Spencer Soosman (AGC photo)
JOHNSTOWN, Pa. – There is a modestly sized set of grandstands set up behind the 18th green at Sunnehanna Country Club this week. Facing a final 8-footer for par Friday in the third round of the Sunnehanna Amateur, Spencer Soosman looked that way several times. He smiled and made the universal sign for a holed putt.
And then he holed the putt.
Soosman started the day with a two-shot lead, but by the end of it, was tied with defending champion Alex Smalley. He needed that putt on the final green to keep his share of the top spot after blowing a birdie putt past the hole from the back of the green. He particularly wanted his host mom Debbie Cover to see it go in.
“Every time she watched me (last year), for some reason I bogeyed. She thought she was a jinx,” Soosman said. “I said, ‘I want you to watch me and I’m going to make a putt in front of you.’”
College golf has been over for roughly three weeks and Soosman is on his own at the Sunnehanna. This is exactly what he needed.
Soosman will be a senior at Texas this fall. He spent the first quarter of his freshman season at UCLA before transferring and he’s had to scramble to make up ground academically ever since. Each semester has been loaded with 15 credit hours. He had to wedge a class into his schedule this past semester that met on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons to stay on track to graduate in four years. It wasn’t exactly ideal.
“I had a really rough year,” he said.
Soosman is the first to admit that his college career hasn’t had a lot of highlights. He has finished in the top 5 only twice in two and a half years and was sixth in scoring average on the team this year. He is No. 297 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking.
Texas traditionally plays one of the toughest schedules of any team. When NCAAs roll around each year, the Longhorns are prepared. A schedule like that sometimes leaves Soosman feeling beat up. In his first tournament start of the summer, Soosman is just trying to leave all that behind and get a confidence boost.
“I think I’m a great player and I love traveling,” he said. “I just feel like in the summer, when I’m not playing for the school, I have this burden off my shoulders that I can just do what I love and be myself.”
Soosman had a shaky start to the third round, grinding out a par on the opening hole. He eventually picked up four birdies but had three bogeys to go with them for a 1-under 69. Alex Smalley, the recent Duke graduate who won this event last year, caught up to Soosman on Friday with a 4-under 66.
Soosman saw it coming. After birdies at No. 7 and 8, Soosman had gotten back to 2 under but he knew Smalley was gaining.
“At that point I knew Alex was going to play well today. I kind of had a feeling.”
Soosman will reunite with his Texas teammates later this month at the Northeast Amateur. It would be nice to do it after a win. The last time they were together, Texas was gunning for a national title. The Longhorns played their way into the title match at Blessings Golf Club in Fayetteville, Ark., only to lose to Stanford. Perhaps most remarkably, Texas knocked off Oklahoma State, the hands-down favorite, in the semifinals.
Once match play starts at the national championship, coaches get to set their lineup. There are different strategies about pitting certain players against certain others, front-loading a lineup or putting key players in anchor positions.
Soosman knew Texas head coach John Fields wanted to put him out first to set the pace. He often found himself in awkward spots in the lineup. While he didn’t win a point in any of his three matches, it wasn’t a lost week.
“I usually am a good match-play player, so I didn’t think about it,” he said.
Soosman, who grew up in Westlake Village, Calif., works with swing coach George Gankas. He used to see him every week and call him after every round. Gankas felt like a big brother. It’s hard to get that kind of time anymore now that Gankas has gained notoriety and has commitments to PGA Tour players. After the college season, Soosman got a much-needed tuneup. He has a basic swing that’s not too mechanical and not too hard to get back in order.
“I went home, I had a lesson, we changed a couple things with my grip – slight, just some usual stuff,” Soosman said.
Even though college golf stretches him, adapting has forced growth for Soosman. He calls going to Texas was the best decision he’s made.
“Coach Fields and (assistant coach) JP (Hebert), they’ll do anything for us,” he said. “They’re like my parents, especially Coach and his wife. I’m from California so my parents aren’t there.”
It’s largely a two-man race in Saturday's final round at the Sunnehanna. Soosman and Smalley are four shots ahead of the next-closest player, and Sunnehanna CC is unlikely to yield a lights-out round.
Wins are hard to come by in golf, and Soosman and Smalley know as well as anybody what a start-of-the-summer victory can mean. Smalley lived it last year.
“It’s big anywhere you win, but winning here is pretty special because of the history of the event and the golf course,” he said. “With the strength of the field, it’s probably one of the strongest amateur tournaments that there is.”
ABOUT THE Sunnehanna Amateur
The Sunnehanna Amateur was inaugurated in
1954 -- it was the first country club
sponsored 72-hole stroke play competition for
in the United States. The
tournament is played on a classic A.W.
design. Only one other amateur
tournament in the United States can list the
Chick Evans, Arnold Palmer, Julius
Boros, Art Wall, Jack Nicklaus, Phil Mickelson,
Woods, and Rickie Fowler as
contestants: the United States Amateur. Its
format has been emulated by
countless amateur tournaments across the
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