By Ron Balicki, Golfweek
Some will argue that the winner of the U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship should not get one of the six amateur invitations traditionally given by Augusta National Golf Club to compete in the Masters.
They will say there are other amateur tournaments with much stronger fields that might be more deserving of the winner getting an invite to compete in golf’s first major championship of the season.
While I wouldn’t totally disagree, I do applaud Augusta National and the U.S. Golf Association for recognizing the U.S. Mid-Am champion and giving him this special honor.
Let’s face it: There aren’t very many perks out there for this 25-and-older group. These are the guys who, for the most part, have families and day jobs. Unlike the college players, the mid-amateurs don’t get to play week-in and week-out, and their dreams of playing professionally have passed.
You’re not going to find a mid-am getting a sponsor exemption into a PGA Tour or Web.com Tour event. Sponsors want the amateurs whom they deem to have professional stardom in their future.
And, for the mid-am, it’s becoming more and more difficult to land a spot on the 10-man Walker Cup team – on both sides of the Atlantic. In the past five Walker Cup competitions, only three mid-am players were a part of America’s squad.
Nathan Smith was the lone mid-am on the teams in 2011 and 2009, and Trip Kuehne had that distinction in 2007. There were no mid-ams on the 2005 U.S. team and two – Kuehne and George Zahringer – in 2003.
The U.S. Mid-Amateur gives this group something to hope for, something to dream about. For them, an opportunity to play against the world’s best golfers on one of the world’s grandest stages is the light at the end of the tunnel.
We can argue day and night about amateur tournaments that deserve to have their champion earn a Masters invitation. To me, the U.S. Mid-Amateur would still be one of them.
“My first (Masters) was a thrill of a lifetime, and each one since has been one of my greatest experiences in golf,” said Smith, who has played in three Masters by virtue of his U.S. Mid-Am victories in 2003, '09 and '10. “I think it’s wonderful that the (U.S. Mid-Am) champion gets the opportunity to have that experience.”
Smith will be seeking a record fourth U.S. Mid-Amateur title this coming week when he joins 263 other hopefuls in the 32nd edition of this championship just outside Chicago.
Stroke-play qualifying takes place Saturday and Sunday at Conway Farms Golf Club and the Knollwood Club, both par-71 layouts. The low 64 scorers advance to match play, which takes place Monday-Thursday at Conway Farms, culminating with the 36-hole championship match.
Last year, at Shadow Hawk Golf Club in the Houston area, Randal Lewis became the oldest player to win this championship, at 54 years, 4 months and 14 days.
Lewis will be back to defend the title and, along with Smith, will be joined by past champions Tim Jackson (1994 and 2001), George Zahringer (2002), Austin Eaton (2004), Kevin Marsh (2005), Dave Womack (2006) and Steve Wilson (2008).
Among other players exempt from qualifying for this year’s championship are 2010 U.S. Senior Amateur winner Paul Simson, 2012 British Senior Amateur champion Chip Lutz, Doug Hanzel, low amateur at this year’s U.S. Senior Open, Kenny Cook, John Engler, Scott Harvey, Tim Hogarth, Sean Knapp, Michael Muehr, Tim Spitz and Robert Leopold, the only mid-am to advance into the Sweet 16 of match play in the past two U.S. Amateurs.
Also keep an eye on Gary Nicklaus, Todd White, Jeff Wilson, Tripp Davis, Casey Boyns, Charlie Blanchard, Brad Valois, Chris Stutts, Brian Tennyson, Brady Exber, Skip Berkmeyer and Scott Rowe.
This year’s U.S. Mid-Am received 3,810 entries, 67 more than were accepted last year, but far below the entry record of 5,271 for the 1997 championship at Dallas Athletic Club.
Come late afternoon on Thursday, Sept. 13, one of the 264 starting players will leave Conway Farms in possession of the Robert T. Jones Jr. Memorial Mid-Amateur Trophy, a gold medal, exemptions into the next two U.S. Amateur Championships as well as the next two U.S. Amateur Public Links Championships (if eligible), the next two USGA Senior Amateur Championships (if eligible), and will be exempt for three years from local qualifying for the U.S. Open, as long as he remains an amateur.
And, oh yes: There’s that well deserved and most cherished invitation from Augusta National, to compete in the 2013 Masters.