The biggest lesson came a year ago seeing fellow Bulldog Russell Henley defeat a Nationwide Tour field on Georgia’s home course.
“It just shows that it can be done,” said Carter, a 2009 Lakeside graduate playing as a redshirt sophomore. “Russell is a tremendous competitor and his golf game is absolutely incredible. Watching that final round last year was one of the coolest things I’ve ever witnessed first hand.”
This week, Carter’s first-hand experience will go from spectating to competing. He earned one of the two exemptions given to Georgia players to participate in the Nationwide Tour’s Stadion Classic at UGA. It will be Carter’s first taste of a professional tour event. The closest he’s ever been before was reaching the sectional qualifying stage for last year’s U.S. Open.
“It’s just going to be an awesome learning experience for myself and my golf career,” said Carter, who grew up playing Augusta Country Club. “My first goal is to make the cut and after that see where it goes. But the one thing I want to do is go out there and have fun. The atmosphere is going to be awesome with all the Bulldog fans out there cheering us on. Got a bunch of family and friends coming up watching.”
This is a big step for Carter, whose game took a large leap forward this season. He has appeared in seven tournaments for the Bulldogs this season. His best finishes were a third-place in the Northeast Tri Match and 10th in the Linger Longer Invitational.
But it was his 13th-place finish last week in the Southeastern Conference championships at Sea Island, Ga., that proved key to earning the Nationwide exemption. Georgia coach Chris Haack gives out the berths to the two players with the lowest scoring average on the team who compete in at least 70 percent of the tournaments.
Carter finished one shot better than roommate T.J. Mitchell in the 54-hole event, but that one shot was enough to drop his season scoring average 0.2 to 72.4 – one-tenth of a point better than Mitchell’s 72.5.
So Carter and freshman teammate Nicholas Reach – the inaugural Junior Invitational at Sage Valley winner – will get the chance to try to live up to the precedent set by 2011 exemption recipients Henley and Harris English, who in a span of three months became the second and third amateurs to win Nationwide events last season. This year, Henley returns to the Stadion as a rookie on the Nationwide Tour.
“We are really fortunate to have a great group of young players with so much potential on this team,” Haack said. “Our alumni have had great success on both the Nationwide and PGA tours, and I expect we will see much of the same from these guys.”
Carter just hopes competing this week at the UGA Golf Course will have him ready two weeks later on the same venue when the Bulldogs play host to the NCAA regional.
“I think it’s going to be awesome preparation for me for regionals and really help me with the mental aspects of competing against other great players on our home course,” he said.
It’s the mental game that has lifted Carter into a regular spot in the Bulldogs lineup.
“I don’t think anything’s changed in my actual golf game,” he said. “The one thing that really is progressing is my confidence level. Knowing that I can compete with the best college players in the country.”
After competing as a freshman with former Bulldog Hudson Swafford sitting out the 2010 season with an injury, Carter got lost in the talented crowd of Bulldogs last season.
“It was really hard to crack the lineup,” he said, referring to 2011. “I wasn’t playing great and I guess my confidence was shot there because I wasn’t qualifying and I played the year before. I didn’t really want to qualify for one tournament and waste an entire year. It would have been awesome to be on the team because we were (NCAA) runner-up last year to Augusta State, but me redshirting I think made me want it even more this year. I’ve really taken the best of my opportunity this year.”
When Carter got bounced from the season-opening event at The Farm in Dalton on the last day of qualifying by a freshman, it lit a fire in his game.
“That was a low point there because I’d been playing so well,” he said. “So I was like, ‘Forget this I’m going to qualify for every tournament.’ I’ve played the rest of the tournaments in fall and every one but Puerto Rico this spring. It’s really tough being at the golf course and watching your team leave and know you’re not going to travel with them. That hunger and thirst to compete is what drives you harder.”
And if things keep progressing this week and at the regionals on his collegiate home course, he
could be playing for a national title at Riviera in a month.
“That would be an awesome treat if we get to play out there at Riviera,” Carter said.
“It would be great to win out there and be able to tell your kids and grandkids that we won a championship at Riviera.”