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PGA tour golfer Rickie Fowler hits out of a green-side bunker on

– The curtain goes up Thursday for the Open and, in
some regard, the future of professional golf in Silicon Valley.
SAN MARTIN – The curtain goes up Thursday for the Open and, in some regard, the future of professional golf in Silicon Valley.

That it is the first PGA Tour event held in this area is the chief cause for excitement for local fans and golf aficionados. But those who paid the relatively low price to attend the late-season tournament at CordeValle Golf Club may be in for more than they bargained for.

Though the tournament takes place during the “Fall Series” of the PGA Tour and nowhere close to the major part of the golf season, players expressed a surprising amount of competitive energy this week — particularly those who grew up in the area.

The Open is their homecoming game, a chance for many young players to bolster their resumes in front of friends and family.

“It doesn’t matter when the tournament is. You’re in it to win it every time,” said 25-year-old Erick Justesen, a Live Oak High School graduate who will be playing in his second PGA Tour event by way of a sponsor exemption. “What’s the point of teeing it up if you’re not ready to go all out?”

The Open has a reputation as a showcase event for future talent, and this edition will be nothing short. The player to watch is 21-year-old phenom Rickie Fowler, the Justin Bieber of professional golf.

Fresh off an impressive showing in last week’s Ryder Cup, Fowler ranks 32nd on the PGA Tour’s money list with more than $2 million in earnings through 25 events.

“The goal every week is to go out and be competitive,” Fowler said.

“It’s definitely been a great year for me, and the Fall Series, you know, tournaments like Frys, helped get me some confidence to go out and get my tour card and be successful.”

The list of up-and-comers also includes reigning Open champion Troy Matteson, 30, who this season tied for 30th in the PGA Championship and narrowly missed the cut at the Masters.

Last year, Matteson claimed his second Open title in Scottsdale, Ariz. by winning a playoff against Fowler and Jamie Lovemark, another blossoming player.

Lovemark, 22, is wrapping up a big year highlighted by his first professional victory in the Nationwide Tour’s Mexico Open Bicentenary in June. He won in a playoff.

“It gave me motivation and confidence to play well on the Nationwide Tour this year,” Lovemark, the Nationwide Tour’s money leader, said of his playoff loss in the 2009 Open. “It was cool to lose a playoff on the PGA Tour and then win one on the Nationwide; get a little redemption for myself.

“I’m really looking forward to this week.”

John Ellis, 30, another LOHS alumnus, is out to make a name for himself at the top level and make progress toward earning an elusive PGA Tour card. He won the Canadian Tour’s Order of Merit in 2008 and also stars on the Nationwide Tour.

Ellis made the Open cut by winning Monday’s qualifier at Bayonet Course.

“It’s a dream come true for me to be a part of this,” Ellis said. “Everything was working for me, my putts and approach shots. Hopefully, I can carry this into this week.”

The Open will bring South County residents face-to-face with some of the game’s enduring big names like David Duval, Justin Leonard and John Daly.

Many of them want to get a jump start on 2011.

Ricky Barnes, a Stockton native, nearly lost his PGA Tour card a year ago after nearly winning the 2009 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black.

“At some point in this game, you’re going to be humbled,” Barnes said. “I want to get back out here and keep it going.

“It’s definitely exciting to be able to play this close to home. I’ll have a lot of friends and family there.”

Even with its modifications for the tournament, CordeValle’s 7,333-yard championship course — designed by legendary architect Robert Trent Jones Jr. — is primed for big scores.

Leonard had an ace on the par-4 second hole in Wednesday’s Pro-Am.

“I don’t know what the winning score might be, maybe 15-, 16-under,” Lovemark said.

One thing is for certain, players will have the opportunity to display their optimal talent, and Silicon Valley will witness it for years to come at CordeValle and The Institute Golf Course in Morgan Hill.

“A lot of people don’t know how big golf is in this area,” Justesen said. “They’re going to see it this weekend.”

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