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Inside a whirlwind year of injuries, the PGA Tour and the transfer portal for former Pine Island golf star

Jun. 7—PINE ISLAND — Anders Larson was walking up a hill from the 17th green to the 18th tee box at TPC Deere Run in Silvis, Ill., last July.

His thoughts were focused on where he was going to attempt to place the ball off the tee on the 463-yard, par-4 18th hole, while playing in a PGA Tour event — the John Deere Classic — for the first time in his life, at just 19 years old.

Then, out of the corner of his eye he saw a young girl run down the hill toward him.

"This is completely irrelevant to golf, but she ran down the hill and gave me a fist bump," Larson said with a smile, remembering the moment. "I started to walk up the hill, then stopped and thought 'she has to have a golf ball,' so I gave her a ball and she was so ecstatic, running back to her parents.

"That's why I want to play. I love the game and if there's a way to get more little girls and little guys into the game, that's what I want to do."

It wasn't the first time Larson has had that thought, but having it during his first-ever PGA Tour event was an "Aha!" moment for the 2022 Pine Island High School graduate, who played in the John Deere as an amateur to preserve his college eligibility.

The fist bump, the smile, the flip of a golf ball, more smiles ... it all added up to a moment Larson will never forget, and one he hopes to repeat many times in years to come.

"I think the biggest takeaways I had from (the John Deere) are A) I know where my game has to be to compare it apples-to-apples to the guys who play on the Tour every week," he said. "I have a lot of improvement to do, but I know if I play and practice at a high level and work for it, I can be there in a couple of years.

"The second is, everyone wants to play pro golf for the money or the fame. I had the opportunity as a little kid to go to the Ryder Cup at Hazeltine, and being outside the ropes as a kid, you see some of the guys are more personable than others. I have put a big emphasis on doing that, to make an impact with a little bit of positivity. If you can make a kid's day by waving or smiling or giving them a ball, it's all worth it. And it's completely free to do it."

Larson approaches each day as an opportunity to learn.

It's a perspective that helped him lead the Pine Island/Zumbrota-Mazeppa boys golf team to the first two state tournament appearances in program history, in 2021 and 2022. The latter culminated in the Wildcats first state championship and a third-place finish for Larson in his final high school meet.

That approach — along with a hefty amount of natural ability and a desire and work ethic to match — also helped him become a Division I college golfer. Larson spent the past two years at Tennessee Tech University, where he led the Golden Eagles in scoring average this spring (73.83).

It was also put to the test more than once in the past six months.

As his sophomore season rolled along, Larson began to think about his future and his goals in golf. It was nerve-wracking, he said, but when the NCAA transfer portal opened for golfers on May 8, Larson put his name in.

"For me, it was just a decision to change settings," he said. "My goals and aspirations since I was a little kid have been to play golf for a living for as long as I can. ... Sometimes you can get in a mindset where you get complacent and forget about those goals."

It didn't take long for Larson's phone to start ringing.

But his priority from the start, with two years of eligibility remaining, wasn't finding the most prestigious program, nor the one with the best chance of winning an NCAA national championship.

He realized that, much like a fitting for a new set of clubs, finding the right place to play, for him, was all about fit — how does he mesh with the coaching staff? How will he jell with a team's returning and incoming players?

Larson found his fit fairly quickly with third-year head coach Justin Tereshko at Eastern Kentucky University, in Richmond, Ky.

"(Tereshko) is a really good young coach," Larson said. "He has another transfer coming in from Cincinnati and a good, young team. Eastern Kentucky has a lot to offer when it comes to facilities. The facilities are really nice on their home course. We'll have 24/7 access to those things, so if you can't fall asleep at night, you can go hit balls until you fall asleep on the range.

"I had a good amount of interest. I joke and say a lot of guys want to go to the highest-ranked teams or the teams that will play for national championships. My team, Eastern Kentucky, was the lowest-ranked team I had an offer from, but it's the best next step I can take to reach my goals."

A month before Larson started going through the recruiting process for a second time, he started feeling some pain in his left hand, the one that grips the top of the club and is used primarily for control and accuracy.

He recognized the pain, swelling and general discomfort of tendinitis. He also recognized that tendinitis is something he could push through, and he worked with his trainers, doctors and coaches to combat the discomfort as much as possible.

"I had a lot of people working with me," he said. "It was a great team of people taking care of me."

Larson had battled through the pain for more than a month when Tennessee Tech went to its final regular-season meet, the Mountaineer Classic, hosted by West Virginia University on April 15-16.

His confidence and his game were in good spots when he got to the next-to-last hole of the tournament and attempted to hit a cut with his driver off the tee, in an effort to avoid water to the left of the fairway. He hit his driver — "a swing that was no different than my swing on the first hole of the tournament," he said. — and felt something pop in his left hand.

Larson scrambled through the final two holes and finished in a tie for 16th place.

Still believing it was tendinitis, he practiced through it for the week leading up to the Ohio Valley Conference championships. He shot a strong 73 and was tied for fourth after one round. Then, on the sixth hole of the second round, he teed off with his driver and pain shot through his hand.

He hit a one-handed wedge shot to the green, then two-putted for par. That was the last hole he played for Tennessee Tech.

"I gave it everything I physically had," he said, "but that was it for me."

A few days later, a surgeon cut a 2 or 3-inch zig-zag incision into Larson's hand, took out the broken bone and fused his ligaments and tendons onto another bone.

"It hasn't been a great month," said Larson, who said he has found a number of golf podcasts, books and magazines to keep his mind occupied while he's been unable to swing a club. "I have been able to broaden and improve the mental aspect of my game. I'm just cleared to swing now, but it will be a slow build."

Larson's injury hasn't derailed his hopes for the summer.

He hopes to qualify for the Minnesota State Amateur, which is just more than five weeks away (July 15-17), and he'll play next week in a qualifier for the U.S. Amateur Championship, which is being played this year at Hazeltine Golf Club in Chaska, Aug. 12-18.

Larson also will attempt to qualify for two PGA Tour events — the Rocket Mortgage Classic, in Detroit at the end of this month; and the John Deere Classic for a second consecutive year (it is scheduled for July 4-7).

He's built a packed schedule, all with his doctor's permission and encouragement.

"My biggest question has been 'can I re-injure this?'" he said. "We know there are players who have been at the peak of their game, had hand injuries and haven't been able to return. I kept asking if there is a swing or movement I might do that would re-injure it. The doctors said 'everything looks good, there's nothing you can do to re-injure this.' That was music to my ears."

With a new school, a clean bill of health and the same dreams he's had for more than a decade, Larson's future is once again in his hands. He said the highs and lows of the past year have taught him two valuable lessons.

First: "The support I've had from my mom (Kristina), dad (Jarvis) and girlfriend (Reagan Stuke, who grew up near Milwaukee and plays on the Tennessee Tech women's team), and my friends and family in general has been amazing. It's not been easy. Golf is a roller coaster. The city of Pine Island, too, has been so amazing to me for so many years. I'm fortunate to have an extremely good support system."

And second: "When you're injured and you don't know where you're going to play, you gain a little more appreciation for what you have and what you do. For players who aspire to play at a high level, it's easy to get frustrated and try to perfect the game. When you don't touch a club for 5-6 weeks, you get a better understanding of how lucky you are to play this game."