BETHLEHEM, Pa. – Jeffrey Fortson holed out for par on the second hole, blasted out of a buried lie in a greenside bunker at the par-3 ninth for another – If anyone shot footage, it would make the [ESPN] SportsCenter Top 10, he said – and generally played Monday like a man intent on sticking around in the 34th U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship.
Alas, sometimes the fickleness of golf ends up being too much to overcome, and Fortson’s opening match with Nick Geyer, of Albuquerque, N.M., proved a microcosm in a 3-and-1 setback at Saucon Valley Country Club’s Old Course.
Having played golf since the age of 3, giving the professional mini-tours a try, teaching the game for a number of years at revered Riviera Country Club, and now competing again as a reinstated amateur, Fortson understands the game’s plot twists about as well as anyone.
Yeah, I’m standing with my head above my shoulder in the front bunker at nine and hole out to win the hole, and then I turn around and four-putt the 10th, Fortson said, laughing.
Competing in his third U.S. Mid-Amateur, Fortson, 40, of Palm Desert, Calif., advanced to match play for the first time, but his stay was cut short by Geyer, who knows the game pretty well himself, serving as Rules and Competitions director for the Sun Country Golf Association, which serves New Mexico and portions of west Texas.
After firing a 1-under 70 on Saucon Valley’s Weyhill Course to tie for 11th in stroke play, Fortson couldn’t find the same magic Monday in his first match-play experience in a USGA championship.
I came off a really good round of golf yesterday, Fortson said. But today I just didn’t quite have the same feel for my game. And when you are not as sharp, playing in a USGA event where you’re opponent is playing solid golf, you get exposed quickly in these conditions. Not to take anything away from Nick. He played better. He deserved to win.
But I’ll be back.
You can bet on that. Fortson has had a love affair with golf since he was a toddler, when his father Ron, a scratch golfer who has qualified for the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship, introduced him to the game.
Golf hasn't always reciprocated, though he’s had his moments, including being a member of the 1997 California State Junior College championship team at City College in San Diego after a year at UC-Irvine. In the first round of the 1991 Southern California Junior Amateur, Fortson came in with a better score than some hotshot kid in the field who was the clear favorite. His name was Tiger Woods. Woods went on to win the tournament.
In 2005, Fortson made it as far as the second stage of the PGA Tour qualifying tournament, but eventually realized that the life of a touring professional wasn’t for him.
Some guys I knew were so crushed emotionally to not make it on the PGA Tour and said ‘I’m bagging this,’ I was never disillusioned, he said. I’ve never lost the spark for the game. I knew I wanted to stay in the game and keep playing and competing wherever I could.
He became an assistant pro, and worked as an instructor at Riviera. Among the people to whom he gave a few lessons were former New York Yankees Hall of Fame pitcher Whitey Ford and television writer/producer Larry David of Seinfeld fame.
He currently works as a guest services supervisor for Century Golf, operating out of the daily-fee Tahquitz Creek Golf Resort in Palm Springs. This affords him an opportunity to play and compete, and his game is still good enough to have made three U.S. Mid-Am appearances, though he missed the cut in 2010 and 2012.
The flexibility of his job also allows him the freedom to pursue another, more important pursuit: spending time with his son, Alejandro, and raising money and awareness for autism. Alejandro was diagnosed with autism when he was 2 years old.
To see the strides he has made since then, that’s something that’s hard to put into words. He’s doing quite well, said Fortson, who also has a daughter, Isabella, who is 8 years old. The disease is so widespread. You say the word ‘autism’ and the spectrum is so wide that it could mean a thousand different things. We are just thankful that my son has come such a long way. He’s a wonderful kid. He’s a gift. I truly mean that. And I try to do all I can for the cause.
He sets aside enough time for golf to keep his game in good shape, a constant challenge.
But I think I would go crazy if I didn’t get out and play a little, he said. I have a very understanding wife.
His golf affiliations also include a founding membership in the Max Behr Society and as a member of St. Andrews Golf Club in Scotland.
In addition to future Mid-Am appearances, Fortson’s golf goals include competing in next year’s inaugural U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championship at The Olympic Club in San Francisco with Michael Walton, a former Palm Desert High School golf teammate who missed the cut this week at Saucon Valley and helped Pepperdine win the 1997 NCAA title.
I’ve been playing golf since such a young age, Fortson said. I watched my father’s passion for the game since I was a child. The game is the glue between my father and I, like baseball or football for other fathers and sons. I wasn’t really talented at the game when I was younger, but I kept at it and kept at it. And I love that challenge.
For me, after my family and close friends, the thing that kind of defines my life is competitive golf. That’s it. I could go on living without it, but it sure would be a lot less fun. No matter what has happened, the love of the game has never left me.
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA websites.