Eastlake’s Penner takes shot at U.S. Open

Senior celebrates second class 4A state golf title

Kevin Penner will play in a U.S. Open sectional qualifying match Monday

Kevin Penner will play in a U.S. Open sectional qualifying match Monday

Kevin Penner made the memory of his golf career on May 28, coming from five strokes behind on the back nine of Canyon Lakes Golf Course in Kennewick to force a three-person playoff, and win the 4A state title — the second of his high school career.

But the Eastlake senior hopes to top it all on Monday.

“Hopefully, after June 8, I can have something even more spectacular … qualifying for the (U.S.) Open,” he said.

Penner, 18, is one of 36 golfers from across the country who will compete in a U.S. Open sectional qualifying round at Tumble Creek Golf Course at Sundcadia in Roslyn. It’s one of 15 sectional qualifiers around the world — all of which provide one or two positions into the 2009 U.S. Open Championship, held June 19-21 at Bethpage State Park’s Black Course, in Farmington, N.Y.

“There’s only a couple of amateurs playing,” Penner said. “Anybody can qualify, but it’s mainly pros that get in. As an amateur, it’s nice to be right there with those pros.”

Penner will play in the same group as Brock Mackenzie, a University of Washington graduate, who currently plays professionally on the Nationwide Tour.

Making a statement

While anticipation is growing for Monday, Penner is still reeling from an improbable comeback in the 4A state tournament last Thursday. After taking a three-shot lead on Wednesday, and increasing the lead to five strokes Thursday, the wheels started to come off.

Penner found himself down five strokes behind Snohomish’s Dylan Stensland after triple bogeying hole No. 8, and parring hole No. 9.

A brief pause on the turn, and a talk with head coach Erik Hanson, seemed to calm Penner.

“I reminded him of a couple of times in his past where he’s been behind, or in a bad spot,” Hanson said. “I told him, ‘You’ve gone from the hunted to being the hunter.’ I think he sort of enjoys that.”

Penner responded on hole No. 10, knocking in a 30-foot putt for birdie. He parred the next two holes, before drilling a 15-foot putt for eagle on hole No. 13. The shot came after he drove into a fairway bunker. He followed with a 216-yard, 5-iron shot from the sand to the green.

“Those two shots, they kept the momentum in my hands and they really made Dylan (Stensland), who was in the lead, think, ‘He’s still here,’” Penner said.

Stensland and Penner were tied at 1-under par headed into the 18th hole, needing at least a par to tie Snohomish’s Michael Jaeger, who finished in the group ahead at 1-under, par 143. Stensland and Penner parred, leaving a three-golfer playoff for the title.

“It’s definitely nerve-wracking because you know ‘This is it,’” Penner said, noting he had some momentum in his favor after winning a playoff in the U.S. Open qualifying round.

He used that positive energy to birdie the 18th hole in the playoff, using a 3-iron and a wedge, before sinking a 10-foot putt to win.

“I didn’t do it last year and there was a lot of pressure, and I kind of felt it,” said Penner, who took third his junior year, after winning state as a sophomore. “This year it was nice to get through it and prove that not only did you do it once, but you can do it again.”

The sky’s the limit

Penner is headed to the University of Nevada Las Vegas in August where he earned a scholarship to play under 22-year veteran coach Dwaine Knight. The UNLV program has produced several professionals, including Puyallup’s Ryan Moore and Chad Campbell, the 2009 Masters runner-up.

Penner, who first picked up a club at age 5 or 6, said playing at UNLV has been a life-long dream.

“I always wanted to go to UNLV growing up,” he said. “A lot of good players have come out of there. There’s not anybody coming out of UNLV who can’t putt.”

Penner practices seven to eight hours a day, seven days a week, and said his ultimate goal is to reach the professional ranks.

Hanson, who taught Penner’s math class in the ninth grade, said if there’s anyone who can do it, it’s Penner, noting he’s not only turned himself into a great golfer, but a much-improved student.

“I think that when you have someone like Kevin, there’s no substitute for hard work,” he said. “I’ve coached lots of different sports, at lots of different levels, and he’s a special kid.”

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