LA QUINTA, Calif. — Late in a closely contested U.S. Amateur semifinal match two years ago, John Augenstein faced a delicate, short-sided chip at Pinehurst No. 2, a course known for its slick, confounding greens.
Augenstein’s opponent, William Holcomb V, had just executed an “extraordinary chip” to gimme range.
Augenstein was 2 up with four holes to play. Exemptions into the Masters and U.S. Open were on the line.
“John hits this nipping, spinning chip that is just going fast, and checks, and is then rolling like a putt,” recalled William Kane, Augenstein’s close friend who caddied that week. “It lips out, he ends up halving the hole and then winning the match.
“The creativity to hit that shot was extraordinary in itself, and under the circumstances, I just remember thinking, ‘Gosh, John Augenstein has guts.’ He’s got grit, and he’s got guts, and he’s going to do just fine.”
Augenstein is making his professional debut this week at The American Express in Southern California after a standout career at Vanderbilt. He was the SEC Player of the Year last year and a four-time All-American. Augenstein represented the United States in the 2019 Walker Cup after finishing runner-up in the U.S. Amateur.
The 23-year-old, competing at PGA West on a sponsor’s exemption, aims to follow the path of former Vanderbilt teammate Will Gordon and other young stars in earning Special Temporary Membership on the PGA TOUR. He will have seven sponsor exemptions to earn enough non-member FedExCup points to garner membership, after which he can accept unlimited invitations. He will earn his card for next season if his number of non-member FedExCup points at season’s end is equal to or greater than No. 125 in the FedExCup standings.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Augenstein intended to turn pro last spring.
“John had this idea and dream in his mind, for years, that he would finish playing in the national championship for Vanderbilt, and then he would turn pro right after that,” remembered Vanderbilt coach Scott Limbaugh, who recruited Augenstein as a scrawny high schooler from Owensboro, Kentucky.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Augenstein would have competed in the Masters and U.S. Open – in between, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in sociology – and turned pro in the middle of the year.
But the NCAA Championship was cancelled and the two majors that he earned exemptions into as the U.S. Amateur runner-up were delayed until the fall.
Augenstein extended his amateur career, began Vanderbilt graduate-school coursework, and competed in the U.S. Open (missed cut) and Masters (T55). He announced his decision to turn pro in a heartfelt letter to the Vanderbilt community on Nov. 23.
Now he turns his attention to professional competition, aiming to channel that ‘grit and guts’ into strong early returns. He will wear Oakley’s innovative apparel and eyewear, which includes Prizm Lens Technology to enhance color and contrast and allow players to see the course in greater detail.
“I fully intend to get my PGA TOUR card this year,” Augenstein said. “There’s not a doubt in my mind. You can never guarantee anything in athletics – nothing is guaranteed – all I know is that I have to do my best to take advantage of the opportunities that I get.
“I’m excited to be in this situation that I’m in. A lot of guys my age have done it in the past two, three years, and historically, so what I’m trying to do is certainly a challenging thing, but it’s attainable. A lot of great players have done it, and some great players that are up at the top of the leaderboards each week went to Q-School and went to the Korn Ferry Tour and made their way onto the PGA TOUR.”
Augenstein plans to devote his full attention to each opportunity as it comes. He can earn additional starts by finishing in the top 10 in a TOUR event – which guarantees a spot in the next open event – or Monday qualifiers.
Those around him believe that he has what it takes.
“Some of the shots he’s made in match-play scenarios have just been literally amazing,” said Limbaugh, recalling back-to-back extra-hole victories in the semifinals (20 holes) and finals (23 holes) of the 2017 SEC Championship, which propelled Vanderbilt to its first SEC men’s golf title.
“He’s a small guy in stature, but his game is big. He drives it long; he’s a new-age golfer. He hits it long and high, but he chips it like a top-20 player in the world.”
“Physically, he’s got the parts to be really, really good,” added Kane, who has also caddied for Webb Simpson and now works for College Golf Fellowship. “With his irons, he strikes it as good as just about anybody, and his chipping is really impressive. There’s no glaring weakness in his game.”
Kane draws parallels between Augenstein and a young Justin Thomas because of “the creativity that he plays with, and an emotional fire.” Augenstein credits Thomas, a fellow Kentucky native, as a major influence as well. Augenstein’s coach, Matt Killen, was Thomas’ longtime putting instructor, and currently works with Tiger Woods. Augenstein played a practice round with those two FedExCup champions at the recent U.S. Open.
Thomas earned 2014 Korn Ferry Tour status via Q-School and was on TOUR within a year.
In uncertain pandemic times, Augenstein knows his path to the TOUR could involve unique variables. He intends, though, to embrace the road ahead.
“There’s no blueprint to becoming a top player in the world,” Augenstein said. “You kind of write your own story of how to get there, and I hope that mine happens sooner rather than later, so that I can start a schedule and start moving. But this is a very fun time to get going. I’m having a blast, and I’m certainly excited to play.”