You know those small towns across America that have just one stoplight? Well, Pine Island, Minnesota, isn't that. They don't even have one stoplight.
Pine Island is a two-hour drive south of Minneapolis. The largely agricultural town has a population of just 3,700. It's not exactly where you would think a college sophomore who just Monday Qualified for the John Deere Classic grew up, but Anders Larson isn't your typical Monday Q story.
I was going to start this paragraph with Larson's World Amateur Golf Ranking (WAGR). I figured it would be in the high thousands and it would be a great way to draw a reader in. The problem is Larson isn't ranked at all. On a list of over 3,000 players, his name is nowhere to be found. He hasn't played in or finished high enough to garner a ranking. That is why after a six-and-a-half-hour wait, he and his dad, Travis, hugged and cried when it became official that Anders was in the John Deere Classic, which is being played this week at the TPC Deere Run.
"I've never been the highest-ranked junior,” Larson says. “But I've always believed in myself, and my dad has always supported me. It was just a really emotional moment."
An early start
Travis Larson started taking Anders to Pine Island Golf Course when Anders was just 2. Pine Island GC is a 6,500-yard municipal course where the farmer from down the street plays in his jeans. It’s the kind of place where you can play 18 with a cart for $27 in the morning. Growing up in a place like this has a lot of advantages.
"I could do what I wanted. Play whenever I wanted, practice anywhere,” says Larson. “I couldn't do that at a lot of country clubs." Larson still plays at Pine Island during the summer.
Larson was always an above-average golfer, but like many kids in small towns, he played many sports. Baseball was his second love. His game took a turn when he was 15 and was introduced to Nick Pelle.
Pelle had made a name for himself in the Denver-area and moved to Minneapolis to open the first GOLFTEC in Minnesota. The Larsons liked Pelle and his swing philosophy. That was the good news. The bad news: the GOLFTEC where Pelle worked was over two hours away from Pine Island. Anders decided it was worth the extensive travel, and for the last four years (twice a week for the first few years), they made the four-hour round trip in the family’s 2018 Yukon.
Although Larson only sees Pelle about once a month now, there is rarely a week that the two don't exchange text messages, which include Larson’s swing videos.
Larson, who averaged just over 74 in his freshman year at Tennessee Tech University, signed up for his first pre-qualifier, which was played last Thursday. In the pre-qualifier, he played well and came to the last needing a par to get through.
On the par-four 18th, Larson pulled his approach into a bunker leaving a seemingly impossible up-and-down. A solid bunker shot left him with a 20-foot putt to advance to the Monday qualifier.
"It was going so fast it might have dented the hole,” says Nick Beinz, Larson’s playing partner that day. The ball hit the hole, jumped in the air and fell. Larson turned to his Dad and said, "I wasn't going to leave that short." He advanced to the Monday Qualifier.
His first Monday
Larson knew the odds of making it through the Monday were low, especially for a 19-year-old college sophomore in his first-ever Monday. He was relaxed when he turned at one-under par, saying he had no real expectations. Then birdies started falling.
Larson birdied the last five holes to shoot 65. Playing in the first group off that morning, Larson would have a long wait to learn whether the score was good enough.
"Everyone told me not to refresh the leaderboard, but all I did was keep refreshing the leaderboard,” Larson says. Six-and-half-hours later, he was called into the clubhouse and told it was official. He had qualified for the John Deere Classic. He and Travis hugged. There were tears. After the hug he called his longtime coach.
Pelle was surprised when Larson called Monday night while he and his family were out to dinner. Pelle's 18-month-old was holding his phone and he missed the first call. When he saw Larson’s second call, Pelle answered.
"I think I said a cuss word or two," Pelle says of his response.
Out of a slump
Just over a month ago, Larson came to see him in the middle of a slump. Larson was struggling with a costly left miss. They got to work. Larson said he felt good when he left the GOLFTEC Studio.
Pelle has given over 35,000 lessons in his 21-year career at GOLFTEC, but this will be his first student in a PGA Tour event. Pelle broke the news to his wife at dinner Monday night. She replied, "Well, you are going, aren't you?" Yes, he said.
A frantic few days of clearing his schedule was followed by a six-hour drive to TPC Deere Run. Pelle plans to be by Larson's side for the entire tournament.
All of those two-hour drives have been worth it. Today, a student and his coach will be inside the ropes for the first time at a PGA Tour event.