Despite an injured shoulder, Mike Rice, 65, of Houston, Texas, became the oldest winner in 18 years and thwarted the title defense hopes of Mark Bemowski of Mukwonago, Wis., with a 1-up victory Thursday in the final of the 2005 USGA Senior Amateur Championship at the Farm Golf Club.
"It's a great feeling to win a tournament like this,” said Rice, a retired insurance executive who played the last nine holes in 2-under-par. “It's just phenomenal. All of a sudden you get the one opportunity, and you hurt yourself, but you end up being able to do it anyhow. It's just a great experience.”
Rice’s win made him the first Texan to win since Robert Rawlins of Dallas took the title in 1984 and oldest champion since John Richardson, who was 66 when he won in 1987.
Rice, who injured his left shoulder hitting off hardpan in the quarterfinal round Wednesday was treated by a local doctor that evening. “He was up a lot last night, watching himself on The Golf Channel,” said his wife, Becky.
Against Bemowski, who was vying to become the first repeat champion in 25 years, since Bill Campbell in 1979 and 1980, Rice was 2 down through seven holes but steadied himself with clutch putting.
In addition, the usually steady Bemowski, lost the 12th when Rice made the matches’ first birdie on the par 5. Bemowski then hit his approach shot on the 14th into the hazard and conceded the hole to take the match to all square.
"I wanted, more than anything, to win back to back,” Bemowski said. “Winning one of another is great. The chance to do it again is rare and such a real accomplishment.
At the reachable par-5 15th, Rice made a remarkable up-and-down par from inside the hazard fronting the green with a 14-foot putt to halve the hole. Bemowski, who had reached the green in two, missed an 8-footer for birdie.
"It may not have been the big turning point, but I think it was one of them,” said Rice, former SMU football player. “But, I putted well on the backside. That was a big thing.”
On the short par-4 16th, Bemowski hit a wedge shot to a foot for a conceded birdie to take a 1-up lead.
A slightly hooked drive on the par-4 17th by Bemowski set up an approach that didn’t reach the green. His pitch hit the uphill slope of the green and spun back 30 feet from the holel. He did not convert the putt for par and Rice 2-putted from 18 feet to win the hole and square the match.
Both players hit the green in two on the uphill, par-4 18th – Bemowski was 22 feet away and Rice 20. Bemowski’s birdie attempt slipped past the right edge of the hole, 4 feet away. Rice’s birdie settled 2 ½ feet away. Following Bemowski’s miss for par, Rice sunk the putt for the championship.
"How many 2 ½ footers have I played in my life,” Rice said. “You have one to win the USGA Senior Amateur. My hands were shaking. It went in. That’s all that counts.
"To go out there and collapse and make two bogeys when you need a par that’s really disappointing,” Bemowski said. “That’s hard to swallow.
"The greens got me all week,” he continued. “It piled up today. If it wasn’t a straight 6-foot putt, I didn’t know what I was doing. Maybe I shouldn’t have tried to make the putt on 18, but I had a chance to win and to try to make it. It slipped by and I left myself with that bumpy 4 ½ -5-footer coming back. It summed up the day.”
All quarterfinalists are exempt from having to qualify for the 2006 championship at Victoria National Golf Club in Newburgh, Ind. Semifinalists are exempt from having to qualify for the 2006 U.S. Senior Open at Prairie Dunes Country Club in Hutchinson, Kan.
The winner receives a gold medal, custody of the Frederick L. Dold Trophy for the ensuing year and an exemption into the next five Senior Amateurs.
The USGA Senior Amateur, for amateurs 55 and older, is one of 13 national championships conducted annually by the USGA, 10 of which are strictly for amateurs.