During the opening round of this year's Shearson Lehman Brothers Andy Williams San Diego Open golf tournament, Jason Bittick decided he wasn't in a foreign environment.
Bittick, an 18-year-old senior at Esperanza High School, realized he wasn't totally outmatched by the PGA players. There he was, driving the ball more than 300 yards on the Torrey Pines South Course with the likes of Tom Watson and Tom Kite.
Bittick, the youngest player to qualify for the tournament, was eight over par after the first 11 holes but played the last 25 in even par. He failed to make the cut playing as an amateur.
"It was really kind of weird and at the same time kind of incredible, and I'm not sure why," Bittick said. "I was out there hitting the ball as far or farther than many of the pros. Just playing in the tournament improved my mental game so much that it made me a better player."
Bittick, who will attend USC on a golf scholarship in the fall, helped Esperanza capture the Southern California Golf Assn. championship Monday.
The Times' golf Player of the Year shot 73 in the morning round but faltered with a 79 in the afternoon round on the Lakeside Golf Club course in Toluca Lake to finish seventh in the individual championship.
Bittick spends most of his free daylight hours at the Yorba Linda Country Club. Once it gets dark, he heads to a driving range to hit more practice shots under the lights.
"Some people talk to me and wonder if I do anything else," Bittick said. "For me, hitting a golf ball perfectly is about the most fun I can have. . . . A lot of people can hit the ball well, but it is the mental part that separates the top players."
Even with his dedication, Bittick still needed to shoot a remarkable back nine to win the Empire League championship this spring.
He shot 68 on the par-71 Los Serranos North Course the first day. El Dorado's Chris Sanatar shot 69 and made up the stroke on the front nine of the South Course the second day.
Playing together, Bittick and Sanatar birdied No. 10, parred No. 11 and were tied with seven holes to play. Bittick had four more birdies in the final seven holes, shot 32 on the back nine and finish with a three-under 71. His two-round total of six-under 139 set a league record.
"Someday I would love to be able to make my living on the golf course," Bittick said. "But I realize that might not work out. A lot of people ask me if I want to be as good as Jack Nicklaus or Sam Snead or the other greats. All I want to be is as good as Jason Bittick can be."
Jason Bittick Esperanza Senior Tony Dupre Corona del Mar Sophomore Chris Sanatar El Dorado Senior Dustin Schilling Sunny Hills Junior Scott Schrader Fountain Valley Senior Steve Runge Capistrano Valley Senior