Advice to Backel: Keep it simple, enjoy, learn

What 17-year-old Madison Central senior Camden Backel accomplished Monday — shooting 7-under-par 65 at Lake Caroline and then beating seven pros in eight-man playoff — is truly amazing.

Backel will now tee off in Thursday’s first round of the Sanderson Farms Championship. Amazing, yes. Unprecented, no.

Hattiesburg native and Diamondhead resident Gary Martin was 17 years, two months old when he qualified and played in the 1979 Magnolia Classic (now the Sanderson Farms Championship) at the Hattiesburg Country. Backel will turn 18 later this month.

Says Martin, now the CEO of his own finance company, “It was like a dream come true for me. I had caddied in the Magnolia Classic growing up. I grew up on it. When I carried somebody else’s bag, it was with the goal that someday somebody would be carrying my bag in a PGA Tournament.”

Backel had shot 67 in a pre-qualifier that put him in the open qualifying on Monday. He was one of 86 golfers trying to earn one of the four last spots in the Sanderson Farms Championship. The odds against a 17-year-old making it through pre-qualifying and the open qualifying — playing against mostly pros — are staggering.

Martin understands. Back in 1979, he was one of 60 players vying for two spots. He made it with a 3-under par 69 at the Hattiesburg Country Club.

Martin missed the 36-hole cut in the tournament proper, but it was an experience he still remembers fondly.

“I was paired with Frank Conner, who had played in the U.S. Open both in tennis and golf, and with Jim Dent, one of the first African Americans on the tour and one of the longest hitters ever,” Martin said.

“They couldn’t have been nicer,” Martin said. “They understood I was out of my element, a little overwhelmed, and they were very gentle and patient.”

At 17, Martin already had won state a regional junior golf championships. He had been the Hattiesburg Country Club club champion. He would go on to play at Ole Miss and later played on mini-tours and the Hooters Tour.

Backel’s junior golf accomplishments haven’t been as impressive, which makes his achievement this week all the more impressive.

“Cam has been a member of our junior golf program for six years now,” said Randy Watkins who owns Lake Caroline and Whisper Lakes in Madison and Patrick Farms in Rankin County. “He never misses a chance to work on his game. He has really improved his game, especially here lately, through dedication and hard work. I can’t tell you how impressed I am by how he handled himself in the two qualifiers.

“Those were really talented professionals he beat,” Watkins said. “Len Mattiace, who was in the playoff, once shot 65 in the final round of The Masters but lost a playoff to Mike Weir. Len’s a two-time PGA Tour winner.”

Smilie Kaufmann, who finished second to Backel in the playoff, is a former LSU All American who played in the 2014 U.S. Open at Pinehurst. Steve Marino, also in the playoff, has ranked as high as No. 54 in the World Golf Rankings and once shot a 59 in a professional tournament.

“Cam saw all those names on the bags in the playoff,” Watkins said. “He knew all about those guys, but, obviously, he didn’t back down.”

Watkins, who won the U.S. Junior championship at age 16 and later played the PGA Tour, has advised Backel to enjoy the moment and use it as a grand learning experience.

Martin takes it a step further.

“I would tell him to keep it simple, do what got you there,” Martin said. “I would tell him to enjoy every bit of it and to keep his expectations low, but dream big.

“He’s already accomplished so much for a high school senior,” Martin continued. “The best part is that Thursday and Friday, while the rest of his classmates are stuck in school, he’ll be out playing golf.

“You can’t beat that.”

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