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UCLA’s Devon Bling overcomes mental rough patch on journey to the Masters

The Masters - Preview Day 1
UCLA’s Devon Bling plays a tee shot during a practice round for the Masters at Augusta National on Monday.
(Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images)

UCLA sophomore golfer Devon Bling lined up on the sideline of Russell Westbrook Court, where the Bruins’ men’s basketball team practices. Wearing a black cap, jeans and socks, he turned to his left, past the blue letters spelling Westbrook’s name to a small blue circle placed on top of the hardwood.

He pulled his putter back several inches, and sent the golf ball rolling.

It curved to the left, passing below the “W” in Westbrook, then moved back slightly to the right. Just before reaching the blue circle it wavered left once again, slowly crossing the makeshift hole.

Bling lifted his putter with his left hand hand like a point guard who just swished a three-pointer. He drained the putt in March, practicing on the basketball court to mimic the smooth, speedy putting greens at Augusta National Golf Club. Tiger Woods used the same tactic leading up to the 1995 Masters when he was a freshman at Stanford.

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Augusta National and Pebble Beach are the two golf courses Bling has dreamed of playing, ones that just a year ago, he had experienced only on his PlayStation. But Bling was the runner-up in the U.S. Amateur Championship last August at Pebble, a performance that earned him a spot in the Masters and the U.S. Open in June, also at Pebble Beach.

Bling, 19, is one of six amateur players to compete in the Masters, which starts Thursday.

“I do feel like I deserve to be there,” Bling said. “I don’t think that anything happens by mistake. So I’m just gonna go in and showcase my skill and play my game, and most importantly, have fun.”

He said it without blinking, his dark brown eyes and tall posture exuding a well-earned confidence. But he didn’t always feel that way. Bling finished runner-up in his first-ever U.S. Amateur appearance as an underdog. He was tied for 36th entering match play in the tournament, No. 302 in the World Amateur Rankings.

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Bling entered the tournament with no expectations, his only goal to reach match play. Once he did that, he kept his focus in the moment. When he got nervous, he’d think about playing golf with his family to stay calm. It costs more than $500 to play at Pebble Beach during its peak season. Bling wanted to enjoy his time on the course.

“Let’s see… how many rounds I can go,” Bling said, “and see how much money I would’ve spent playing this many rounds.”

Even with television cameras obstructing his vision, Bling wore a stony expression as he walked down the fairways at Pebble Beach.

“Super in the zone,” his teammate, Eddy Lai, said. “You could tell he kind of wanted it.”

He was motivated by the person he was playing for — his mother. When Bling started competing at golf, he got so nervous he grew nauseous. Sara Bling would remind him to look for his family in the crowd, to think about playing with them.

“She just had this way about her…” Bling said. “Just this calming effect.”

Sara Bling died of a stroke when Devon was 13. Ever since, he has dedicated his golf to her. He remembers the sacrifices she made to help him reach this point, the long drives to tournaments, her countless bits of advice and efforts to make him feel at ease in a competition. Those lessons kept him calm at the U.S. Amateur. The result, Bling said, was “some of the best golf of my life.”

But afterward, expectations rose. He felt the change almost immediately, a newfound desire to prove that week at Pebble Beach was not an anomaly. Bruins coach Derek Freeman discussed it with him as soon as Bling stepped on campus in the fall.

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The Masters - Preview Day 1
Amateur Devon Bling plays a shot during a practice round for the Masters at Augusta National on Monday.
(Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images)

Teammates and opponents grew more competitive with him, while his performance lagged. As a freshman Bling had 17 under-par rounds and four top-10 finishes, winning the Jackrabbit Invitational. He posted nine under-par rounds this season, with two top-10 finishes in UCLA’s eight invitationals.

“I didn’t feel like I was playing my best golf,” Bling said. “And there were times where I was just like, ‘Wow… I’m playing in the Masters. I can’t be doing stuff like this.’”

But the people who knew him best weren’t surprised by his success at the U.S. Amateur. Devon has loved golf since he was a 2-year-old playing with plastic clubs. Growing up, he went straight to the golf course almost every day after school and stayed until it got dark. Sometimes his father, Nick, would have to drag him off, Devon said, reminding him he needed to eat dinner — and sleep.

At UCLA, Bling wowed teammates with his ability to execute tough shots in high-pressure scenarios. In practice with Lai, he would drop his ball behind a bush or in the rough and hit his way out. The more he prepared for the unexpected, the more undaunted he became in competitions.

“He was meant for this,” Dave Sappington, his high school coach, said of the U.S. Amateur. “And the minute that he got to match play, it was gonna be over.”

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It took several months, and conversations with Freeman and assistant coach Andrew Larkin for Bling to believe it. Freeman emphasized that the tournament was a week where he played incredible golf. “That’s super cool, and we love that,” Freeman said. “But that was one week. So now, the next week, we’ve got to get better.”

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It was during a conversation with his father that the message hit home. Still mentally stuck in a rough patch, he went home in early February. After a family dinner, he and his father sat in the living room and started watching golf on TV. They pulled up highlight videos of Bling from the U.S. Amateur. Bling watches them whenever he feels his confidence dip — a reminder of what he is capable of.

They began discussing Bling’s doubts, and the pressure that has emerged since that tournament.

“You have all the skill,” Bling remembers his father saying. “You have the fire, you have the desire, you deserve to be there. That’s where you should be… Don’t put pressure on yourself, and just go out there and play.”

Bling’s goal for the Masters is to do exactly that — free of expectations. As he putts on greens as slick as a basketball court, the practice hours and his mother’s advice will deepen his confidence.

And the knowledge that he earned his place.

blake.richardson@latimes.com

@rblakerich_


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