HOUSTON, Texas - It's easy to associate the USGA with events such as the U.S. Open Championships for the men and women, as well as the U.S. Amateur Championships. Players such as Tiger Woods, Hollis Stacy, Nancy Lopez and Phil Mickelson established stellar amateur careers playing in USGA events. My first experience with a USGA event was the 1967 U.S. Women’s Open which was won in a stunning wire-to-wire performance by French amateur Katherine La Coste, daughter of the designer of the alligator shirts. However, there is a lot more to the USGA than the high profile tournaments and I came to Houston's Champions Club to get some behind the scenes looks at the U.S. Women's Mid-Amateur.
The tournament was originally scheduled for October 7 - 12 at Quail Creek Country Club in Naples, Florida. Damage inflicted by Hurricane Irma forced the USGA to relocate to the Champions Club Cypress Creek course with the date moving to November 11 - 16. Champions was founded in 1957 by professional golfers Jack Burke, Jr. and the late Jimmy Demaret. Burke, Jr. currently serves as president of the club, which is also home to the Jack Rabbit course on the same property.
The Women's Mid-Amateur is open to female amateur golfers who have reached their 25th birthday by the first day of the originally scheduled championship and have a Handicap Index® not exceeding 9.4. Entries closed on Aug. 2. There were 427 entries received for the 2017 championship and 120 players were chosen from 27 qualifying sites. The remaining players in the field of 132 were fully exempt into the tournament via performances in prior Women's Mid-Amateur championships.
This championship is clearly for players that have a love of the game of golf. No sponsorships are at stake, no endorsement deals on the table and most likely not a future in professional golf awaiting someone with a win or a high finish. In fact, several of the competitors have regained their amateur status after taking a stab at professional success. Take Patricia Schremmer, a fifty-two year-old from Honolulu who took seventeen years off from golf to raise a family. She was reinstated as an amateur three years ago and has two USGA semifinal appearances in the last year.
Mallory Hetzel, a thirty year-old from Virginia Beach, is more accustomed to watching her players at Old Dominion University where she is in her second year as the Monarch's golf coach. At this week's Mid-Amateur, Mallory is grinding out victories and hoping her players don't give her too hard a time for almost squandering a four hole lead with five to go in her second round match against medalist Katie Miller. A par-saving fifteen foot putt on the seventeenth hole clinched the win to send her to a third round match later in the day against a good friend, Courtney McKim.
The 2009 champion, 55 year-old Martha Leach, was playing in her record twenty-eighth Mid-Amateur championship. She is the sister of Hollis Stacy, who won three U.S. Women’s Opens and three consecutive U.S. Girls’ Junior championships. Stacy is a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame and Leach is in the Kentucky Golf Hall of Fame and is scheduled to be inducted into the Georgia Hall of Fame in 2018. I followed Leach for a few holes of her opening round, and in addition to her impressive ability to drive the golf ball, she was extremely gracious to all of the volunteers she encountered on her way around the course. Another veteran of USGA championship play, Mary Jane Hiestand, 58 of Naples, Florida entered the third round after defeating ninth seeded Paige McCullough 5 & 3 then surviving a one-up match against Kay Daniel to advance. Her next match would be against Megan Stasi, who sunk a thirty-five foot putt from off the green to extend her second round match to extra holes, which she would eventually end on the 23rd hole. Mary Jane was playing in her 43rd USGA championship and her 20th Mid-Amateur.
Club founder Jack Burke, Jr. was a constant presence, displaying incredible energy at 93 years young. I had an opportunity to spend some time with the legend and asked him since his two major championships were won in stroke play and match play, which one he preferred. “I don’t really care, I just played to beat whoever I was against. Even in Ryder Cups, I’d try to beat the other guys by myself. I didn’t really care what my partner did.” I could feel his competitive nature and have a better understanding of why he is a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame.
The atmosphere at the Mid-Amateur is relaxed, with no ropes keeping spectators from the players, but with an expectation that those following the action clearly understand where to walk, stand and how to conduct themselves. It has more of a feel of a club championship without the low hum of partying members on the clubhouse deck, but the calm belies the energy and activity generated behind the scenes by the USGA staff, volunteers and club personnel. When asked how they pulled off the organization of a USGA championship with less than two months' notice, Jack Burke credited his membership and experience in hosting tournaments with enabling the Champions Club to pull off a virtual impossibility.
