AUGUSTA, Ga. – Talk about the perfect Christmas present.
Last Christmas Eve, an envelope with Augusta National Golf Club letterhead arrived at Mike McCoy’s West Des Moines, Iowa, residence.
The reigning U.S. Mid-Amateur champion knew it was coming, but he still got goose bumps. It’s not every day a golfer receives a Masters invitation, especially at age 51.
“I’ve got it framed and hanging on the wall,” said McCoy, who earned his spot in the 2014 field with an 8-and-6 victory over Bill Williamson in the 36-hole final last October at the Country Club of Birmingham (Ala.) and is one of six amateurs competing this week. “That was pretty exciting.”
McCoy had played Augusta National as a guest, but never under tournament conditions. This time is different, competing against the world’s best players, before throngs of patrons and millions more watching on television around the globe.
To prepare, McCoy made several visits to the course to reacquaint himself with the nuances of Alister Mackenzie’s masterpiece, which has been renovated and lengthened several times over the years.
McCoy also spent time in Florida during the winter getting his game ready, and on Friday, a good friend flew him into Augusta on a G2 private jet.
Not a bad way to arrive at a major championship.
“That was pretty cool,” said McCoy with a smile.
On Sunday, he played 18 holes with 2007 Masters champion and fellow Iowan Zach Johnson. McCoy knew Johnson long before he became a PGA Tour star. The son of a chiropractor, Johnson grew up in Cedar Rapids and played college golf at Drake University.Now Johnson is the most decorated professional from Iowa and McCoy is the state’s most prolific amateur, having won five Iowa Amateur titles to go with his USGA championship.
“We’re great friends,” said McCoy of Johnson, who now resides in Sea Island, Ga. “He’s just a wonderful guy.”
McCoy, who will play a practice round on Tuesday with reigning U.S. Open champion Justin Rose and play Wednesday’s Par-3 Contest with longtime friend and two-time USGA champion Vinny Giles, received a good-luck text from Johnson on the eve of his U.S. Mid-Amateur victory. It was one of many texts, emails and phone calls McCoy took both before and after his triumph, which came in his 19th USGA championship appearance. At 50, McCoy became the second-oldest Mid-Amateur champion behind 2011 winner Randy Lewis, who was 54. McCoy also received a nice congratulatory note from Lewis. “That’s probably the most overwhelming thing is the number of friends who came out and expressed good wishes. I have a whole scrapbook of notes and stuff.”
McCoy spent Sunday night in the Crow’s Nest, a small dormitory-style room at the top of Augusta National’s clubhouse that is traditionally reserved for the amateur invitees. McCoy and reigning U.S. Amateur Public Links champion Jordan Niebrugge were the only inhabitants on Sunday night.
Before heavy rains suspended Monday’s practice round for the day, McCoy played four holes with 1987 Masters champion Larry Mize. On the third tee, McCoy was discussing strategy with his caddie/son Nate when Mize offered some advice. McCoy opted for a hybrid off the tee on the 350-yard hole, and Mize assured him he was in fine shape.
At the par-5 second hole, McCoy received nice applause when he holed a 10-foot birdie putt.
McCoy has plenty of support this week. Besides son Nate, who played at Iowa State and is preparing himself for a third season on PGA Tour Canada, childhood friends and golf rivals Travis Rothmeyer and Bob Peterson made the trip from Des Moines. Another standout mid-amateur, Bob Gregorski from Wisconsin, also flew in to catch a couple of practice rounds. Gregorski, who advanced to the Round of 16 at the 2000 U.S. Amateur, embraced McCoy as he walked off the first green.
“He’s a very popular champion,” said Rothmeyer, who has caddied for McCoy in USGA championships. “I think he should do well this week.”
No reigning U.S. Mid-Amateur champion has made the cut at the Masters since Augusta National changed its invitation criteria and began inviting the Mid-Am champion in 1988. Nathan Smith came close in 2004, but double-bogeyed the final hole to miss by two strokes.
The odds are stacked against McCoy, but he shouldn’t be intimidated by Augusta National’s length. After all, he once shot a 65 during the Crump Cup at Pine Valley, one of the world’s most difficult layouts. McCoy has won that prestigious title four times.
Last weekend, McCoy tied for 18th at the Azalea Invitational, held annually at the Country Club of Charleston (S.C.), a challenging Seth Raynor layout that hosted the 2013 U.S. Women’s Amateur.
Nate said his father has had little trouble with Augusta’s length – in fact, McCoy was keeping right up with Johnson on Sunday. Controlling the nerves and excitement might be the biggest challenge.
“It has been a dream come true,” said McCoy. “A lot of blessings. I tell my friends that play equally as well, if I can do it, you can do it, too. I hope it inspires other guys who are working to keep trying because you just never know.”