POTOMAC -- One of the first thoughts that rushed into Del Ponchock's head after winning the Maryland Open was his automatic exemption into the Kemper Open. It stayed there for a long time, considering it was last year's Maryland Open and this year's Kemper Open.
"It was a long wait," Ponchock said yesterday.
The wait is nearly over for Ponchock. A senior at the University of Maryland who grew up in Bowie, Ponchock is the only amateur in the 156-man field at the $1.3 million tournament. Play begins Thursday at the Tournament Players Club at Avenel.
"After I won [the state Open], I thought about it [playing in the Kemper] for a couple of days," said Ponchock, 21. "But that was in the middle of July and this was still a long ways off. I started thinking about it again when golf season began."
It helped that the state Open was held on his home course, the Country Club at Woodmore in Mitchellville, where he held the competitive course record of 7-under-par 65.
But Ponchock's sudden-death victory came over respected club pros Glen Barrett and Larry Ringer, the former Naval Academy coach and ex-PGA Tour player who, as the Country Club at Woodmore's head pro, had given the younger player several lessons.
"I think that the Maryland Open showed Del that he could play with and beat a pretty high caliber of player," said Tom Hanna, Ponchock's coach at Maryland.
The Kemper Open is several galaxies above that, but Ponchock is ready to test his game against those with the courtesy cars and six-figure bank accounts. After playing 27 holes the past two days in 3-under, Ponchock is ready to let things rip.
"I've had so many people come up to me and say, 'Just make the cut,' " said Ponchock, who had won a couple of minor college tournaments before winning the state Open. "If I can play the way I'm able to, the cut shouldn't be any problem. I've been working with a sports psychologist [at Maryland] who says that if the only goal you set is making the cut, that's all you're going to do."
While amateurs with stronger credentials than Ponchock have done a lot more than make the cut at PGA Tour events -- current pros Scott Verplank and Phil Mickelson won as amateurs, and former Georgia Tech star David Duval led after three rounds at last year's BellSouth Classic -- the Kemper Open has not been so kind.
Should Ponchock make the cut at this year's Kemper, he would become the first amateur to do so since the tournament moved to Avenel in 1987 and only the second since the tournament moved to the Washington area. Nationally respected amateur Marty West made the cut -- and finished dead last -- at Congressional Country Club in 1984.
"Realistically, my goal is to make the cut," said Ponchock, who redshirted this season at Maryland and has one year of eligibility remaining. "You've got to set goals. A lot of people who have played the tour and who've seen me play definitely think that I have what it takes."
Said Hanna, a 1970 Maryland graduate who played the PGA Tour in 1978 and 1979: "He has the credentials, both physically and mentally, to make the tour. He's real long. He's got a very good short game and he's a good putter. This type of exposure will help him get All-America honors next year."
Ponchock's decision to redshirt was twofold: it allowed him to work on his game for an extra year while giving the Maryland golf program, which was hurt by scholarship cutbacks three years ago, some time to strengthen itself. With two others redshirting along with Ponchock and two transfers coming in, the Terrapins will have one of their strongest teams in years next season.
By the time he plays his senior year, Ponchock will have gotten his degree (in kinesiology) or be close to getting it. He also will have more top-flight amateur experience in his resume, including this year's Western and Porter Cup. He hopes to qualify for this year's U.S. Open as well, starting next week.
"The pre-qualifying is at my club, but it will be a tough field because a lot of the guys here will be going there next week," said Ponchock.
Today, Ponchock will find out who he'll be playing with for the first two rounds of the Kemper. Perhaps he'd be most comfortable with Fred Funk, a longtime family friend who recruited him to Maryland before leaving for the tour. Ponchock wouldn't mind a chance to play with a guy like Tom Kite, the defending U.S. Open champion.
"It would be nice to play with someone big, someone well-known on tour," he said.
After all, he has waited a long time for the opportunity.
Where: Tournament Players Club at Avenel, Potomac (par 71, 7,005 yards)
When: Today: Practice round, Merrill Lynch Shoot-out. Tomorrow: Pro-am. Thursday-Sunday: 72-hole tournament.
Who: 155 pros and one amateur, including defending and two-time champion Bill Glasson, U.S. Open Tom Kite, former U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange, former PGA champion John Daly, former British Open champion Mark Calcavecchia, and Fred Funk and Donnie Hammond.
Purse: $1.3 million; $234,000 for winner.
TV: Chs. 11, 9: 4:30 to 6 p.m. Saturday; 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday.
Tickets: Practice rounds: $10. Single-day grounds: Wednesday through Sunday, $22. Single-day grounds and Pavilion Club tent: $33. Weeklong grounds: $90. Weeklong grounds and Pavilion Club: $130.