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New Name, New Game

ON THE GREEN

Bateman Beats Injuries, Excels on Mini-Tour

August 30, 2000|PETER YOON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ahmad Bateman's first name was Dan then, but deep inside he knew exactly who he was.

Getting everyone else to believe it was another matter.

On the outside, he was a 33-year-old teaching professional with chronic back problems. On the inside, he was a successful touring professional. Outside, people were telling him that he'd never make it. Inside, his determination burned even hotter.

Armed with limited professional playing experience, and an indelible spirit, Bateman left his job as a teaching pro at Lakewood Golf Course in 1994 and headed for the Asian Tour, bent on fighting his way to the PGA Tour.

Since then, he's gone through three stints in Asia, a back surgery and a couple of heartbreaking near-misses. He also met his wife, Shinta, in Indonesia, converted to Islam and changed his name from Dan to Ahmad. But Bateman's drive remains the same and he is now poised to fulfill his mission.

The 39-year-old from Huntington Beach leads the Buy.com Tour with a 69.15 scoring average. He has broken par in 24 consecutive rounds and last Friday shot 71, ending a string of 13 consecutive rounds in the 60s. He shot 67 the next day.

He also ranks first in putting average (1.684) and birdies per round (4.48) and leads the tour in all-around ranking. He has finished in the top 20 in six consecutive tournaments, including a playoff loss in the Omaha Classic Aug. 6. Despite having played just 10 of the 23 events this season, Bateman is 30th on the money list with $97,009.

Not bad for a guy who tried to walk on with the USC golf team four times and was cut each time.

"He's every golfer's dream," said Tom Sargent, the head professional at Mesa Verde Country Club who occasionally works with Bateman. "He's the one that gives hope to every mini-tour player all over the world."

Sargent was one of the few who saw what Bateman saw in himself.

"I've seen a hundred guys with loads more talent than [Bateman] but they'll never be as good as he is," Sargent said. "They don't have the heart or the courage that he has. It takes a boatload of courage to go out there and try to make a living and I could see that he had the brass."

The top 15 players on the final Buy.com money list earn a PGA Tour card for 2001. Bateman has nine tournaments left, and at his current rate is well on his way, but he's not looking that far ahead.

"I just want to keep playing like I'm playing," said Bateman, who is taking this week off after finishing 17th in the Permian Basin Open over the weekend. "If I keep that streak [of shooting under par] going, then good things will happen."

Bateman knows all too well that bad things can happen.

The PGA Tour Qualifying tournament in 1996 comes to mind. He made it to the final stage that year at La Purisima in Lompoc and Sandpiper in Goleta. El Nino made it too, and wiped out the final round of the tournament with Bateman within two strokes of earning his PGA Tour card. He finished tied for 67th and got playing privileges on what was then the Nike Tour.

While playing the Nike Tour in 1997, Bateman got on a roll similar to the one he is on now. During a four-week stretch, he won a tournament, finished second and seventh.

He'd worked himself into third place on the money list and looked like a shoo-in to finish in the top 15.

But a month after that hot stretch he ruptured a disk in his lower back. He decided he was too close to give up so he played through the pain. He managed a third-place finish three weeks later, and was still fifth on the money list with nine tournaments left in the season.

But the pain took its toll. He missed four cuts in the next eight tournaments, withdrew from one after the first round and finished 20th, 17th and 39th in the others. He was still 11th on the money list entering the season-ending Tour Championship and looked in good position to make the top 15, but heartbreak struck again.

His 73-72-74 start was acceptable, but, back pain flaring, he staggered through a final-round 83. It remains his worst round on the tour and his 42nd-place finish earned him $1,230 for a season total of $101,310--in 16th place on the money list by $407.

Bobby Wadkins, who finished 15th on the money list, made a 10-foot putt on final hole. If he had missed, Bateman would have earned his card. Instead, he went back to Q-school, and earned another Nike Tour exemption.

A month later, he had surgery to repair his back.

"I was semi-crippled the last half of the year," Bateman said. "I kept going because I was so close, you know. I tried to make it all the way, but just couldn't do it."

Those who know him weren't surprised by his decision to try to play through the pain.

"He is always doing whatever he can to get the edge," said Buena Park teaching professional Bobby Lasken, who has worked with Bateman. "He's always saying, 'Forget about my back, just tell me what I'm supposed to do. If my back won't allow it, I'll work around it.' "

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