Unlike many of the higher profile championships conducted by the USGA, the Mid-Amateur’s lack the requirement for extensive infrastructure such as television towers, spectator parking areas, concession stands and ropes restricting access to the course and other player-only areas. There were still nineteen USGA staff members and two hundred thirty volunteers on site at Champions for the event. It serves as a good tune-up for the club as it’s set to host the 2020 U.S. Women’s Open, which will come with all of the aforementioned needs.
The third round of match play in the Mid-Amateur is in essence the initial qualifying round for the next year, as those advancing to the quarterfinals earn exemptions for the following year’s championship. For those reaching the semifinal, an additional year’s exemption awaits, while the runner up receives a third year’s exemption and the winner gets to play in the next ten Mid-Amateurs. She also qualifies for the following year’s U.S. Women’s Open, a first for the 2017 edition. If the winner is age fifty or older, they also receive an exemption to the U.S. Senior Women’s Open. Patricia Shremmer didn’t make it that far, losing in the first round after reaching the semifinals in 2016. I spoke to her just minutes after she'd lost the last two holes of her match in a 1-up defeat by Eleanor Tucker. She was standing by the open trunk of her rental car with her youngest daughter. “I’m disappointed because I didn’t trail all day until the end. But I’m happy to be competing again and I’m even eligible for the senior events.” Mallory Hetzel had her third round match all square after the first nine holes, but in her words, she “just ran out of steam”, eventually losing 4 and 3 to McKim. With another year remaining on her ten-year exemption, Martha Leach was looking to extend it, but lost to Amanda Jacobs 3 and 1. Mary Jane Hiestand continued her incredible run, defeating Meghan Stasi by another 1-up score, guaranteeing her spot in the 2018 Mid-Amateur, when she will be 59 years old. “I didn’t expect this at all. I just went out to play golf this afternoon and see what happens.”
With the number of matches winding down, I had an opportunity to sit down with Champions Club Vice President Robin Burke, wife of Jacke Burke, Jr. In addition to her role at the club, Robin has an extensive amateur golf resume. She has been a Curtis Cup player and captain, as well as a participant in over 35 USGA Championships, including 38 match wins in the Mid-Amateur. I was primarily interested in the Champions Club’s motivation for hosting the championship on such short notice and her perspective on amateur golf. “We stepped in because we’ve hosted before and wanted to contribute to the championship. It’s also good preparation for the 2020 Women’s Open.” When asked about what the USGA means to her, Robin said “they put on the best amateur championships and they do a great job of promoting amateur golf.” I asked her what golf means to her personally. “It’s the competition, the challenge of playing golf. You can never be perfect.” She added, “Now that the Mid-Amateur winner gets the Open exemption, I’m motivated to enter next year. They should give an exemption into the Sr. Women’s Open too.” I mentioned to her later that both exemptions were available. Finally, the conversation turned to the state of golf from a business perspective. “We got overbuilt on courses and the focus turned away from golf. Some of that’s working itself out. At Champions, we’re just about golf and we have an Open to prepare for. The USGA will be in here beginning next summer to begin organizing things. We’re excited.”
Eventually, Mary Jane Hiestand made it all the way to the finals to face twenty-six year old Kelsey Chugg from Salt Lake City who was making her Mid-Amateur debut. Unfortunately for Mary Jane, her quest for exemptions into the U.S. Women’s Open and U.S. Senior Women’s Open fell just short as she lost 3 and 1. But her appearance in the finals was the farthest she’d advanced in her extensive USGA championship experience and I’m sure the six-time and reigning Florida State Golf Association’s Senior Player of the Year will be back for more, such is the lure of amateur golf competition.
Hear my recent interview with legendary sports agent Leigh Steinberg, where we discussed his agency, concussions, franchise relocation and philanthropy at http://thechtonsports.com/cold-hard-truth-sports-radio-show-1242017/
Also listen to our conversation with author and sports journalist Mike Carey, as we discussed his latest book "Bad News" about Marvin Barnes and reminisced about Mike's coverage of the Boston Celtics during their glory years with Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Danny Ainge and Robert Parish. http://www.blogtalkradio.com/golongmedia/2017/02/08/the-cold-hard-truth-on-sports-radio-show
Don't forget to check out my new book, "Offsetting Penalties - A PK Frazier Novel" at Amazon.com and listen to me Friday's at 8:40 am EDT/ 7:40 am CDT on Lou in the Morning, streaming live on www.WPFLradio.com, 105.1 FM. Also check out www.thechtonsports.com for our podcasts and live broadcast on Tuesday's at 8:30 pm EST. I can also be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.