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Sturgeon set to defend PGA Assistant title

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After winning the 2014 National Car Rental PGA Assistant Championship, Grant Sturgeon found himself with a very busy summer -- traveling from the Philadelphia Cricket Club to Whistling Straits and then CordeValle -- and he'd love to do it all again.

And he'll have the opportunity to defend that title beginning Thursday at the PGA Golf Club's Wanamaker Course in Port St. Lucie, Fla., as 125 other club professionals have the same goal in mind over a four-day span.

For Sturgeon, winning a national event like the PGA Assistant Championship was a tremendous achievement, one that was triggered by a victory at Trump National Bedminster in the Met Open. Sturgeon said the positive momentum from that win carried right into his week at PGA Golf Club last fall.

The last round was almost a blur -- just focusing on the target, stepping up to the ball and hitting it -- Sturgeon said. His 7-under 65 was the lowest final round ever in the 38-year history of the event.

"There really wasn’t much going on in my head," he said. "I kind of got in that mode where it’s ‘see golf ball, hit golf ball’ and fortunately it was going towards the target most of the time. When we’re having special rounds like that, our minds are pretty free and there wasn’t a lot of thought, other than just seeing the target.

2015 PGA ASSISTANT CHAMPIONSHIP: Complete coverage

"It’s hard to describe what’s ‘in the zone’ and what’s ‘out of the zone,’ but looking back on it and everything like that, there just wasn’t any doubt or fear of what could go wrong. It was really simple. I just had a day where I was able to move my ball towards the target almost every time that day."

The key this week for Sturgeon is to find the zone again and try to maintain it. That's easier said than done, unfortunately.

"It’s a blessing to have won this tournament last year, but I really don’t take on the mindset that I’m defending," Sturgeon said. "Last year’s tournament has come and gone, and it was a great experience. But last year’s results don’t have anything to do with this year’s, so I’ll go in with the same mindset of just picking a small target off No. 1 and doing my best to move my ball in that direction."

Last fall's win propelled Sturgeon into a whirlwind of tournament activity. In addition to his usual schedule of PGA Section events, he played in the PGA Professional National Championship, qualified for the PGA Championship for the second time, and was selected to the United States PGA Cup squad.

"I was fortunate to hit a lot of shots this year," Sturgeon said. 

2014 PGA ASSISTANT CHAMPIONSHIP: Sturgeon shoots final-round 65 to win

He also credited his home course, Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y., for allowing him to go off and play in so many tournaments. It's a perfect job -- he gets to spend every day at the golf course for a living. As he put it, "it's the perfect spot."

And all that competitive golf over the past 12 months has helped sharpen both his physical and mental game. That's something he'll carry with him when play begins Thursday at the Wanamaker Course.

"The more times you hit golf shots that matter, when you’re posting scores when people know what you’re doing, the more comfortable you get in those situations," he said. "But it’s still tournament golf. I’ll be like everyone else — still nervous on the No. 1 tee.

"If I’m not nervous on the No. 1 tee, that means a lot has changed and it doesn’t mean as much to me any more."

For Sturgeon, the Wanamaker Course is a ball striker's dream. Hit a good shot and get rewarded. Hit a bad one? Your scorecard will suffer. If he strikes it well this week, watch out.

"My favorite types of golf courses are the ones where good shots are rewarded, where you have good chances to make birdie and then poor shots are punished to where you may struggle to make par," Sturgeon said. "That’s how I’d describe it. There are quite a few shots — particularly on the par-5s — that are risk-reward to where you can make eagles and birdies, but if you don’t execute, you can make bogey or a double in a hurry."

Sturgeon's been at this for quite some time. He grew up in Cave City, Ky., and attended Louisville. 

"My dad got me interested in golf," Sturgeon said. "He was a really good athlete — a college baseball player — and he took up golf in his mid-to-late 20s. By the time I came along, he’d take me to the course with him when I was 3. I played in my first tournament when I was 5. Ever since, I’d beg to go and cry when it was time to go. It was love at first sight."

So what's next? Even though the weather up north won't be conducive to golf, Sturgeon will have some chances to stay warm and play a few rounds.

"I have an event down in Cabo San Lucas for the first time," he said. "I’ve never been down there, but I’m taking three members in November. And then I have three pro-members — two down in Hilton Head and one in Florida in December."