Rentería: ‘The world could learn how to get along from a clubhouse’
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Here’s how former University of Alabama standout Robby Shelton spent the last week. Last Friday, he claimed medalist honors at the Mackenzie Tour – PGA TOUR Canada’s USA East Q-school at the Sun ‘N Lake Golf Club in central Florida, his birdie on the third playoff hole defeating local favorite Jhared Hack. As a result, Shelton earned status on the Tour and plans to play all 12 events once the season starts in June. That’s a huge deal. Not only does the Mackenzie Tour offer him a clear path to reaching the Web.com Tour for the first time since turning pro a year ago, Shelton can set his playing schedule. And there’s another first – he’ll actually play golf in Canada. He’s never done that before. A short time later, Valero Texas Open executive director Larson Segerdahl called with more good news: Shelton was invited to TPC San Antonio as a sponsor’s exemption. If Shelton hadn’t received the invite, he would’ve tried to Monday qualify for this week’s Web.com Tour event in Indiana. Instead, he started packing for Texas, full of confidence. “It seems like I always play well here,” he noted. Oh, so unlike Canada, he has a lot of experience on Texas courses? “Well, I once played an AJGA event at Carlton Woods [near Houston],” he replied. On Sunday, Shelton celebrated Easter with his family. On Monday, he drove from Alabama to San Antonio, arriving in town late. He played a practice round on Tuesday, then squeezed in another nine holes Wednesday morning before the pro-am. Additionally, he spent time on the range with his swing instructor, Tony Ruggiero. Finally on Thursday, he teed off in the last group of the morning wave with Jonathan Randolph and Ryan Armour. A few hours later, Shelton was in the scorer’s trailer, signing for a first-round 4-under 68. He’ll enter Friday’s second round at the AT&T Oaks course tied for sixth with 12 other players and in good shape to make the cut and extend his visit to this weekend. Just a normal week in the life of a pro golfer. Right? “It’s tough,” Shelton said, “but it’s a fun life.” At age 21, it should be fun. He certainly enjoyed his days as an amateur, making appearances in the 2015 Walker Cup and two Palmer Cups. He also tied for third at the Barbasol Championship in 2015 – the best finish by an amateur at a PGA TOUR event since Phil Mickelson won in Tucson in 1991. At that point, Shelton became a world-ranked golfer – 676th, to be exact. I know it’s hard out here, but I know I can play with them. I have confidence. But I’ve got to stay patient. Shelton won seven collegiate events, the most in school history, and the stroke averages for each of his three seasons rank among the top four ever posted by a Crimson Tide player (Justin Thomas has the other one). It was an emotional parting once Shelton decided to turn pro after his junior season. Following the last tee shot he would hit for Alabama – on his final hole at the 2016 NCAA Championships – he turned to his coach, Jay Seawell, and simply said, “Thank you.” Then they both cried. “He’s simply a phenomenal player,” Seawell told AL.com at the time. “… a class young man.” Of course, turning pro did not include status on any Tour, so Shelton started competing on the mini-tours and playing Monday qualifiers. In February, he won a tournament on the SwingThought Tour, the first pro victory by a member of either 2015 Walker Cup team. He has received a handful of sponsor exemptions to play a few TOUR events, including the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard and the Puerto Rico Open this year. But he’s yet to recreate the magic of his 2015 Barbasol appearance. He missed the cut in both those starts. Consequently, his world ranking has fallen – to 1,216 entering this week. While not happy with his play, his determination – and his confidence – never wavered. A few weeks before playing in the Mackenzie Tour q-school, Shelton had a session with Ruggiero. A lightbulb went off. “Something clicked in my swing,” he said. “The ball’s going where I want it, and the putter’s working. It’s good stuff.” Meanwhile, his persistence in requesting a sponsor’s exemption to Valero was paying off. He often sent updates about his play to Segerdahl, making sure to maintain contact and express his desire to play TPC San Antonio. On the other end, members of Valero’s tournament exemption committee were intrigued by Shelton, impressed with his college resume and that Barbarsol appearance. The committee has a goal of giving playing opportunities to young players who might have star potential, and Shelton seemed a good choice. Even before Shelton played the Mackenzie Tour Q-school, Valero officials already had decided to extend the exemption to him. A couple of other young amateur stars – former University of Texas star Beau Hossler and reigning U.S. Amateur champ Curtis Luck — also received invites. “I think the committee was pretty well set on Robby as a candidate,” Segerdahl said. “We had him pretty well slated in our minds. We’re glad that it worked out. His performance [in Thursday’s first round] certainly validated our decision. “We want to see all of them do well and hopefully use the Valero Texas Open as a springboard to a great pro career.” Having seen fellow Crimson Tide exes such as Thomas, Bud Cauley and Bobby Wyatt all reach the PGA TOUR, Shelton is anxious to make his move. Consider this week the intersection of his pro career: A set schedule on the Mackenzie Tour, a goal of advancing to the Web.com Tour, and the reality of contending in a PGA TOUR event. “I know it’s hard out here, but I know I can play with them. I have confidence,” Shelton said. “But I’ve got to stay patient. It seems like I’ve been out here forever, but it’s only been less than a year.” However, it’s been a whirlwind week – and it’s not over yet.