Midway, Utah – When the United States Golf Association was founded in December 1894, it became the governing body of golf in a country comprised of 44 states. The following year, the inaugural U.S. Amateur and U.S. Open were held in Rhode Island and later that fall, the first U.S. Women’s Amateur was conducted in New York.
More than a century later, the U.S. has 50 states, and the USGA has taken its championships to 47 of them. This week, Utah will become the 48th state to hold a USGA championship – New Hampshire (The Golf Club of New England) becomes No. 49 next week for the U.S. Junior Amateur – when Soldier Hollow Golf Course, located 45 miles southeast of Salt Lake City, hosts the 2012 U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship.
On the eve of the first round of stroke-play qualifying, this historic milestone has energized the state, which owns Soldier Hollow, the local golf community and the Utah residents competing in the championship, which dates to 1922.
“Everyone is excited for it,” said Dan Horner, the winner of the 2008 Utah State Amateur and a resident of Sandy. “USGA championships are the best events you can play in. It has a much bigger feel.”
Horner is one of four Utah residents who are looking forward to playing in front of a very friendly gallery. On Sunday, Zac Blair, who grew up in nearby Park City and now lives in Ogden, was walking through the Soldier Hollow clubhouse when he stopped to chat with Paula Carlson, who works at the course. Blair played Little League baseball with Carlson’s son, Brock.
“This is a great opportunity,” said Blair, 2009 Utah State Amateur champion. “Hopefully, I’ll have a lot of people out there supporting me this week.”
The Public Links already has galvanized the state’s golf community. In a fundraising effort coordinated by the Utah Golf Association and the Utah Section of the PGA of America, the state’s golfers have donated nearly $24,000 to the championship.
“Utah golfers helped to finance this,” said Jim Harland, the general chairman of the championship.
For Harland, the week is the culmination of a long process that began when he worked for the state’s parks department and managed the golf course. Now retired from that post, Harland has been working full time in preparation for the championships.
“It’s kind of hard to believe it’s here,” said Harland.
While many of the 320 volunteers helping to conduct the championship signed up immediately for their duties, the lack of familiarity with the Amateur Public Links was a challenge for organizers like Chris Newson, Soldier Hollow’s golf professional.
“There’s a lot of pride among our regular golfers,” said Newson. “The hard part has been educating casual golfers. They didn’t know how the Public Links differed from the Utah Amateur, for example.
“They got it when I said that the winner gets [a traditional invitation to] the Masters.”
One of the volunteers who didn’t need convincing is Betty Bird, who is driving an hour each way for at least four days to Solder Hollow from Taylorsville, a suburb of Salt Lake City.
“I knew I wanted to be here,” said Bird. “I wanted to be part of making this a good tournament so maybe we could have more here.
“The first day, I drove the shuttle and met players from all over the country. They were so excited about the scenery here and asking questions about the winter. It’s been fun to show off our state.”
The championship also has benefitted from the advocacy of a pair of high-profile local residents, U.S. Open champions Billy Casper and Johnny Miller. Casper plans on being at Soldier Hollow this week. Although Miller will be announcing for NBC at the U.S. Senior Open at Indianwood Golf & Country Club in Lake Orion, Mich., he is the Amateur Public Links’ honorary chairman and has made appearances to promote the championship.
The prospect of playing a national championship at home resulted in an increase in the number of entrants from Utah – according to Utah Golf Association Executive Director Bill Walker, there were the maximum of 78 players in the state’s sectional qualifier, the first time the field was full.
“There was definitely a lot more pressure in the qualifier,” said Nick Drost, of Cottonwood Heights, who shot 134 and was the medalist at Glen Eagle Golf Course in Syracuse, Utah. “I wanted to make it so badly.”
Drost, along with fellow Utah residents Blair, Horner and J.T. Timmons, would like to make the state’s first national championship more memorable and build more interest among locals by advancing deep into match play. In 2005 at Shaker Run, Utah’s Clay Ogden won this championship, defeating then-teenage phenom Michelle Wie in the quarterfinals.
They’ll have an advantage on the 7,760-yard course, which is built onto the side of a hill and features both dramatic and subtle elevation changes. Although the course, comprised of 17 holes from the Gold Course and one from the Silver Course, is the longest in championship history, Midway’s 5,500-foot elevation will cause shots to fly longer. The distance increase will complicate club selection for players used to playing closer to sea level.
“If they hit a high ball,”said Horner, who won his state amateur on the Silver Course, “they’ll be amazed by how far it goes.”
Unfortunately, the Public Links is competing for attention among the area’s golf fans this week with the Web.com Tour’s Utah Champion, held at Willow Creek Country Club in nearby Sandy. But Newson knows just what it will take to draw big crowds to Soldier Hollow.
“If we can get a Utah [resident] into the quarters or semis, we think it’ll blow up,” he said.
Hunki Yun is a senior writer for the USGA. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.