The 2012 spring collegiate golf season had just ended, and Kevin Penner paused for a moment of self-reflection.
What he saw was someone who was underachieving, someone capable of much better, on and off the course. So Penner worked on his game, worked at being a better student and worked at developing his leadership skills, and it has all paid off.
The UNLV senior from Sammamish, Wash., is playing the best golf of his life, and it showed when Penner won the Nevada Open on Thursday in Mesquite. He lit up CasaBlanca Golf Club with a three-round total of 25-under-par 191, five shots ahead of runners-up John Hahn and Dusty Fielding in a field comprised mostly of professionals.
It was Penner’s second straight victory and third since the summer. Last month, he won the Sun Bowl College All-America Golf Classic in El Paso, Texas, beating some of the nation’s top college players. In July, he won the Sahalee Players Championship in his hometown.
“I had a poor finish to my junior year, and I took a step back and realized I needed to do a better job at everything I do,” Penner said Friday. “I put more focus on my academics and changed a lot of things with my game, and it really paid off.”
UNLV coach Dwaine Knight said improved putting has keyed Penner’s success.
“He’s much more consistent on the greens,” Knight said. “But the big thing is Kevin decided he was going to be the best he could be. He wants to play professionally after college, and he’s putting in the work and the time to help him achieve that goal.
“I’m very proud of him. We knew he had the talent when we recruited him. But sometimes it takes awhile for everything to come together. It’s great to see what he’s doing, both on and off the course. He’s become a real leader for us.”
Penner shot rounds of 63-63-65 at the Nevada Open, and he wasn’t worried about competing against more experienced players.
“I focused on making birdie at all the par-5s and try to play the other holes even,” he said. “I was fortunate to make a few more birdies on some of the par-4s. But I wasn’t intimidated at all. I knew if I played my best golf, I could win.”
Penner played in four of the five events on UNLV’s fall schedule and finished no worse than ninth. He tied for second at the Ping-Golfweek Preview on Sept. 25 in Atlanta, was fourth at the Herb Wimberly Intercollegiate on Oct. 23 in Las Cruces, N.M., and sixth at the Jerry Pate National Intercollegiate in Birmingham, Ala., on Oct. 16. His tie for ninth came Oct. 9 at the Jack Nicklaus Invitational in Ohio.
Penner will play in the Patriot All-America in Litchfield Park, Ariz., from Dec. 29 to 31, then rest up for UNLV’s spring schedule, which begins Feb. 20 at the John Burns Invitational in Hawaii.
“(My improvement) has given me a lot of confidence and momentum heading into the spring,” Penner said. “We’ve got a lot of talent on our team, and we can set ourselves up for a great spring with a fast start. But you can’t be satisfied. You have to keep getting better every day.”
Contact reporter Steve Carp at email@example.com or 702-387-2913. Follow him on Twitter: @stevecarprj.