Not a day goes by that Tommy Brennan doesn’t think about the 1994 U.S. Mid-Amateur final.
Time and age have a way of softening the disappointment of falling one match short of a USGA championship and a Masters invitation, but that setback lingers for the Covington, La., resident.
Brennan’s 1-down defeat to Tim Jackson at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minn., is permanently etched in USGA history, and Brennan knows nothing can change the outcome.
But last fall at Shadow Hawk Golf Club in suburban Houston, when 54-year-old Randy Lewis became the oldest champion in U.S. Mid-Amateur history, it provided a glimmer of hope for Brennan. Lewis’ triumph came 15 years after he had lost in the Mid-Amateur championship match to John “Spider” Miller at Hartford Golf Club in Connecticut.
The 51-year-old Brennan – he turns 52 in November – suddenly had renewed hope.
Qualifying for the 2012 U.S. Mid-Amateur at Conway Farms Golf Club in suburban Chicago has given Brennan another chance at redemption. The championship will be played Sept. 8-13 at Conway Farms and Knollwood Club, the companion stroke-play qualifying course.
“Quite honestly, I really didn’t realize Randy had been a runner-up,” said Brennan, who will be playing in his 14th U.S. Mid-Amateur. “With regards to the question about do I think about that loss, yeah, I think about it a lot. There’s nothing I can do to change it.
“I don’t want to say I regret it in any way. It was great for me. It was a spectacular week at Hazeltine.”
Until the final day. The week had produced some wonderful playing conditions, with competitors even wearing shorts. But on the eve of the 18-hole championship match – the Mid-Amateur didn’t transition to a 36-hole final until 2001 – a cold front moved through Minneapolis. Temperatures dropped significantly and the winds picked up.
“It was 42 degrees and blowing 25 to 30 miles per hour,” recalled Jackson, who claimed the first of his two U.S. Mid-Amateur titles that day.
Intermittent rain combined with the wind and cold to make playing conditions nearly unbearable. Neither finalist produced a birdie and the match turned into a survival test.
Brennan held a 1-up lead through 13 holes, but Jackson’s short game kept him in the match. He got up and down for pars on 14 and 15 to earn halves, then squared the match at No. 16 when Brennan’s drive barely rolled into the primary rough, leaving what he described as a “horrible” lie with no chance to reach the green. He would bogey the hole.
“To Tim’s credit … he played terrific,” said Brennan.
A poor 7-iron tee shot at the par-3 17th hole led to another bogey for Brennan, who now trailed by a hole heading to No. 18. All week, Brennan had been hitting 6-irons into the green, but the fierce wind left both players with 3-woods into the green after perfect drives. Brennan watched his 30-foot birdie try roll over the crest of a small mound and lip out. Jackson, meanwhile, managed to two-putt for the victory, the final one coming from 5 feet.
“It was just brutal,” said Jackson of the conditions that day. “I am just thankful we weren’t playing 36 holes then. It was a good match. It was just [played in] very difficult conditions.”
The victory launched a brilliant mid-amateur career for Jackson, who was invited to play on a pair of USA Walker Cup Teams (1993 and 1999) and later won the first U.S. Mid-Amateur final contested at 36 holes when he defeated George Zahringer, 1 up, at San Joaquin C.C. in Fresno, Calif.
Brennan, meanwhile, has never been able to match that remarkable week on a national level. The reinstated amateur, who played collegiately at the University of Alabama with future PGA Tour pros Steve Lowery and Lee Rinker, has won seven Louisiana Golf Association Mid-Amateurs: three consecutively in the 1990s and four more consecutively in the 2000s, with the most recent in 2008.
At the 1999 U.S. Mid-Amateur at Old Warson C.C. in St. Louis, Brennan was tripped up in the second round by David Nelson, of Reno, Nev., 3 and 2. A year later at The Homestead in Hot Springs, Va., Vincent Hamilton, who advanced to the semifinals, holed a 40-footer on the 18th hole to beat him, 1 up, in the first round.
“I’m a little surprised by that because of his style of play,” Jackson said of Brennan’s inability to break through. “He’s methodical and a good putter.”
