For more than a year, Nathan Smith and Sean Knapp talked about putting together a possible “dream team” for the 2009 USGA Men’s State Team Championship. The lifelong Pittsburgh-area golfers and best friends just needed to talk a third “local” into remaining an amateur long enough to compete.
That third player turned out to be 2009 Marquette University first-team All-American Mike Van Sickle, and the 22-year-old from Wexford didn’t disappoint.
Van Sickle, who graduated in May and will turn pro sometime in the next few weeks, carded a 4-under-par 67 Friday on the 7,150-yard, par-71 Lewis and Clark Course at the Country Club of St. Albans to lead Pennsylvania to a three-stroke victory over Kansas on what turned out to be a picture-perfect day for golf.
Coupled with a 73 from the 47-year-old Knapp of Oakmont, Pennsylvania, which had never finished better than sixth in seven previous appearances, concluded the 54-hole competition at 9-under-par 417. Smith, 31, of Pittsburgh had a non-scoring 74 in the 3-count-2 format.
Kansas, which was hurt by Thursday’s 10-over 152 score in the rainy conditions, rallied with a 7-under 135 total with 22-year-old Dodge Kemmer of Wichita shooting a 67 and 33-year-old Jon Troutman of Spring Hill adding a 68. Kansas opened the competition with a 133, the best team score posted in Men’s State Team Championship history.
Illinois finished third at 422, followed by Rhode Island and South Carolina sharing fourth place at 424.
Although the forecast called for morning showers and a possible afternoon thunderstorm, which forced USGA officials to make a 36-hole cut (26 of the 51 teams played the final round), the inclement weather stayed away and players were greeted with sunshine virtually the entire round. And nobody shined more brightly than the Pennsylvania squad.
“Nobody deserves this more than Mike or Sean,” said Smith, who helped the USA retain the Walker Cup 12 days ago at Merion Golf Club and won the 2003 U.S. Mid-Amateur. “Just to do it with those guys and great friends, that’s a dream come true.”
Knapp, a veteran of national championships and a semifinalist at the 2008 U.S. Mid-Amateur, was relieved to finally earn a gold medal in a USGA competition.
“It’s special,” said Knapp, who was the best man at Smith’s wedding a few years ago. “I have been close. It’s an honor to seal this one.”
Early on, it looked as if Pennsylvania might not take home the title. Rhode Island made a strong push on the outward nine, at one point tying for the lead at six under. Then Kansas applied a second-nine charge, but Van Sickle made sure nobody was going to pass his team.
Turning at 1-under 35, the long-hitting Van Sickle birdied holes 11, 13 and 16. He just missed an eagle opportunity from 8 feet at No. 11 and knocked a 7-iron approach to 4 feet from a side-hill lie at 13.
“I kind of made it easy on myself all day long,” said Van Sickle, who was the medalist at a pre-qualifier for PGA Tour Q-School last week in Lincoln, Neb., where he posted a pair of 64s. “This is absolutely an awesome way to end my amateur career. These are awesome guys and great players. I’m thankful that the Pennsylvania Golf Association gave me the opportunity to come out here and play.”
Like Pennsylvania, Kansas had never finished better than a tie for 16th (1995) and take away Thursday’s bad round and it might have won the title. Even two brilliant rounds by Kemmer, who is finishing up his human biology degree at Stanford University this year, and Troutman wasn’t enough to catch Pennsylvania. Nevertheless, the team was quite pleased with a runner-up showing.
“There really wasn’t any pressure,” said Kemmer. “We knew we had a chance from what we did the first day. Shoot nine or 10 under and you never know what might happen. And it turns out that’s what it would have taken. We were close.”
The battle for third came down to Illinois, Rhode Island and South Carolina. Todd Mitchell, 31, of Bloomington, Ill., a former minor-league infielder in the New York Yankees system, shot a 67, which tied Van Sickle and Kemmer for the day’s best round, to help Illinois grab the bronze model. Carlos Sainz, 23, of Elgin, added a 74 as Illinois edged Rhode Island and South Carolina by two shots.
“I’m ecstatic,” said Mitchell, the runner-up in last year’s U.S. Mid-Amateur.
Mark Anderson, 23, of Beaufort, S.C., earned individual medalist honors at 7-under 206, shooting a final-round 70 to place one stroke ahead of Van Sickle. The 2008 University of South Carolina graduate stuck around as an amateur this past summer with hopes of making the Walker Cup team. While the State Team Championship wasn’t exactly a consolation prize, taking top individual honors at this championship was a nice way to end his amateur career. He hopes to make his pro debut on the Hooters Tour in the next couple of weeks.
“It’s an awesome way to go out,” said Anderson, who thought he might have blown his chance at medalist honors with a bogey at 18. “I’m thrilled and I’m proud of how our team fought. We hung in there and actually had a top-five finish. You can’t be disappointed with that.”