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Nick Chadbourne | | May 24, 2014

Chadbourne: Marco's unusual journey leads to Kansas

marco-iten-0523.jpg Marco Iten finished his first round at the NCAA tournament on Saturday.

Austin Peay senior Marco Iten never thought he'd end up at the NCAA championships, much less getting ready to qualify for the PGA European Tour. Iten hails from Niederglatt, Switzerland, where golf isn't a popular sport. In fact, if it wasn't for a family vacation to America as a kid, he might've never discovered golf. 

On that vacation, he joined his family on a day trip to a local golf course; his family had never tried their hand at golf. Neither had five-year-old Marco.

“Golf is a really big deal here, compared to not a big deal, at all, back home,” he said.

Despite his country's lack of golfing ambition, Marco picked up the sport and realized he was good at it. Around the time he made it into high school, he was playing for the Swiss National Junior team. Playing with the junior national team elevated his game, as he finally had steady competition to play against all year, he said. Prior, he was only able to compete once in a blue moon due to lack of tournament offerings in Switzerland.

Upon graduation, Marco made a decision to improve on golf and get an education.

He moved to America in 2010 after graduating from KZU Buelach in Switzerland, to spend three months at the Gary Gilchrist Golf Academy in Orlando. One of his coaches there was impressed with his ability despite, by American standards, a lack of experience. The coach contacted Austin Peay golf coach Kirk Kayden to tell him about Marco. Even though, in hindsight, Marco would've made a fine candidate for an academic scholarship -- in college, he's never had a GPA below 3.0 and made the school's Dean's last, 3.5 or above, in four semesters—Kayden gave him a scholarship to play for the Governors.

“Coach took a risk and was like: 'Well, if you're telling me this kid can play, then I'll give him a partial scholarship,'” he said. “That was the only D1 offer I had and I was told it was probably the best thing I could do, so I took it.”

It was a risk in more ways than one. Coach Kayden took his friend's word at the Academy. Kayden hadn't seen Marco before he arrived at Austin Peay.

It was also a risk because Marco was a raw talent, and required a lot of coaching to uncover his hidden gem. He didn't grow up with the game, nor did he play in a country that's golf crazed, unlike many of his competitors in America. He needed to improve at “everything” when he arrived at Austin Peay, he recalled with a smile.

"I mean back then I was not a very good ball striker at all,” he said. “But my short game had gotten very good because I missed the green on every hole.”

Marco also faced another hurdle: transitioning from Switzerland to America. Oddly enough, it might've been the easiest part of his new learning curve. Iten moved into a dorm with four other freshmen golfers at Austin Peay, he said. The five formed a close bond almost instantaneously, which  helped him transition into America without issue. This soon extended to the rest of the team, whom he competed and hung out with almost daily.

“It was so much fun I never really thought twice about quitting or going back," he said.

He said his teammates are brothers to him. They aren't with him this week at Prairie Dunes Country Club. He's spent the last two weeks preparing to represent himself at the NCAA Men's Golf Championships.

He earned a individual's championship spot last week after scorching the Auburn regional for three rounds.

“It's exciting regardless of whether my teammates are here or not, but obviously I'd prefer to play with them,” he said.

Absent are the same brothers that made his transition to a different continent painless and easy.

He's recently played well as an individual. Iten earned an invite to the Auburn Regional after winning the Ohio Valley Conference Championship, where he won the individual title and was named OVC golfer of the year.

At the Auburn Regional, again as an individual, he was the only golfer out of 75 at the tournament to score under par all three rounds. There, he punched his ticket to Prairie Dunes with a tournament-best 8 under par total, four shots better than his closest competitor.

Despite the disadvantage of growing up in a country without regular competition for golf, it may offer him an advantage this week.

"The type of grass that we have in Switzerland is very comparable to what we're playing this week,” he said.

He struggled in his opening round, shooting two over par. Friday's rain delay ended his round after two holes. He started Saturday by completing the hole he was stopped on yesterday, which made it an awkward start for him, he said. 

Regardless of the outcome this week, he'll return to Switzerland after the tournament with a degree in International Management. There, he will play a European amateur schedule and try to qualify for the European PGA Tour. If it doesn't work out, he plans on returning to America to earn a masters degree.

"I might go somewhere completely different [to get my Master's],” he said. “If I'm three and a half thousand miles away from home, I might as well go somewhere different."

But for now, it's not something he's too concerned with -- his priority is returning home to see his family, which he's seen only twice a year since coming to America, and accomplishing his dream of playing professional golf.

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