Two-time Washington Golf Player of the Year Sam Warkentin walks away from the University of Washington golf team to learn and to grow – and has no regrets
by Blaine Newnham
He was, by most accounts, a natural.
In his first year of golf as a nine-year-old, young Sam Warkentin carried his seven clubs into the final foursome of a state junior championship. It was a tournament he would later win three times.
To those hanging around Wing Point Golf and Country Club on Bainbridge Island, Warkentin was soon the best thing this side of Ryan Moore, the only player ever to win three junior state titles and lead the Bainbridge High golf team to a state title.
“I loved the game,” Warkentin said recently. “Still do.”
Warkentin’s goal, as high school came to a conclusion, was to play for what he called a “top tier” college program.
He looked no further than the University of Washington, a heavyweight both academically and competitively, and a scholarship was there for him.
Sam had played basketball and Little League baseball, but it was golf where he felt most comfortable.
There was support and inspiration from Wing Point members Monica and Joe Boegel, as well as the club’s two pros, Jeff D’Amico and Neal White and the legendary Ed Jonson family. Internationally renowned instructor Joe Thiel became Sam’s swing coach.
Sam quit Little League baseball. He ultimately said goodbye to basketball. Golf became number one, and he quickly forged an impressive playing resume – the three junior state titles, a 3A High School individual state title, the 2014 Pacific Northwest Junior Amateur title, twice being named the Washington Golf Junior Boys’ Player of the Year.
He had ability, conviction, and support from his parents, said one pro.
“I had the dream,” said Warkentin, “of playing professionally.”
Then, after his freshman year at the UW, he hung up his clubs and walked away.
So what happened?
We sat having lunch at the White Horse Golf Club in Kingston. Warkentin is now a senior at the University of Washington and has an internship at a Seattle investment company. He has majored in environmental studies.
He seldom plays golf, but Sam wants you to know that he isn’t burned out on the game.
And he wants you to know that a coaching change at Washington had nothing to do with his leaving the UW team after one year.
“Great coach,” said Warkentin of Alan Murray, an Irishman who replaced Matt Thurmond after 15 years.
So, what was it then?
“I’d say it came down to two things,” Sam said. “There were simply other things I wanted to do, and at the same time I realized that I might not be good enough to play professionally.”
Warkentin said he spent 30 hours a week practicing and that didn’t count his travel time from the campus in Seattle to the Washington National course in Auburn.
There was travel to tournaments in Mexico and Hawaii, as well as great domestic courses. What could be better?
But the travel and practice made it difficult. For example, he couldn’t take an afternoon class. The only socializing came with golf team members.
Although Warkentin never mentioned the global nature of Husky golf as a reason for leaving the team, but the roster this year had players from India, France, Thailand, China, the Czech Republic, Germany and Canada.
Washington golf used to be about Northwest players, plus a few from Canada and California.
“In my freshman year,” Sam continued, “I saw myself primarily as a golfer, not a student. I have always done well in my studies, but I have always needed to work quite hard to do that.”
He had an injury during the spring season that put him on the sidelines. It was at this point that he says he began to see the UW experience in a different light, and to question his commitment to golf as a primary path.
“The career uncertainty that comes with a single-minded commitment to golf began to loom larger,” Sam says now. “I began to seriously think about focusing more on school and exploring career paths I had never considered.”
Like the ability to study abroad, which Sam then did.
“I began to get excited by all that the UW had to offer,” he said.
He lit up with a smile when we talked about him being a part of golf from a business or administrative situation after his graduation.
But while he says he made the right decision – a noble decision in many ways – he still longs to play golf competitively. Probably as an amateur.
“I still love golf,” he said one more time. “I’ll be back.”
With a diploma and a 7-iron in hand.
Blaine Newnham spent 34 years as a sports columnist and associate editor for The Seattle Times and Eugene Register-Guard. He authored “America’s St. Andrews,” the bestselling book on Chambers Bay and the 2015 U.S. Open.