Kyle Kubala and Austin Stephens have grown up playing golf together and have been regulars at St. Petersburg’s Mangrove Bay Golf Course almost since they could swing a club.
As members of the First Tee of St. Petersburg, they have played in numerous tournaments against each other. As teammates on the Northeast golf team, they have played many more tournaments with each other. And starting today, they will play in another tournament on one of golf’s best courses.
Kubala and Stephens are among 81 junior golfers (53 boys, 28 girls) selected to play in the Champions Tour’s First Tee Open at Pebble Beach Golf Links in California. Kubala has been paired with Hale Irwin; Stephens with Andy Bean.
“I’ll get nervous on the first tee even if it’s just a First Tee tournament," Kubala said. “It will be a good kind of nervous, and I’ll be much better after that first shot. I’m sure I’ll be shivering on the first seven holes. I’ll even be nervous on the practice rounds."
Stephens added: “The biggest difference is that it’s an actual Tour event. There will be people watching. I think that will be pretty nerve-wracking on the first tee."
Kubala and Stephens, rising seniors at Northeast, have been trying for three years to get into the tournament, which selects entrants through an essay and interview process. Emphasis is put not only on playing experience, but community involvement and extra-curricular activities.
This year, Kubala and Stephens were the only Tampa Bay area members selected for the tournament, and two of only six boys from Florida.
“They want good golfers," First Tee of St. Petersburg program director Tom Charlton said, “but they also want really well-rounded people."
After being denied in years past, Stephens and Kubala were pleasantly surprised when they found out they had made the field. Actually, they could hardly contain themselves.
“I didn’t believe it at first," Stephens said. “My mom got the letter and was screaming. I couldn’t believe it."
Kubala had the same reaction.
“I was waiting for the email to come in," he said. “When it finally did I read the first paragraph and just started screaming."
Both players said the best course they played until now is Innisbrook’s Copperhead, which hosts a PGA Tour event. They are guaranteed one round at Pebble Beach and one at nearby Del Monte Golf Course. If they are one of the top 22 teams to make the cut, they will get another round at Pebble Beach. Last year, Ben Murray from the First Tee of St. Petersburg made the cut with Palm Harbor pro John Huston.
Of course Stephens and Kubala would like to make the cut this year. But they are mainly excited about being on a picturesque course with some of the best senior players in the world, even if they don’t know who a few of them are.
“I need to Google some of them," Kubala said.
Kubala and Stephens say their handicaps hover between 2 and 3. Their time as members of the First Tee program is running out. But for one week they get to experience life on Tour.
“This is the tops," Kubala said. “This is the best thing that can happen when you’re in the First Tee."