This isn’t how John Augenstein imagined his professional golf career starting—in a pro-am without ams, at a PGA Tour event without fans.
The 23-year-old makes his pro debut this week at The American Express on a sponsor’s exemption. The Vanderbilt grad decided to make the jump from the amateur ranks, forgoing one more semester of college eligibility, after finishing T-55 at the Masters in November, which he qualified for by finishing runner-up in the 2019 U.S. Amateur. The 2020 SEC player of the year initially planned to turn pro after graduating last summer, before COVID threw a wrench in his (and everyone else’s) plans.
Ahead of his first round as a pro, we spoke with Augenstein about adjusting to full-time golf life, watching his peers win PGA Tour events and much more.
Golf Digest: First question—When’s your birthday? I’ve been trying to find it online, and I’m not sure the Internet knows exactly how old you are.
John Augenstein: I try to keep that hidden. I don’t want anyone to know. (Laughs). No, I’m 23. My birthday is Oct. 7, 1997.
JA: When I committed to coming back, there was always a chance I would leave following the Masters. It was a tough call for sure, I loved my time at Vanderbilt, loved Coach [Scott] Limbaugh and the team, but it just came down to, it was time to move on. I was more than ready to leave following my real senior year, but with COVID—and I know my situation isn’t close to the worst of all—but I was put in a predicament of what to do. Coming back was the right thing to do, played the two majors, but after that it was pretty apparent I was ready to leave.
You mentioned the two majors. You missed the cut at the U.S. Open at Winged Foot in September and made it at the Masters, but I have to think you had higher expectations for each event. What did you learn about yourself and your games from those two weeks?
JA: At the U.S. Open, I didn’t feel like I prepared well enough with my putting for that golf course. Crazy greens, crazy undulation. I set up a good plan, but my speed control wasn’t good enough and that cost me. It’s simple stuff. I’d like to say I learned a lot, but I just didn’t play well. Going into Augusta, I felt much more confident. Felt like the course suited me well, I love the course. Had a lot of information and help from older players. Was in 25thish after 36 holes, which was solid. On the weekend, I didn’t trust what I had been doing the first 36. Started pressing, trying to make birdies instead of sticking to the process.
Golf has always been a balancing act for you: golf and school. Now that school is out of the equation, how do you fill those extra hours of the day?
JA: It’s been great. Every day you wake up and your only job today is to get better, to get more prepared. I’ve really enjoyed it. Planning out every second of the day how I want it to be. I’ve been really structured in when I’m going to bed, when I’m waking up. What I do. Every single morning I do the same thing, and I try to get to the golf course at the same time and leave at the same time.
Do you have your caddie situation figured out?
JA: Yep. Brandon Parsons will be caddieing for me. He was J.B. Holmes’ caddie for the last 13 years. [Editor’s Note: Both Holmes and Augenstein are Kentucky natives.]
A lot of the younger guys are bringing out their friends, or their brothers, or their college teammate. You went the experience route. What went into that decision?
JA: It was a perfect storm. I’ve known him for a little while, and I knew I wanted him to work with me. It just happened that he was able to do it. I just think the experience is really important. You have to mesh with them, of course, but ideally you want someone with that experience. I don’t see how that can hurt. I know some people like to bring friends out, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing either. It’s just making yourself as comfortable as possible, and Brandon does that.
You signed with Oakley recently. I have to think it’s cool to sign with brands that you grew up wearing.
JA: I grew up wearing the sunglasses when I played. I’ve been testing a lot lately, and I believe that I’ll wear sunglasses again when I play soon. Rory [McIlroy] was with Oakley at the time, and every kid wanted to be like him. So a really cool experience to be a part of the brand now. A leader in so many sports, it’s really cool to be a part of it.
You’re 23. Guys younger than you are winning and contending in huge events on tour. Does that give you confidence? Did it make you anxious at all, like, I see them doing this, I want to be doing this?
JA: Everybody writes their own story. Every one does what they think is best for them. I really enjoyed my time at Vanderbilt, it meant a lot for me to finish. It was always what I felt was the right thing for me. My game always got better when I was there, so there wasn’t a reason to leave early. And yeah, seeing young guys play well certainly builds confidence, but I’m more concerned with what I’m doing. I know those guys and I’m happy for them, and it’ll be cool to be around them again.
Kind of a strange time to turn pro with no crowds at tour events. Might that actually make it an easier transition?
JA: Depends on who you are. I’ve never shied away from a crowd. At the U.S. Am, so many people there, and I played in the RBC Heritage with crowds, and the national championship with crowds. That’s the fun part, you get to show off. I think it’s fun to feed off it. I don’t view it as an advantage or a disadvantage. I’d personally love the crowd here to get a full experience of what my career will be like.
You’ve played in so many golf tournaments, in majors. And you know you’ve got another sponsor’s exemption coming into the Genesis Invitational next month. But do you think it’ll feel a little different that first shot as a pro? Now that you’re finally, actually here?
JA: Maybe. It might feel different. I don’t know how it will feel different. Everyone always asks me, were you nervous at Augusta? Yeah I was nervous at the first tee, like every other tournament. Whether it’s a club championship or the Masters, it feels the some on the first tee. Always trying to win, so it’s no different to me.