COLUMBIA — Junior Peter Malnati’s scores have led the Missouri men’s golf team at nearly every match this season. But last year, with U.S. Amateur runner-up John Kelly on the team, that wasn’t the case. Malnati wasn’t pleased with his play in his first two seasons, and said he had lost the swagger that earned him a spot on the team in the first place.
His trip to the U.S. Open changed that.
Malnati walked down the 10th fairway at Oakmont Country Club one dewy Monday morning in June last summer. His group had teed off before the spectator gates had opened, so from a distance, the round would have looked like any other. As a first-time caddy, Malnati was used to hitting shots rather than advising them. Predictably, Malnati found manning the bag for teammate Kelly a bit awkward. However, on the walk down the fairway, an opposing caddy made his way over to Malnati, reached out his hand, and in a thick Kiwi accent, introduced himself as Stevie.
Malnati nervously reciprocated.
Malnati says his experience at the U.S. Open helped pave the way for him to claim the No. 1 spot on the Missouri golf team this season.
He hasn’t taken his newfound responsibility lightly.
The junior has been a constant for the Tigers all season and now takes his game to Whispering Pines Golf Club in Trinity, Texas, this weekend for the Big 12 Conference Championship.
Malnati and Kelly arrived at Oakmont armed with the knowledge that Tiger Woods often played his practice rounds at dawn. So, after arriving at the course some consider the toughest in America on a Sunday, the pair signed up to play an early practice round with the world’s No. 1 player.
“It takes unique and special circumstances to shut me up,” Malnati said. “And I didn’t say a word on that first tee. It’s tough to put into words what was going through my head, but it was enough to shut me up, and that’s uncommon.”
“When I was playing in high school, I really believed every time I teed it up that I was going to win,” Malnati said. “After playing like I did those first couple years, I definitely lost that feeling. I just felt like I had no shot of winning anything anymore.”
After traveling to Oakmont with Kelly though, that all changed.
Once Stevie introduced himself, Malnati silently shifted back to caddy mode, helping map greens and make the yardage book.
A few minutes later, with the sun barely hanging over the Allegheny Mountains in the small suburb of Pittsburgh, a second competitor in the group also introduced himself after hitting his second shot.
“Hey, I’m Tiger,” he said.
Malnati says he felt more in awe of Woods’ aura than his game, but after a few holes that wore off and Malnati found he had some things in common with Woods, who Stevie Williams works for as his caddy.
Jake Poe, Woods’ teammate at Stanford in the mid-90s, lives in Columbia and runs Perche Creek Golf Center as well as Poe Golf Company, an equipment store in downtown Columbia. Poe allows MU golfers to have access to his practice facilities at Perche Creek, and the team often uses equipment from Poe’s store.
“The first thing he asked me,” Malnati said. “Was ‘Hey, how’s Jake the Snake doing?’”
Getting a front row seat to a round of golf with a player who owns 13 major titles would be a humbling experience for most.
For Malnati, it was just the opposite.
“The things that make him better than me weren’t the big things,” Malnati said. “It was the little things. It sounds crazy to say, because I’m an average college golfer and he’s the best golfer in the world, but I really feel like I’m pretty close to maybe being able to compete with Tiger one day. Yeah, he does a lot of things generally better than I do, but I didn’t see any huge, drastic differences between his game and mine.”
Caddying for rounds later in the week with players like Jim Furyk and Graeme McDowell didn’t do much to change Malnati’s mind.
“Yeah, they’re really good at what they do, but I’ve had days where I’ve been pretty good too,” Malnati, one of the players who owns the competitive course record of 66 at The Club at Old Hawthorne in Columbia said. “If I can just develop the consistency they have, then one day I hope I can be out there, too.”
Despite Kelly’s elimination during the stroke play portion of the U.S. Amateur, Malnati stayed for the remainder of the week, cheering on his teammate. To show his gratitude, Kelly offered the spot manning his bag to Malnati.
“I thought it was only right to take Peter,” Kelly said. “He stuck it out with me up there, and to have his support meant a lot. Without him, I’d have pretty much just been up there alone.”
Malnati will begin his own quest to qualify for the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines in San Diego at a local qualifier in Kansas City in May. He will also attempt to qualify for his second appearance in the U.S. Amateur, held this year at the Pinehurst Resort in Pinehurst, N.C., just three hours from his hometown of Dandridge, Tenn.
If Malnati plays like he has as Missouri’s No. 1 golfer this season, he just might have a chance to figuratively follow Kelly, rather than literally, like he did at Oakmont.
“There were plenty of times during the week when I was just sick,” Malnati said. “I’m sitting there staring at the best golfers in the world hitting all these shots, and I’m just like, ‘Man, I can do that. Let me do that.’”
Regardless of how badly Malnati wanted to hit a shot that week, he never got the chance. Now, he’s out to change that.
“I saw firsthand the places where John’s game has taken him,” Malnati said. “The kid’s played in the Masters and the U.S. Open, and I can beat him. John’s an extraordinary athlete, but I feel like I can hang with him on a day-to-day basis, so that inspires me, because there’s no reason I can’t be there, too.”
For now, though, Malnati has the Big 12 Championships to focus on. Sixty of the conference’s best golfers will tee it up this weekend, including five Missouri players looking for redemption.
After struggling for most of the fall and spring seasons, the Tigers are headed to Whispering Pines coming off a second-place finish at the UK Bluegrass Invitational in Lexington, Ky., their best finish of the season.
Malnati said finishing in a tie for last place at their home course in the Mizzou Intercollegiate on April 7 and 8 was “rock bottom” for the Tigers. After that performance, Malnati said there was nowhere to go but up.
As his team’s No. 1, Malnati has taken it upon himself to lead them there.
“When I was younger, I always tried to give my team rah-rah motivational speeches,” Malnati said. “But you can’t make people want to win. Now, I just try to lead by example. When practice starts at 2:30, I want them to see me out there practicing at 1. When it ends at 5:30, I want them to see me out on the range at 7. I’ve realized this year that leadership isn’t about giving rah-rah speeches, it’s about showing your teammates that you’re willing to do what it takes to win.”