Making A Public Debut At Soldier Hollow

Balancing work and golf, several competitors with full-time jobs are experiencing the highs and lows of playing in their first USGA championship


Steve Ross, 28, a firefighter from Huntington, W.Va., shot 77-76–153 and missed the match-play cut by seven strokes. (Steve Gibbons/USGA)

By Hunki Yun, USGA
July 10, 2012

Midway, Utah – There are a lot of ways to prepare for a national championship like the U.S. Amateur Public Links. Chris Williams and last year’s runner-up Derek Ernst spent a week in Ireland and played in the Palmer Cup, an international college team event pitting the United States against Europe.

Zac Blair, who is from Ogden, Utah, honed his game and competitive edge in a series of prestigious amateur events around the country, including the Sunnehanna Amateur in Pennsylvania, the Northeast Amateur in Rhode Island and the Sahalee Players Championship in suburban Seattle.

Then there are competitors like Victor Kyatt, a dentist from Hoover, Ala., who got ready for his first individual USGA championship by going to the driving range after work with his two children, ages 5 and 3.

“I never get to play during the week,” said Kyatt, 36. “So since I qualified, I took them to hit balls a couple of nights the past couple of weeks.

At least Kyatt got to hit some balls. Steve Ross, 28, a firefighter from Huntington, W.Va., worked five consecutive 24-hour shifts in order to earn extra money to pay for his trip to Soldier Hollow Golf Course.

Knowing how important playing in a USGA championship meant to him, Ross’ fellow firefighters traded shifts and have supported his appearance in the Public Links through texts and social media.

“The brotherhood, the camaraderie between the guys at work is amazing,” said Ross, who shot 77-76–153 and missed the match-play cut by seven strokes. “There are 150 guys in the department, and they’re like family. There’s nothing we wouldn’t do for each other.”

At the Amateur Public Links, the stories of Kyatt and Ross are emblematic of the obstacles that competitors with full-time jobs face as they play alongside college players whose sole pursuit is golf.

“They play more in a month than we play in a year,” said Kyatt.

Kyatt and Ross are two of a handful of players in the field who are playing in their first individual USGA championship as they juggle golf with work and family. These working men have a wide range of golf experience. Sangsoo Lee, 44, who was born in Korea and lives in Ridgefield, N.J., picked up golf just nine years ago at a friend’s behest. At the other end of the championship-experience spectrum, Kyatt is a reinstated amateur who started playing when he was eight and represented Alabama in the 2009 USGA Men’s State Team Championship at St. Albans (Mo.) Country Club.

Despite playing in his first individual USGA championship and with limited pre-championship preparation, Kyatt had relatively high expectations and played well for most of the 36 holes of stroke-play qualifying – at one point in the second round, he was two under. But after a bogey, double bogey and triple bogey to begin his final nine, Kyatt recovered by playing his final six holes in one under to finish at 4-over 146, good enough to barely slide into match play on the cutline.

“We were safely in for most of the round,” said Kyatt, who waited around the scoreboard for hours. “Then we went through a stretch where I lost it. Except for that stretch, to play as well as I did and not make it to match play would have been disappointing.”

Other rookies didn’t fare as well. Chris Long, 39, a middle- and high-school principal from Garretson, S.D., found trouble on several holes during rounds of 82 and 83.

“I’ve never played on greens like this,” said Long. “This is obviously a great test of golf. Any mistake you make is magnified much more than during a South Dakota Golf Association event. I don’t think anything prepares you for a national championship until you play in one.”

Thanks to his job, Long gets to play a lot of golf during the summer, as does Paul Blanche, albeit for a different reason. Blanche, 29, of Anchorage, Alaska, puts in a full day for his job at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. But since the sun doesn’t set until nearly midnight during the summer, he can play as many as 27 holes after work.

“I play three times a week,” said Blanche, who shot 11-over 153. “I’ve been able to improve my game quite a bit since moving seven years ago. I am happy with my progress and think I can get better.”

The drawback is that the short golf season – May through September – forces Blanche and other Alaskans to put away their clubs for months.

Like Blanche, Sean Packer, 27, of Seattle, works a 9-to-5 job at a government agency – Packer is a customer service representative for the Social Security Administration. However, he hasn’t improved his game recently as much as he has maintained it.

An accomplished collegiate player who finished third in the 2008 NCAA Division II Championship for Western Washington University, Packer now uses all his vacation days to play in local and regional tournaments as well as USGA qualifiers.

Packer estimates that he has entered nearly 40 USGA championships since 1999, when he first tried to qualify for the Junior Amateur. Since then, he has tried to qualify for the Junior, Amateur, Public Links, Mid-Amateur and the Open. He finally made it this year at the Public Links qualifier at Gold Mountain Golf Club in Bremerton, Wash., site of last year’s U.S. Junior Amateur and the 2006 APL.

“One year, I was first alternate in the Junior,” said Packer. “In 2007, I bogeyed my final four holes at U.S. Amateur qualifying to miss by two. Last year, I played my last seven holes five over at U.S. Am qualifying to miss by two.

“To make it here was such a relief.  It felt like a black mark on my golf career had been lifted. This is something I’ve been trying for so long.”

A bad back prevented Packer from practicing prior to the Public Links, so he wasn’t as prepared as he would have liked for his first appearance in a USGA championship.

“This is a national championship, and it’s meant to point out your weaknesses,” said Packer, who shot 12-over 154. “My confidence isn’t quite there right now.”

Lee’s confidence also wavered after his first round in a USGA championship round. After shooting 77, the tennis instructor couldn’t stop marveling about the huge difference in skill and talent between him and fellow-competitor T.J. Vogel, who shot 71-65–136 to miss medalist honors by one stroke.

“It’s not even the same game,” said Lee in Korean. “I never played with anyone that good before. It’s a humbling experience.”

To date, Lee’s biggest achievement in golf was winning a couple of local events for Korean-American golfers. By qualifying for the Public Links, Lee was jumping from a small puddle to the Great Salt Lake.

“It’s completely different when they call your name on the first tee,” he said. “My hands started shaking and I hit shots that I had never hit before.”

All the first-timers were in agreement that no matter how they played, the Public Links offered a memorable experience and was a highlight of their golf careers. They also hope to return so they can improve on their play.

“I’ll remember this for a long time,” said Long. “What’s great is that playing in this championship can prepare you and make you a better player when you go back home.”

Hunki Yun is a senior writer for the USGA. Contact him at hyun@usga.org. 

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