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Kroeger Wakes Up Just In Time

That noise you’ve been hearing for the past three nights coming from around the Apopka area isn’t most likely a runaway train. It’s probably been AJ Kroeger snoring because he’s finally once again getting some good, old-fashioned REM sleep after capturing the 2012 Florida Senior Amateur championship.

You see, he’s recovering from a rather nerve-racking, three-day ordeal he went through at Lake Wales Country Club, near Lakeland. It began Tuesday following the event’s first round. He’d opened with a 3-under-par 69. Normally, his sleep shouldn’t have been restless, but this wasn’t a normal week or night for Kroeger.

“I was fine on the course,” he said, “but that night I started to get a little nervous about leading the tournament.”

Truth be known, Kroeger was riding the horns of a dilemma. On one horn was a reason to worry. The 3-under round that included six birdies and three bogeys was certainly solid. He’d had more than a modicum of success at the top tournament level and as he said, “It’s been a good course for me.”

Lake Wales CC is a classic Donald Ross design. Its challenge isn’t in its length which was 6,500 yards for the championship. It’s the complex greens. You can reach them with your approach shot, but being able to hold them is the question. Miss a green just slightly and your ball could be repelled to places where getting out of a burning building could be easier than extracting your ball from that predicament.

“It’s a true Ross course,” said Kroeger. “It’s pretty wide-open off the tee. I’ve thought of it as a bomber’s course and that the long hitters would have an advantage, but you still have to get the ball in the hole. It’s definitely a second-shot course.”

It was the other horn that was loaded with sleep deprivation. Sure, he shot the leading score of 69. He couldn’t shake two thoughts that went through his mind. One, there were four players lurking just a shot behind and they weren’t exactly chopped liver. The quartet was led by 2004 winner Bruce Scamehorn from Winter Haven, joined by Casselberry’s Robert Hess, Bobby Barben from Avon Park and Palm City’s Gil Turner.

“I didn’t sleep much at all Tuesday night,” said Kroeger, “and it wasn’t any better Wednesday night.”

Evidently, the lack of sleep didn’t affect his game because Kroeger bounced back with another 3-under 69. He doubled his lead to two strokes, this time ahead of Santa Rosa Beach’s Joe Knight, who fashioned his own 69 to go with an opening-round 1-under 71 and there was still Hess hanging another shot back at 141.

Very rarely is there an absolute moment of truth in a golf tournament. Instead of a moment, it’s dragged out for hours. It becomes a self-imposed sentence on the rack where the golfer puts him self through mental anguish. Just when it appeared Kroeger might avoid the agony, it reared its ugly head and attempted to pull him apart.

He cruised through the front nine on the final day firing a 1-under 35. Kroeger wasn’t exactly on cruise control, but he wasn’t white knuckling it either. The situation was under control.

“While we were playing the front nine, which was shorter, around 3,100 yards, there was hardly any wind at all,” Kroeger explained, “but when we made the turn, it picked up to 15 to 20 miles an hour. It was blowing out of the north.

“So the holes that weren’t supposed to play hard, played really hard. Now, I had to hit 4-irons into greens that might be 35 yards deep. It was tough out there.”

Jagged nerves and gusting winds are never a good combination, and Kroeger’s scorecard proved that point. Bogeys on Nos. 10 and 12 put a crack in his foundation. On the 14th tiles started to tumble.

“I was in a long, narrow bunker to the side of the green,” he recalled. “I hit a really good shot out of the sand. It was high, soft and had a lot of backspin on it. Unfortunately, it hit 2 feet up on the pin and bounced 15 feet away.

“I ran the first putt five feet by and missed the one coming back for a three-putt double bogey. Then on the 15th, I three-putted from 30 feet for another bogey.”

Now, Kroeger had no idea where he stood on the leaderboard, but he knew he had to do something to stem the tide.

“On 16, a dogleg left short par-4,” he explained, “I hit a sand wedge second shot to 12 feet and managed to make it. I could see a scoreboard when I got to the 17th tee and saw that the birdie made me one up. I hit an 8-iron to 15 feet and rimmed out the putt, but made a good par.”

Now, all Kroeger had to do was hold himself together for one more hole to take home the trophy. A pulled drive into the trees on the left didn’t help his chances or his nerves.

“I guess you could call it a Bubba shot in the other direction,” said Kroeger with a chuckle. “I punched a cut 3-iron 177-yards uphill from behind a tree to about 20 feet. My first putt stopped 2 inches from the hole. I’m just glad it wasn’t 2 feet. It was close enough that I couldn’t miss it.”

The final 3-under-par tally of 213 had Kroeger finishing one shot ahead of Scamehorn and 2010 champion Bill Zylstra from Ocklawaha, and two ahead of Lutz’s Gordon Blakeley and Owen Joyce of Naples.

Defending champion Jim Carley from Ormond Beach, who won the state Super Senior Championship earlier in the week finished solo ninth at 2-over-par 218.


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