Ron Agostini

Aussie is 'Top Gun' in golf tourney

Rick Kulacz loves the movie "Top Gun," released when he was 1.

In fact, "Top Gun" brought him to Modesto for the eighth Scratch Players Championship. Seems that Kulacz, from West Australia, was thinking about skipping the event to prepare for the U.S. Amateur next week at the Olympic Club. His priorities changed, however, when he heard about the leather fighter-pilot jacket that goes to the Scratch Players champion.

"Rick called two weeks ago when the field already was full," tournament director Fred Solomon said. "He asked, 'You still have time for a late start, mate?' "

Admiring Maverick Mitchell (Tom Cruise) carries no weight with tournament officials. What helps at moments like these is being the world's No. 9-ranked amateur, which was all the opening Kulacz needed to later receive the crystal goblet that goes to the winner.

Kulacz didn't play his best golf Thursday at Del Rio Country Club. Worse, the six-stroke lead he took into the final round was history as he stood on the tee of the 211-yard par-3 17th. Ahead of him on the 17th green, 17-year-old Mu Hu — a golf prodigy raised in China — had caught the favorite.

By that point, the golf gods seemingly had deserted Kulacz. His gap-wedge third shot at the par-5 15th crashed into the flagstick on the fly — it didn't even leave a pitchmark — yet cruelly caromed out to about 12 feet leading to an unlucky par.

"I felt everything was going against me," Kulacz said. "I've never seen that happen before. I actually holed it."

Minutes later, Hu fist-pumped after he sank his 20-foot putt for birdie at the 16th. Match even.

The duel was decided on the 17th when Hu bogeyed after he pulled his 3-iron tee shot into the deep rough below the green. Though Kulacz didn't know how he stood on the tee, he demonstrated under-the-gun experience with his response — a radar-like 4-iron that settled within two feet of the hole for an easy birdie. His careful bogey at the 18th finished off a round of 73 and a 72-hole score of 12-under-par 272, one better than Hu whose 67 thrust him into the fight.

"It was a good tournament to win, even though I wasn't happy with how I did today. I was missing fairways. You're dead here if you miss fairways," Kulacz said. "It was almost like I was just going through the motions. I might have been too calm."

Del Rio, celebrating its 60th anniversary, agreed to host this elite field as a salute to amateur golf. The finish also illustrated the game's world-wide landscape. The final pairing featured Kulacz, 22, a resident of Perth who has traveled golf's road since June 1, carrying his own bag though he was supported by fellow Aussies in the gallery.

And one group ahead was Mu, a high school senior from Orlando who's already sealed a scholarship at Florida. Mu's father, Jian Song Hu, pulled his son's cart while his mother, Li Juan Wang, kept score. The family moved from Shen Zhen, China (near Hong Kong) when Mu was 11 so he could gain expert instruction from David Leadbetter.

Intense and driven, Mu wasn't quite ready to dismiss the bogey at 17 as a lesson learned.

"I just bogeyed 17. That was it. It was kind of impossible where I put it. Knowing what to do at 17, and making bogey, was disappointing," he said. "I left three or four putts in the center and an inch or two short."

By tournament's end, the surviving 33 players had their luggage stacked next to their golf bags. By nightfall, a few of them planned to be hitting balls at Olympic, the famed San Francisco course which will stage the Amateur. Twenty-three from the original Scratch Players field of 83 — including Kulacz, Mu and Modesto's Jeff Burda — will tee it up in the nation's most prestigious amateur tournament.

Kulacz probably will turn pro by the end of the year, but that decision no doubt will be shaped by how he does next week. Within a year or two, most of the field will be dispersed to college teams or mini-tours. Only one, however, will boast a Top Gun jacket hanging in his closet.

Said the winner to cap his thank-you speech: "Cheers."

Bee sports columnist Ron Agostini can be reached at ragostini@modbee.com or 578-2302.

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