BY PAUL KENYON
Journal Sports Writer
LINCOLN, RI (July 17, 2005) -- In the 100 years the Rhode Island Golf Association has held its Amateur Championship, there have been few better feel-good stories than the one produced by Tom McCormick at Kirkbrae over the last five days.
The emotion was palpable as McCormick completed a improbable march through the tournament yesterday, topping 2003 player of the year Billy Auger of Crestwood, 4 and 3, in the scheduled 36-hole final. McCormick's victory would have been a wonderful story on its own. Here is a 25-year-old who had never won a match in the tournament before, who had qualified for match play only once previously. Here was a young man brought up in a golf family who appeared to be a star in the making -- he was the RIGA Junior Champion in 1997 -- but who all but gave up the game to concentrate on hockey at the University of Rhode Island. Here was a guy who played in only one golf tournament all last summer and stopped playing because, as he said, "my head just wasn't in it."
What made his performance even more special was that it came only three months after the death of his father, Mike. Mike McCormick was one of the state's best players, a former Amateur finalist himself (he lost to Rodney Butcher in 1992) and a six-time Public Links champ.
Last Sunday, Tom McCormick charged from behind to win the Public Links at Triggs, the course where he and his father played so often, the course where his father had his ashes scattered after his death from lung cancer at age 58. Tom McCormick spoke about how he believed in his father's presence.
"I felt like I had an angel on my shoulder," is the way he put it.
As unlikely as that victory was, it turned out to be only a warm up. Two days after his win at Triggs, he was at Kirkbrae to play in the big one, the State Amateur. As far as can be determined, only one player ever -- Leo Marcotte Jr. in 1974 -- has won the Public Links and Amateur in the same year.
On the first nine holes of the Amateur, McCormick struggled to a 44. I was still on the high from the Publinx," he told friends.
Somehow, though, he got it together. He posted a 35 on his final nine Tuesday, followed by a 73 to squeeze into match play by two strokes. He continued to speak about feeling his father's spirit as he put together an amazing upset run in match play.
Among others, he beat two former champions, George Pirie and Charlie Blanchard, both on dramatic last-hole finishes. Then, yesterday, playing Auger, a guy who has been as consistently good as any player in the state over the last few years, McCormick gave his fairy-tale story a happy ending.
With his mother, Laura, and his nine-year-old sister, Casey, leading the cheers, he played beautifully. He was even-par as he built a 5-up lead in the morning 18 as Auger struggled, primarily with his putting. He fought off a small surge by Auger early in the afternoon round, and then played smart, methodical, consistant golf (1-over for the 15 holes he needed in the afternoon) to preserve his lead and earn the 4-and-3 victory. He seemed to impress even himself.
"I worked hard to get the lead. I played solid all day. I just played well," he said.
Auger, who had never played with McCormick before, was duly impressed. He stressed that while he did not play his best, McCormick won the match. "Regardless of how I played, he still had to play well enough to win and he did," Auger said. "Everybody talks about how maybe he has an angel on his shoulder. I think he has a pretty good golf swing. . . . It's hard to take anything away from him. He hit fairways and greens all day. I have nothing but respect for his game."
McCormick, who first played in an RIGA event at age six -- "The father and son at Valley. I still remember it," he said -- plays quickly, which made for a fast-moving final since Auger also plays that way. McCormick has a smooth, compact swing and an unusual, elbow-high putting style, with a grip that has his forefinger pointed down the putter shaft.
In the morning, he turned an even match after seven holes into a 5-up lead by the lunch break with the help of birds at 9, 12 and 14. McCormick's lead got to 6-up when Auger three-putted the first hole in the afternoon. But Auger won two holes with a par and a bird to cut the lead to four. He felt the key swing came on the sixth hole of the afternoon round, where he had a 3 1/2-footer for par to win the hole.
"At that point, I had momentum and it was my job to keep it," Auger said. "If I go 3-down at that point and have won three holes in a row, it's a totally different story. You know how momentum can be in match play. . . . I didn't do it."
Auger missed the putt and the hole was halved. McCormick never gave Auger another opening. He played with the poise of a veteran. It brought him back to thoughts of his father. He spoke about how his father tried so often to get him to keep his emotions in check, but how he had trouble doing it.
"He told me that for years before it finally sunk in. As I matured as a man, I think it finally came through with my golf game," McCormick said.
The son had shown maturity dealing with his father's cancer. Tom McCormick had moved to Florida after graduating from URI two years ago. He liked it there and planned to stay. When his father was diagnosed with lung cancer, he decided to return.
"I didn't play at all last year, but I could tell I was getting better handling my emotions," he said. "Basically, that's what this game is all about, especially match play. I never, ever, in this whole tournament got down, not once. Even in stroke play when I shot the 44, I just kept saying, 'Stay even keeled. Anything can happen. Trust your game and just play. It's just a game.' "
It is a game in which Tom McCormick is now the state champion.