Jackson and Brennan have remained friends through the years, but never discuss that match. Usually they talk about Southeastern Conference football – Jackson went to the University of Tennessee and Brennan to rival Alabama – or their children or businesses.
“We’ve had dinner a time or two,” said Jackson. “If we’re at the same tournament, we make a point to say hi to each other.”
In 2005, Brennan’s golf game would go on a brief hiatus for something far beyond his control: Hurricane Katrina. While the horrific Category 3 storm, one of the worst in U.S. history, didn’t destroy his home, his office in downtown New Orleans was destroyed. Brennan relocated to a family farm north of Tuscaloosa, Ala. A financial advisor for Merrill Lynch, Brennan worked out of the company’s Tuscaloosa office until Thanksgiving.
Four of the 13 restaurants his family owns – including the nationally recognized Commander’s Palace in the Garden District of New Orleans – took at least a year to be rebuilt. Commander’s Palace was the launching point for top chefs such as Emeril Lagasse and Paul Prudhomme. Brennan is indirectly involved with the restaurants.
“I actually think about [Hurricane Katrina] more than I think about the 1994 U.S. Mid-Amateur,” said Brennan. “Katrina was a life-changing experience.”
His brother and one of his sisters – both of whom had residences in New Orleans –lived with Brennan’s family until power was restored several months later.
With Katrina in the rear-view mirror, Brennan returned to competitive golf. Good friend and ex-PGA Tour player Kelly Gibson was gearing up for a run at the Champions Tour and Brennan spent a lot of time at New Orleans Country Club and Tchefuncta C.C. in Covington playing with Gibson.
Brennan is also a member at Pine Valley in Clementon, N.J., and in early August, he flew up to Philadelphia to compete in the club championship there, finishing fifth in what he calls one of the toughest club championships in the country.
Because it was logistically impossible to get from Philadelphia to Ruston, La., on a Sunday night for a U.S. Mid-Amateur sectional qualifier the next day, Brennan chose to fly to Boston and attempt to qualify at Wellesley Country Club. He shot 71 and beat Brian Higgins in a playoff for the final spot.
Brennan was headed to Chicago in early September for the first time in nearly 20 years. In the mid-1980s, Brennan played a U.S. Open sectional qualifier at Medinah Country Club.
“Am I looking forward to going to Chicago?” said Brennan. “Oh yeah. I can’t wait to get to Chicago.”
It certainly wouldn’t be a shock to see another 50-plus-year-old Mid-Amateur champion. At the recent U.S. Amateur, 55-year-old Doug Hanzel advanced to the second round, where he took eventual champion Steven Fox to the 18th hole before losing, 1 down. Tom Watson nearly won the British Open at Turnberry in 2009 at 59, and Greg Norman tied for third at the 2008 British Open at 53.
“I guess 50 is the new 35,” said Jackson, 53, who just won his fifth Tennessee State Amateur.
Brennan said he would be better prepared if he reached another championship final.
“I would be way more comfortable in that situation,” he said. “I have played a lot of golf since 1994.”
By qualifying, Brennan has already cleared one major hurdle. The USGA accepted 3,634 entries and the final 264 competitors will be in Chicago vying for the title. The field will be whittled to 64 in stroke-play qualifying on Sept. 8-9.
Brennanrealizes that anything can happen in match play. Fox won the U.S. Amateur as the No. 63 seed. And Lewis certainly wasn’t a favorite last year, when he upended three-time champion Nathan Smith in the semifinals and beat long-hitting Kenny Cook in the championship match.
Jackson recalled shooting a 75 and winning his first-round match at the 2001 Mid-Am, and making seven birdies and losing a semifinal match at the Tennessee State Match Play this year, showing that anything can happen in match play.
“I hope I can get to 64,” said Brennan of match play. “You don’t ever know. You certainly have to play well when you get there. And once you get there, the deeper you go, everybody you are playing is playing well or else they wouldn’t be there.”
David Shefter is a USGA senior staff writer. Email him at email@example.com.