2004 Utah State Amateur Mired by Controversy
11 Jul 2004

The 106th consecutive Utah State Amateur Championship is sure to be labeled as one of the most memorable in tournament history ­ both for the way it started and the way it ended. From stress-filled qualifying events, to an unprecedented exemption handed to the first woman to compete in the tournament, to the forfeit of the championship match, the 2004 State Am at Jeremy Golf and Country Club will be bantered about for decades.

Clark Rustand ­ destined to become the answer to a trivia question tossed about by friends at the 19th hole ­ was awarded the championship trophy a day early when Todd Miller, a devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, decided not to play in the 36-hole final match scheduled for Sunday, July 11.

Miller's decision brought an abrupt end to a tournament in which Annie Thurman, one of the most decorated golfers in Utah history, became the State Amateur's first woman competitor.

Although the decision by the Utah Golf Association to give Thurman an exemption into the State Am brought the ire of many of the players who survived one of the eight challenging 18-hole qualifying rounds, Thurman proved she was worthy of the invite by playing her way into match play and winning her first-round match. All this came after a record 68 players with handicap indexes of zero or better qualified for the State Am.

Never on Sunday Miller, son of the legendary golf professional and analyst Johnny Miller, a returned missionary and a member of the BYU golf team, forfeited the championship match immediately after defeating Clay Bingham 6 and 5 their semifinal match on Saturday, July 10.

"My faith is more important to me than any round of golf I can play," Miller said, his voice cracking and tears in his eyes. "I just think it would be a little hypocritical of me to teach (in church) and not live up to that. "Maybe it spoils it for the guy I'm supposed to play, but I have to stand by (what I believe)," added Miller, who congratulated Rustand with a handshake and an explanation immediately after Rustand had defeated defending champion Tommy Sharp, 2 and 1 in the other semifinal.

After a quick discussion between UGA executive director Joe Watts and UGA president Paul Hatch, Rustand was awarded the championship trophy. "We visited with the club and each of the players, then Joe and I discussed it," said Hatch. "In the end we did what we felt was best for golf and for the tournament."

"It's just too bad that (Rustand) didn't get a chance to win it by the traditional method," Watts said. "I want Clark to know that this in no way diminishes his victory at all," Watts added.

"I respect (Miller) and his decision. I looked forward to playing him. Maybe we can play it off later at an undisclosed location. He's a better person than he's a golfer and I greatly respect him for both," Rustand said.

"My initial reaction was one of sadness and disappointment," said Watts.

Sharp, as the defending champion, had a harsher response, "I think it's pretty disrespectful to a tournament that's been going for 106 years," he said. Sharp also felt bad for Rustand, saying, "You don't want to be the winner with an asterisk. But it's not his fault. It's also not fair to change the tournament on one guy's decision."

"It was a hard decision for the tournament officials, but they handled it in a good way," Miller said.

Despite winning the championship by forfeit, Rustand felt he'd played well enough to deserve it. "I've played well enough to be here, so did he."

Rustand gave a bit of the credit for his victory over Sharp to his caddie, Carl Jensen, who lost to Sharp in last year's championship match.

"(Jensen) was right there with me. He wanted a little revenge on Tommy," Rustand said. "Carl was my cheerleader. If I struggle at anything it's reading putts. His putting ability helped me a lot." Jensen was also on Rustand's bag during his quarterfinal victory Saturday morning over Steele DeWald, 3 and 1.

Miller won his quarterfinal match over Ben Smuin, 5 and 3. In the other two quarterfinal matches, Sharp knocked out Brandt Hoffman, 2 and 1; and, Bingham eliminated Jake Ellison, 2 and 1.

"I truly planned to give (the match to my opponent)" Miller admitted. "But once I was playing my (BYU) teammate (Bingham), it was a little different circumstance."

At any point during his match, Miller could have retired and declared Bingham the victor, advancing him to the championship match.

