Matt Bettencourt of Modesto has traveled the world in pursuit of success in professional golf.
He doesn't need to be told he's one of literally hundreds armed with superb ball-striking skills. He's also 32, the physical prime of his career, and it's time for the Nationwide Tour contestant to make his mark.
"I've never been so excited," Bettencourt said.
A recent round with Bettencourt at Wente Vineyards, site of the Livermore Valley Wine Country Championship on April 3-6, again revealed the veteran's talent. If he makes putts, he contends at this level.
The previous sentence, however, begins with golf's ultimate two-letter word: If.
Bettencourt's game the past 12 months has improved. He logged four top-10 finishes on the Canadian Tour in 2007 and, closer to home, joined the late George Archer as the only three-time winner of the Northern California Open.
The Modestan has continued his momentum into 2008. He has survived three of four cuts thus far on the Nationwide Tour, one of them a nerve-jangling affair at the HSBC New Zealand PGA Championship.
Bettencourt, tied for the lead with two others after a first-round 66, then was forced to wait. Nearly 12 inches of rain drenched the venue over the next 48 hours. The tournament was condensed to only 36 holes, so Bettencourt found himself in the final pairing. While eventual winner Darron Stiles birdied five of the first six holes, Bettencourt tumbled to 3-over over the same stretch and fell out of contention. He eventually recorded a 74 and tied for 28th.
"When I'm playing well, I rely a lot on my timing, but I couldn't putt or hit balls for two days. I was pressing a little bit after Stiles started so hot," he said. "I cannot wait to get back into a final group again. It all comes with time."
Bettencourt, along with Atwater's Matt Hansen, will play in front of family and friends next month at Wente Vineyards. That will be their only so-called "home-course advantage." Wente Wineyards, designed a decade ago by Greg Norman, already has earned a reputation as one of the toughest courses in all of professional golf.
Wente Vineyards, south of downtown Livermore, pleases the visitor with fine wine. It then taunts the golfer as it winds through cabernet vineyards, up and down ridge lines and through oak, sycamore and cottonwood groves.
Last year, the scoring average at Wente Vineyards was 75.421, the highest on the Nationwide Tour and the most since the 2002 Monterey Peninsula Classic at Bayonet. Greg Chalmers worked his way into contention until he took a Nationwide-record 13, a tortuous ordeal that was televised shot for painful shot on The Golf Channel, at the downhill par-3 14th. He actually made a 12 but mistakenly signed for a 13. Veteran campaigner Omar Uresti won in Livermore last year at even par.
"Someday, we might master this course. I'd take even par right now. I think that would guarantee a top 10," Bettencourt said. "To solve the course, you have to be an awesome ball-striker."
THE SHAG BAG -- Canadian Tour pros Marc Peterson of Modesto, Ryan Thornberry of Ceres and ex-Cal State Stanislaus star Marc Lawless will present a clinic and offer instruction during Saturday's "Day With The Pros" at River Oaks. The event, geared for high school- and college-aged players, will be held from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. The fee is $20 per player, which is also good for lunch. Call Greg Silva, 667-7272 or 537-4653. ... Mike Phipps, the brother of the late Rob Phipps, has taken over as manager at River Oaks. ... Coming up: the 7th Charity Annual Classic presented by the Stanislaus County Police Athletics League, Saturday, April 19, at Diablo Grande's Legends West course. Call 529-9121. ...
Stevinson Ranch is the site this weekend for the second tournament of the inaugural Northern California Golf Association Junior Tour, a series of eight events for ages 12 to 18. Call John Vander Borght, 831-622-8281 or visit firstname.lastname@example.org. ... Discount prices are available through the end of the month at 17-Mile Drive's most famous courses: $105 at Spanish Bay and $175 at Spyglass Hill. Pebble Beach can be played for $350 today, Thursday and March 23, 24, 26 and 30.
HOLES-IN-ONE -- Ray Northcutt, Knights Ferry, 267-yard par-4 fifth at Jack Tone Golf, Ripon, driver (first ace at the fourth in course history). ... Bud Terry, Turlock, 180-yard 12th at Creekside, 5-iron. ... Jim Estep, Modesto, 110-yard 13th at Jack Tone, pitching wedge. ... Greg Goodwin, Ripon, 13th at Jack Tone, pitching wedge. ... Mike Jerome, Ripon, 90-yard fourth at Jack Tone, lob wedge. ... Barrett McLaughlin, Sonora (14), 155-yard fifth at Mountain Springs, Sonora, 8-iron.
Bee sports columnist Ron Agostini can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2302.