Charlotte Country Club (USGA photo)
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Sept. 30, 2018) – The U.S. Mid-Amateur is an event unique from everything else on the USGA championship schedule (though that could be said for each USGA championship). Often, the stories behind these seasoned players are just more intriguing. After a week spent in Charlotte for this year’s Mid-Amateur, here are a few takeaways about the event and the field:
AGE IS JUST A NUMBER:
When four mid-amateurs (Stewart Hagestad
, Bradford Tilley
, Garrett Rank
) made the match-play cut at the U.S. Amateur, it was a major talking point. The average age of the field at Pebble Beach was 22.59, and the skill level was markedly different between junior and college golfers and middle-aged amateurs.
At Charlotte Country Club, however, the age of competitors truly didn’t matter. Yes, a 25-year-old Stephen Behr rose to the top of the stroke-play leaderboard with a 5-under total, but 35-year-old Bradford Tilley was right behind him. When 27-year-old Stewart Hagestad drew 55-year-old Jeff Wilson in the Round of 32, age didn’t even come into play.
“I am going to have to play really well,” Hagestad said on the eve of that match. “I can't really even try to sugarcoat it. Jeff is really good. He hits it long, he chips it. He's been known for short game for forever and he hits it super far. Not even for his age, just like period.”
The average age of the 264 competitors who started the week was 36.6.
: The more mid-amateurs I meet, the more I realize just how many are reinstated amateurs. It is more common, it seems, for a player to come back to amateur golf than it is for them to remain amateur from college graduation on.
Among the 64 players who made match play in Charlotte, 31 were reinstated amateurs. You could just about identify them by watching them. Players who have known golf at the professional level – be that mini tours, the Nationwide Tour or the PGA Tour (though those players are few and far between on the amateur circuit) – often move differently on the course. There is a confidence to their competition style, and a comfort in their on-course movements. There is less time spent over the ball and less hesitation. In many ways, reinstated amateurs still look like professionals.
WAITING ON THE MID-AMATEUR
: Stroke-play medalist Stephen Behr
’s story was most interesting because it is so different. It’s unheard of for a college All-American to pass up an opportunity to turn professional (see above), but Behr never had pro golf on his radar
. He did have the Mid-Amateur on his radar.
Behr said he circled this event on his calendar years ago. It would make sense. The best advertisement for this event arguably comes in April each year, when the world watches the Mid-Amateur winner compete at Augusta for the Masters. That was exactly what Behr had in mind when entering. Somethings says we will see him there someday.
: Sure, the golf is good, but I’ve long thought that the most entertaining part of the Mid-Amateur is reading through the player storylines. These men and women in the mid-amateurs have the coolest day-jobs and hobbies. Some of my favorites from the men’s side:
-Josh Nichols, wedding caterer
-Buck Brittain, general district court judge in Virginia’s 29th district
-Corby Segal, PGA Tour caddie (currently with Brandon Hagy)
-Ben Hayes, U.S. Navy lieutenant, weapons and tactics instructor for Maritime Patrol and Reconnaissance
-Brad Nurski, conductor and switchman for Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway
-Sam O’Dell, owner of a family and cosmetic dentistry practice
-Jay Reynolds, tour manager for musician and singer/songwriter Monte Montgomery and American punk rock band NOFX
-Kyler Sauer and Matt Parziale, firefighters
-Bradford Tilley, tech company founder
THE DREAM IS ALIVE:
The U.S. Mid-Amateur finalists represented dreams come true in competitive golf. Brett Boner
, 44, got to play in front of a home crowd that numbered in the hundreds.
It was a sweet week for a guy who came up one shot short of qualifying for a USGA event a frustrating five times (including the time when he was first alternate at the 1996 U.S. Amateur but was on the opposite course when he could have replaced a player in the field who, ironically, had showed up on the wrong course).
“Very proud of myself for getting here to the final,” Boner said. “It is a huge accomplishment. I'm 44 years old. Who knows how many more of these that you'll get.”
As for Kevin O’Connell
, a win validated a recommitment to golf over the past year. The 30-year-old never won a college tournament while at the University of North Carolina and couldn’t advance through PGA Tour Qualifying School in three tries. He had spent the past year playing any tournament to which he could get an invitation. Now, that he’s a USGA champion, invitations won’t be an issue
As a reinstated amateur, O’Connell looked at competition differently throughout his winning week, especially having been out in the real world for several years since knowing only golf as a job.
