Originally created 06/04/06

Jag can take step from the shadows



Tarik Can's golf career is a blank canvas waiting to be painted. He hopes to craft a strong impression.

On Tuesday, he'll try to etch "U.S. Open qualifier" onto his rsum, which already includes medalist at the local stage.

Next spring at Augusta State, he'll start coloring in the details on a college career that's been stuck in a two-year limbo.

Beyond that, Can envisions a professional career where everybody will know his name.

Until he fills in the blanks, however, Can's golf notoriety centers on one thing - Paula Creamer's long-time boyfriend. He's not complaining, it's just not the label he is hoping to end up with no matter how long their relationship lasts.

Dating the golfer who debuted at No. 2 in the inaugural women's world ranking this year can be particularly motivating.

"Mainly because I don't want to be looked at as 'Paula's boyfriend,'" Can said. "I'm very happy for Paula. I want to have my own thing where people recognize me for who I am and not who I date."

Can, 21, and Creamer, 19, started dating four years ago. Who knew how far her star would rise in such a short period? Both students at David Leadbetter's golf academy in Brandenton, Fla., they actually met at a junior tournament in Washington state, where they each won their respective events.

Next thing you know, a couple years pass and Can is struggling in NCAA purgatory after being mislead at Texas and transferring to a junior college. Creamer, meanwhile, is going straight from high school to the LPGA Tour, where she made an immediate impact with four victories and rookie of the year honors.

"I didn't know how good she was when I met her," he said. "Before she was rookie of the year I knew she was good. No one else really knew except for me and her parents what she was capable of."

They still date long distance, talking on the phone six or seven times a day. Creamer visited Augusta last week and watched Can practice while she relaxed.

Instant fame, however, certainly throws a curve in the relationship. Hoping to generate headlines of his own, Can can't shake the label.

"It's not hard being Paula's boyfriend by any means, but sometimes it does bother me a little," he said. "Especially when I'm asked for an interview and all of the sudden one question about Paula turns into the whole thing about Paula. I understand it."

Augusta State coach Josh Gregory hopes to mine that motivational kernel when Can becomes eligible to play for the Jaguars next spring.

"I keep challenging him saying how nice would it be to be known as Tarik Can, an all-American at Augusta State with a chance to play professional golf," Gregory said. "It's a great thing to be the guy who's dating Paula Creamer, but that's not going to get you anywhere."

Can can take the first major step out of Creamer's shadow Tuesday at Settindown Creek outside Atlanta. He's one of 65 players vying for four spots in a 36-hole qualifier for the upcoming U.S. Open at Winged Foot. The stout competition includes former Masters Tournament champion Larry Mize; PGA Tour winner Matt Kuchar; former U.S. Amateur champion Nick Flanagan; USC Aiken's Scott Brown; the University of Georgia's top two players, Brian Harman and Chris Kirk; North Augusta's Kyle Bradley and Augusta's Brooks Blackburn.

Can hopes his third attempt at qualifying for the U.S. Open, and second time he's reached the final stage, proves successful. His home on Long Island, N.Y., is a short distance from Winged Foot.

"It would be awesome to have family and friends there," Can said. "Regardless of being the U.S. Open, being in my home state would be awesome."

Despite the long odds, Gregory isn't discounting Can's chances. After all, he's been through the last two years with few competitive opportunities, Can stepped up in the local qualifier at Cherry Valley Golf Club in New York to post medalist honors with 67 on May 10. The next step is much tougher.

"Once you get to sectionals, it's basically like going to a tour event," Gregory said. "He's obviously going to have to play two great rounds. But to not compete all year and go out to shoot 67 to win local qualifying speaks volumes to how good he can be."

Can is better than Gregory thought he was when he visited Augusta State looking for a place to play last year. It was coincidental that Can landed in the same area where he watched Creamer make her LPGA debut in the now-defunct Asahi Ryokuken International at Mount Vintage.

"When he first transferred, I didn't think he was going to be this good or make that much of a difference," Gregory said. "But if we'd thrown him into the lineup this year, we would have been a top-20 team. In college golf, one player can make such a big difference."

While Tuesday's qualifying attempt is hardly a make-or-break situation, there is no doubt how much of a confidence boost it would be for a player trying to establish a name for himself.

"It would be huge for him," Gregory said. "Having to sit out for two years, it would be huge to prove to him how good he can be and that he can compete with the elite in not only college golf but professional golf as well."

That's all Can wants for now. He admits he doesn't possess the same drive for greatness that has taken Creamer to the elite level on the women's tour. He just wants to stake out a niche for himself among the men with his three remaining years of eligibility at Augusta State.

"Her goals are obviously a lot higher than mine because she believes in herself that much more," Can said. "But I'd like to achieve something. ... I haven't played in a college tournament since I've been in school. It is (frustrating). It would have been easy to just turn professional and go that way, but I think if I wait it out hopefully it will all be worth it. I just want to play in a college tournament and see how I compare before I decide anything else."

The first potential step toward his own identity tees off Tuesday.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.

OPEN SEASON

The following players with Augusta and Georgia ties will be in Tuesday's U.S. Open sectional qualifier at Settindown Creek in Roswell, Ga.:

Brooks Blackburn

Kyle Bradley

Scott Brown

Tarik Can

Brian Harman

Chris Kirk

Matt Kuchar

Larry Mize