UF’s T.J. Vogel ready to make Masters debut

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — He is now familiar with the awe-inspiring terrain.

Amen Corner. T.J. Vogel has played through one of the most famous stretches in golf.

Rae’s Creek. Vogel has crossed it on the appropriately named Hogan’s Bridge.

Magnolia Lane. The University of Florida senior has traveled the scenic entrance road to Augusta National Golf Club, site of this week’s Masters.

The Crow’s Nest. That is where Vogel is staying as he makes his Masters debut as one of six amateurs in the field, able to look out the window from above the Augusta National clubhouse and see “The Big Oak Tree” and other frills that make the tradition-rich Masters the most celebrated event in golf.

“It’s kind of like a dream come true that I have this opportunity,’’ the 22-year-old Vogel said. “It’s going to be an incredible experience. I can’t explain it — the course is so perfect. It’s like nothing I have ever seen before.”

Before he tees off Thursday, Vogel will have played more than 15 practice rounds at Augusta since qualifying for the Masters by winning the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championships in July. He spent Sunday morning playing perhaps the most memorable round of his life, sharing a threesome with Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker.

On Wednesday, Vogel is scheduled to play in the Masters Par 3 Contest. His Florida teammate and best friend, Tyler McCumber, will caddy for him. And once the real tournament starts Thursday, the person who knows Vogel’s game better than anyone, his father Joe, will carry T.J.’s bag around the 7,435-yard course.

Vogel learned Tuesday afternoon that he will be paired in a group with two-time Masters champion Jose Maria Olazabal and Australian Marc Leishman in the first two rounds.

For a guy who has struggled this spring and will turn his focus to the upcoming Southeastern Conference Championships when he returns from Augusta, Vogel’s top priority at the Masters is to enjoy the experience with his family and friends.

But make no mistake, he wants to absorb as much as he can from the pros in his midst and play as well as he can.

“I want to be the low [amateur],’’ Vogel said. “That’s my goal. I’m not going to get too caught up putting too much pressure on myself. The more relaxed I am, the better I’m going to play. It’s pretty exciting. I want to be excited. It’s going to be the best week of my life — or at least I think it will be.”

Before leaving for Augusta on Friday, Vogel shot a 66 in a practice round at Black Diamond in Citrus County. Florida coach Buddy Alexander, who played in the Masters as a 34-year-old amateur in 1987, knows that once Vogel gets on the course, his competitive juices will take over.

“He’s not a principle factor in this event, unless he happens to play great in the first couple of days,’’ Alexander said. “But as a competitor you go into that thing thinking that you are.”

Alexander views Augusta National as a course that suits Vogel’s game well if he is striking the ball sharply this week.

“He’s a really intelligent player,’’ Alexander said. “He’s plenty long but not an overpowering guy. He’s a real smart college player. His golf IQ is probably in the top three or four guys I’ve ever had. He’s fairly solid everywhere. That Augusta National course is a true test of every respect of your game, so I think that plays into his game.”

Vogel finished seventh or better in all four of Florida’s tournaments in the fall. However, he underwent hernia surgery in December and has struggled to regain his form. Vogel’s best finish in four tournaments this spring is 12th, with his best round a 69 at the John Hayt Invitational.

Vogel said he is beginning to feel more comfortable and that any lingering effects from the hernia surgery won’t be a factor. The adrenaline will take care of any aches or pains.

As for Augusta National, Vogel is beginning to feel more comfortable there, too.

“It sets up really, really well for me off the tee,’’ he said. “A lot of shots play for a little draw, and that’s my favorite shot. I’m feeling really good tee-to-green, and it’s really all about learning the greens. The greens are really fast and slopey.”

Vogel is the first UF golfer to play in the Masters as an amateur since Bubba Dickerson in 2002. The last time an amateur finished under par was 2005, when Ryan Moore tied for 13th at 1-under-par.

Asked what he expects to be rushing through his mind Thursday morning when he steps to the tee, Vogel quipped, “I just want to make contact, to be honest.”

While Vogel grew up in Cooper City playing on public courses in the Miami area, he has played all over the country the past few years. He started his college career at USC and transferred to UF to be closer to home and reconnect with his game after his sophomore season.

He arrived in Augusta with the mindset of fitting in with the game’s best. He ordered special clothes for the event, and to help him on Augusta’s slippery greens, Vogel added a new grip to his GoLo putter that helps him with control.

He said regardless of how he plays, performing on such a big stage can only help his game when he returns to Gainesville.

“The good thing is that I know for a fact that I will never fear playing in another tournament,’’ Vogel said. “I know I won’t be nervous. Playing at the Masters, and no offense, but coming back to college and playing in the SECs is not going to faze me.”

Besides his father, Vogel said he will be joined by his mom and siblings and several family members on both sides of the family. Joe Vogel, the head women’s coach at Florida International, caddied for his son when he won the Public Links title last summer.

The father-son combination adds another layer to Vogel’s memorable week. Alexander plans to drive up to Augusta Wednesday to watch Vogel play. More than anything, Alexander wants Vogel to soak up the experience.

“I think anytime you have a player play in the Masters or any major, it’s a terrific accomplishment for them individually and kind of a feather in the cap for your program,’’ Alexander said. “It’s surreal, to be honest with you. It’s like no other golf tournament in the world.”

At 9:28 a.m. Thursday, Vogel will tee off and find out how unique the Masters truly is.