Rustand, who is also a return missionary, said he was looking forward to playing in the championship, despite it being Sunday. "I made the decision some time ago to compete at the highest level," he said. "That means I may have to play on Sundays, that I'd be put in that predicament. Even though I honor the commandments, that's the decision I've made."

Annie's Got Game As the first woman to compete in the prestigious Utah State Amateur, Thurman proved she belonged.

She posted consecutive rounds of 2-over-par 74 and even-par 72 ­ better than 130 other players in the event ­ to earn a spot into match play.

Even with such solid play, it took Thurman almost eight hours to learn her fate. After posting her score early Thursday afternoon, Thurman returned to Jeremy to find out were the cut to the low 31 scores would be.

Jake Ellison, playing in the same group with Thurman, shot a two under par 70 to go with his opening round of 67 to earn medalist honors with a seven under par tally of 137, just one stroke ahead of Miller, Zach Johnson, and Scott Clark.

There were 31 players, including defending champion Tommy Sharp, who posted scores of 146 or better. That left ten players at 147 playing off for one final match play spot.

The playoff was won on the first hole when Dennis Shaffer drilled about an eight-foot birdie putt for the only birdie of the playoff. His putt came just before dark and thwarted what appeared to be a continued playoff on Friday morning, which would have been another first for this year's State Am.

Friday morning Thurman slaughtered Matt Stalsberg, 5 and 4, in the first round. It wasn't until she faced good-friend Brandt Hoffman in the second round that she was eliminated, 2-up.

Hoffman, after knocking off Ken Ebalo rather easily (6 and 5) in his morning match, defeated the tournament darling Thurman, in front of the largest gallery on the course.

"I played just a few shots better than she did today, that's it," Hoffman admitted, acknowledging Thurman's play. Hoffman and Thurman have been close friends since the two were children. Hoffman, has even caddied for Thurman.

"Even coming up to the 18th hole, Annie looked over at me and said, 'OK Brandt, I'm knocking this one in," Hoffman added with a grin. "Knowing Annie made it a little easier all together.

"There was definitely a lot of pressure," Hoffman added. "There were a lot of people out there rooting for Annie."

"It's been a good experience for me and I learned a lot that can help me in my college career," said Thurman, a senior-to-be at Oklahoma State. "I had a lot of support and a lot of fun out there. My playing partners were awesome."

However, Thurman did not receive resounding support from all of the players prior to the tournament.

Some of the veteran players that earned a spot into the tournament through the 18-hole qualifiers were caught off guard by the announcement she had received an exemption. "I don't agree with it," said Craig Woodward, who was one of 16 players that had to shoot even-par or better at Glen Eagle just to qualify for the State Am. "If she had played her way in, that's something else. But I didn't know they gave out exemptions like that. I thought everyone had to earn a way in."

"That took me by surprise," said Kirk Bowler, who shot a 5-over-par 76 at Wolf Creek Resort to earn one of 14 spots from that qualifying event into the State Am. "Is she taking someone's spot? "Maybe they are trying to do an Annika Sorenstam-type of thing, I don't know," he added. "I just think that she should have qualified."

"She didn't cost anybody a spot, and we make no apologies to anyone for inviting her to play," Watts said. "We were very happy to have her here and she's performed very well," he added. Watts and the UGA board gave Thurman an exemption based on her credentials. Thurman helped the United States win the Curtis Cup in June with three victories in her four matches. She also became the first woman from Utah to win an USGA championship when she captured the 2002 U.S. Women's Public Links at Sunriver, Ore.

Another Chapter So ends another chapter of the world's longest, continuously held golf tournament ­ a tournament that had as many stories, memories and great golf shots, as in any other year. Its champion, Rustand, having been placed in the 28th position of the match play brackets, won four grueling matches including knocking off the defending champion and number one player in the tournament, Tommy Sharp ­ as any worthy champion would have to do.

Story Courtesy Utah Golf Association's 'Fairways Magazine' and contributing writer Brady Bingham.

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