2238 or joshua.hart@bellinghamherald.com.

U.S. Amateur Championship

Monday, Aug. 17-Sunday, Aug. 23

Time: Koppenberg tees off at 7:50 a.m. Monday and 12:50 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Olympia Fields Country Club in Olympia Fields, Ill.

How to follow: Stroke play - usga.org; Round of 64/32/quarterfinals: FS1 (Noon-3 p.m.); Semifinals/Finals: Ch. 13 (Noon-3 p.m.)

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