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A factory that's generated 11 All-Americans, seven Mid-American

By Allen MoffRecord-Courier staff writer Published: November 11, 1999 12:00 AM

A factory that's generated 11 All-Americans, seven Mid-American Conference championship teams in the 1990s and six squads that qualified for the NCAA Championships in the past 10 years.

A factory that has dozens of former 'employees' scattered throughout golf's corporate industry.

A factory that consistently churns out one of the top teams in the land, even though few people outside company headquarters seem to realize it.

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Just ask the latest young man about to roll off the assembly line, the best overall product this factory has ever produced, senior All-American Ben Curtis.

"It's frustrating when you hear people put Kent down, knowing all that we've accomplished," said Curtis. "I've learned to sort of overlook it, but yeah, it still makes you a little bit mad."

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Curtis was busy battling David Gossett in the semifinals of the country's most prestigious amateur tournament, the U.S. Amateur Championship, in August when Mr. Koch _ obviously after noticing his collegiate team for the first time _ blurted out something about Kent State not exactly being a golf factory during ESPN's live telecast.

That statement didn't sit well with Curtis or his coach, Herb Page, who has spent the past 22 years installing machinery at Kent.

"Gary Koch needs to do his homework," said Page, who still simmers over Koch's comment. "That stuff gets old after a while. We've had two guys make it to the semifinals of the U.S. Amateur in the past five years, Ben and Eric Frishette (1994). Only one school in the country has had more than that: Stanford (three), with Tiger Woods.

"But I know why we still get overlooked. We've never won a national championship, and we don't have any TV players."

"TV players" are PGA Tour players, the guys we watch on the tube every weekend. For reasons known only by the man up above, not a single one of the bevy of great golfers Kent State has produced over the years has earned a PGA Tour card as of yet.

"Does that mean they've failed? Absolutely not," said Page. "People have no idea how difficult it is to make the PGA Tour. Right now we have six of the top 500 players in the world. The top 500 players in the other major sports are all millionaires, but these guys are scratching to make a living.

"I'm not saying it's fair or unfair. That's just the way it is."

Page knows that someday, someone will break the barrier.

In fact, Ben Curtis could come crashing through as early as next summer.

Because if there's a can't miss golfer currently in the college ranks _ a guy with all the mental and physical tools, the smooth swing, the calm demeanor, the experience against top-notch competition, all the essentials for success at the game's elite level _ it's Curtis.

He was raised on a golf course his grandfather owns in Ostrander, Ohio. He won two state titles at Buckeye Valley High School, he's already a two-time collegiate All-American, he's won too many amateur tournaments to count.

Curtis holds virtually every Kent record imaginable, including low score for a three-round tournament which he set earlier this fall by firing a 16-under-par 200 at the Red River Classic in Dallas.

He's done almost everything imaginable as an amateur except place at the NCAA Championships, which is at the top of this year's list of things to do.

Still, scary as it may sound, there are no guarantees that he will succeed as a pro.

"Is Ben the one? I'm not going to say that," said Page. "I watched Frishette, a three-time All-American, win seven college tournaments. I thought for sure he'd get his card. He still might, but right now he's on the Golden Bear Tour.

"Sure I like Ben's chances. But you just never know."

Despite his reservations, Page can't help but gush when he ponders Curtis' pro potential.

"Ben's a very, very good putter," said Page. "He has a wonderful feel for the game, and that's something you either have or you don't. He plays within himself, and he has developed a strong inner confidence.

"His strength is his consistency. Ben really doesn't have a weakness."

Even though Curtis is completely committed to making his senior season a success, he admits that thoughts of playing professionally creep into his mind on occasion.

"I've thought about it all my life," he said. "I've seen players turn pro that are no better than I am, and that obviously gives you confidence. But I realize there's a very fine line between the players that make it and those who don't. It mostly has to do with the mental aspect of the game.

"I'm going to give it a try, but right now I'm not worried about individual stuff. I want to win a national championship."

A national title would certainly put Kent on everyone's map, PGA pro or not. And this year's team, which opened the fall season in resounding fashion with three consecutive victories, could very well give it a great run.

"People may think I'm a fool, but I believe with all my heart that Kent State can win a national championship in golf," said Page, whose squad ended the fall season ranked a school-record high seventh in the country in the Golf Week Sagarin Ratings. "That's a bigger obsession around here than the PGA Tour. We don't worry about that. We keep getting people close, and eventually someone will break through."

That someone could be Frishette, reigning Ohio Open champ Rob Moss, Canadian Tour event winners Bryan DeCorso and David Morland, or fellow pros Kevin Kraft or Boo Blakeman.

It won't be Karl Zoller, who is through chasing the dream after spending the last several years on the Nike Tour _ one notch below the PGA Tour.

"He's found a great job in the golf industry," said Page. "Now he can live a normal life with his family. Good for Karl."

But it could be current juniors Jon Mills or Danny Sahl, or Kent's latest freshman phenom Dustin Risdon, or Curtis of course. They all have serious 'TV player' potential.

"Eventually someone will make it, then everyone will know what Kent golf's all about," said Curtis. "It only takes one."

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