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Zambri Finally Has Answered His Persistent Pro-Am Question

Former Westlake High golfer proves he belongs on Nike Tour this season.

July 17, 1998|PETER YOON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

These days, the hole seems a little bigger to Chris Zambri.

The fairways a little wider and, most importantly, his head a little clearer.

After several years of a mental struggle over whether he was good enough to play golf professionally, the 1988 graduate of Westlake High has finally grown comfortable with his game and the results have been encouraging.

Midway through the season, Zambri ranks seventh on the Nike Tour money list with $83,259. He's also seventh in scoring with a 70.41 average.

In his last two events, Zambri has finished second and fourth and is tied for 11th after a first-round 67 on Thursday at the St. Louis Golf Classic.

There are 13 Nike Tour events left this season, and if Zambri finishes in the top 15 on the money list, he will reach the top level of professional golf--an automatic exemption for the PGA Tour.

"That's pretty far off still," Zambri said. "I still have to make about $30,000 more out here. You have to play some pretty good golf to make that. I have to have some good finishes."

But the chances now are much better than they were six months ago. So is his confidence.

Zambri had his doubts about making a living as a professional golfer.

It didn't help that Zambri made only seven cuts on the Nike Tour last season and earned $6,560 in 17 events.

But then the thoughts returned: those long hours spent in the hot afternoon sun on the driving ranges of Ventura County as a youth and dreams of strolling through the gallery-lined fairways of the PGA Tour.

"This is why I practiced six days a week since I was 13 years old," Zambri said. "I just felt like I could still make a go of this."

This was to be the final litmus test for the 27-year-old who still resides in Camarillo.

Another year of struggle and the great golf experiment might have come to an end.

"I couldn't have handled another year like last year," Zambri said. "I needed to play well this year."

And so he has.

The spark came in March, during the Greater Austin Open. After finishing 65th and earning $292.50 in his first event, Zambri raced out to the third-round lead at Austin with rounds of 68-67-70 despite the increased media attention on the tournament because of Casey Martin's first post-lawsuit outing.

Zambri held a four-stroke lead with 11 holes to play but struggled in blustery conditions coming home and managed a tie for second place.

"That absolutely jump-started my season," Zambri said. "I'm not sure how much confidence has to do with playing well, but a finish like that sure gives you a lot of confidence."

That confidence has translated into 12 of 14 cuts made and nine top-25 finishes.

But the confidence wasn't always there.

After struggling though his first year as a professional on the Golden State Tour, Zambri decided to give up the dream of playing professionally.

He worked at Sunset Hills Country Club and Westlake Golf Course, but felt like he belonged someplace else.

When he qualified for the 1995 U.S. Open, he shot an opening-round 68 and was tied for fourth.

Despite a second-round 82 that caused him to miss the cut, Zambri found the drive again.

But a disappointing 1997 Nike Tour season brought back the doubts.

"There were times when I'd be like, 'Gee, what's wrong with me,' " Zambri said. "There were times last year when I didn't know if I was moving forward or backward.

"I didn't feel like I was getting any better and I started thinking that I must have some physical ailment that prevented me from swinging correctly."

But like the scrambling style he plays on the course--he ranks 166th in driving distance, but is 13th in putting and fifth in sand saves--he ground out his struggles and has come to a point that he can accept.

"If I feel like I'm improving then I'm happy," he said.

"Now I can look to the future and realistically consider golf as part of it.

"I see that this is possibly what I'll be doing."

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