by Craig Smith
SAMMAMISH, Wash. (July 2, 2012) -- Chris Williams had just won the Washington State Amateur minutes earlier at the Eagles Pride Golf Course at Fort Lewis, Wash. and was being interviewed by a reporter.
Asked about his immediate 2012 summer golf plans, Williams said he was headed to Ireland for the Palmer Cup (U.S. collegians vs. European collegians) and then would attempt to defend his title at the Sahalee Players Championship.
"You realize that no one has ever won the Sahalee event two years in a row?" the reporter said.
Williams perked up.
"Really?" he said. "All right, I'll have to keep that in mind."
Williams won the Sahalee Players Championship (SPC) last year by one stroke. The No. 2-ranked amateur in the world sounds eager to get back to the Sammamish, Wash. course whose name translates from Chinook Native American language as "high, heavenly ground." The 72- hole championship is by invitation only and attracts an international field of elite amateurs. It is being held July 4-6, with July 5 as the two-round day.
"That's a great course," said Williams, a Golfweek All-American who will return for his senior season as a Washington Husky in the fall. "They get it in awesome shape. It was fun to win it last year. You have to hit it straight there. You have to hit a lot of fairways, hit a lot of greens. It's tough to make birdies out there. They set it up almost like a U.S. Open."
Indeed, two-time U.S. Open champion Lee Janzen once said of Sahalee, "I think the best way to prepare for this course would be to go to a big city, like New York, and play down Fifth Avenue."
The inaugural Sahalee Players Championship was played in 1992 to showcase Northwest amateur golfers, but as the course’s reputation grew then fully blossomed with the 1998 PGA Championship and later the 2002 NEC Invitational, the tournament's founders made the SPC a truly national event by extending international invitations. Most of the field consists of elite college players, and the list of past champions now reads like a who’s who of golf. Casey Martin of Eugene, Ore., now the head golf coach at the University of Oregon who recently made headlines by qualifying for the U.S. Open, won the SPC in 1993. Martin would later become famous as the talented handicapped golfer who challenged the USGA and its ban on the use of golf carts in national championships.
In 2004, the SPC was one of five significant events won by Puyallup, Wash. native Ryan Moore in what is considered the greatest year of amateur golf by anyone since 1930 when Bobby Jones won his Grand Slam. Moore won the NCAA Championship, the U.S. Public Links Championship, the U.S. Amateur, the Western Amateur and the Sahalee Players Championship.
In one of the championship’s wildest finishes, Kyle Stanley won a four-way playoff in 2006 in which an eagle on the first playoff hole wasn't good enough for victory. Stanley, a native of Gig Harbor, Wash. who captured his first PGA Tour victory earlier this year, and Jon McLean of Texas Christian both eagled the par-5 18th hole to eliminate Dustin Johnson and Derek Berg that served as the first playoff hole. Stanley then eagled the hole again 20 minutes later for victory.
In 2009, Nick Taylor of the University of Washington won the championship in a year that saw him win the Ben Hogan Award as the nation's top collegiate player. Past SPC champions Moore, Stanley and Peter Uihlein (2010 winner) also won the Hogan Award. Uihlein won the year the tournament was moved to The Home Course in DuPont, Wash. because the U.S. Senior Open was being held at Sahalee that year. Uihlein would also win the 2010 U.S. Amateur, played later that summer at Chambers Bay.
More than a dozen golfers who have competed in the Sahalee Players Championship have wound up on the PGA Tour.
One of Williams' top challengers this year will be junior phenom Beau Hossler of Mission Viejo, Calif., who captured the imagination of fans around the world as he led during the second round of the U.S. Open earlier this month. Hossler finished tied for fourth at last year’s SPC. Also competing this year will be Brigham Young University standout Zac Blair of Ogden, Utah, who tied for second last year at the SPC then won the 2011 Pacific Northwest Golf Association Men's Amateur. Other notables for this year are reigning Pac-12 champion Andrew Yun of Stanford; Cheng Tsung Pan, the sophomore at the UW who was named First Team All Pac-12 and is currently the 10th ranked amateur in the world; and Lorens Chan, Hawaii State Amateur champion.
Admission is free but spectators must adhere to the Sahalee dress code that requires a collared shirt and prohibits jeans and cell phones.
Once again this year, the Sahalee Players Championship is scheduled back-to-back with the Pacific Northwest Golf Association Men's Amateur as part of the "Western Swing." The PNGA championship will be held at Wine Valley Golf Club outside Walla Walla, July 9-14.