“Everybody is at these tournaments to compete and win and see how they stack up,” he said. “But without a doubt, I feel like my perspective is a little bit better.”
You couldn’t have scripted that final any better, especially considering both players are North Carolina natives.
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STAT OF THE WEEK
• • •
TWEET OF THE WEEK
When you’re really, really, really excited for your home-state player, a newly-minted USGA champion, your celebration knows no bounds. On Thursday, the Massachusetts Golf Association changed its Twitter handle to acknowledge Shannon Johnson’s U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur victory. And then of course, there’s this fact…
• • •
Rachel Heck, the 16-year-old from Memphis, Tenn., who was the only amateur to make the cut and play the weekend at the LPGA’s Evian Championship earlier this month. Earlier this week, Heck represented the U.S. at the Junior Ryder cup, scoring two points in three matches (including the clinching point) as the U.S. cruised to victory. We caught up with her by phone from France in the days between the two events.
1. What’s it like being an amateur on that stage? You’ve done it twice now.
It was incredible. Every part of it. The pros, at the U.S. Open I was kind of scared at first because I didn’t know how they would react to having a young amateur playing with them but they were all so kind and welcoming to me and so friendly so I had an amazing time playing with them. It’s incredible, because these are the girls that I’ve watched on TV every week, and to actually play alongside them? I learned a lot. It’s amazing to play in a tournament that I have watched on TV growing up.
2. When you make the jump from high-level junior and amateur golf, which you know well, to a professional event, what were the things that were really different? Even course-wise, preparation-wise, etc.
The atmosphere is just different. There’s a crowd and people watching, it’s just a different feeling. Every week I’m playing junior events just with my best friends and it’s really relaxed and it’s fun. Professional events are obviously really fun, too, but it’s just such a different atmosphere. I really enjoy playing in front of a crowd and cameras and it’s just such a unique experience, so much different than what I’m used to week to week playing junior and amateur events.
3. Always been comfortable in front of a crowd?
As long as I can remember, I’ve just sort of liked that. I’ve been more excited. When I was going through the recruiting process, I always played better when the college coaches were watching or if just local people came out to watch. Just anything. I feel more pressure and that motivates me to play well.
4. You’ll start playing (and studying) at Stanford in the fall of 2020. What is your intended major, if you know?
A lot of people have asked me that, but I’m not sure yet. My sister is a math major and we’ve always been good at that. In my free time at school, I tutor people in that. That might be a road I go down, but we’ll see.
5. Looks like you had Braden Thornberry’s yardage book for the Evian. How did that work out?
He’s not from Tennessee, but really close so he’s out at my course a lot so we’ve become friends. We practice with each other, have contests and all that. When he figured out I was going to Evian, he offered to give me his yardage book and it was really awesome to have such a great player. He’s the No. 1 ranked amateur for men so his notes were really helpful. It’s hard going to a course I’d never seen before.
6. You got to play the final round of the Evian with Ariya and Moriya Jutanugarn. What was that experience like?
I saw the pairing and I was so excited because I’m a really big fan of both of them. I heard they were super nice but I wasn’t sure if during the round they would be serious or if they would want to talk at all, but the very first hole they came up and were talking and athey were so sweet. They were just talking about AJGA and just their memories from that. So, so nice. They talked to whole time, and I’ll remember that day for a long time.
7. What are you most proud of from Evian week?
Thursday I shot 1 under and was inside the cutline and then my opening nine on Friday I shot 4 over so that put me right on cutline. I didn’t know exactly where I stood, but I knew I had to be really close tot eh cutline and things weren’t going very well. On the back nine I was able to turn it around and shoot 2 under to make it so I think I was really proud of that – focusing on my mental game and being able to recover from mistakes and bogeys so I really had something good to take away that I’m able to turn it around if it’s not going well under that much pressure.
8. What is the next big thing on your schedule, or your big goal for junior golf?
Junior Ryder Cup was a big goal or me this year and making Junior Solheim cup again next year definitely will be, too. I think mostly just enjoying junior golf, because a lot of people have asked me, ‘Oh, are you going to go pro now that you have made the cut in two majors and you know you can do it?’ But I really want to just take it slow to enjoy all my time in junior golf, then go to college, graduate, enjoy the experience of playing with the team, and then hopefully make it through LPGA through that. But each step of the way, I just want to enjoy it all.