USGA MEN'S STATE TEAM
Special Week in Birmingham for Rowen, Indiana September 29, 2016 | Birmingham, Ala. By David Shefter, USGA

Indiana's Sean Rowen has had good vibes in his return to Birmingham this week. (USGA/Chris Keane) 

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Sean Rowen knew the 12th USGA Men’s State Team Championship was going to be a special week even before he arrived with his Indiana teammates.

Rowen, 42, of Greenwood, spent the first “five to six years” of his life in Birmingham, so getting to compete in a 54-hole national competition at the Country Club of Birmingham’s West Course was a rare treat.

“The house I grew up in is about five minutes away on Poinciana [Drive],” said Rowen after signing for a second-round, 2-over-par 73 on Thursday. “I drove by it [earlier this week]. It was neat. I was born at St. Vincent’s [Hospital] down the street. It was very cool.”

Even better is sharing the time with two Indianapolis-area buddies: Kenny Cook, 31, of Noblesville, and Brett Widner, 35, of Avon. It’s the same trio that represented Indiana two years ago when the event was conducted on the Pete Dye Course at French Lick (Ind.) Resort. All three compete against each other throughout the summer in Indiana, and Rowen teamed with Cook to recently qualify for next year’s U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championship at Pinehurst Resort & Country Club in North Carolina.

Perhaps that friendship is a reason why Indiana has a chance to post its best finish in this biennial competition since a tie for third in 1997.  Thanks to Rowen, who rallied to shoot a 4-under 31 over his final nine holes, and a 1-over 72 from Cook, the Hoosier State sits tied for 11th at 4-over 288 with one round to go.

“They are fun guys to play with,” said Rowen, a pharmaceutical sales rep who also is serving as the team’s playing captain.

Added Widner: “I saw some teams introducing themselves [to each other] the first night. That was something we didn’t have to worry about.”

Kenny Cook enjoyed success three years ago at the Country Club of Birmingham and he's playing well again this week. (USGA/Chris Keane)

It doesn’t hurt to have a USGA championship veteran such as Cook on the roster. Cook, the runner-up in the 2011 U.S. Mid-Amateur, advanced to the Round of 32 when the Mid-Amateur was conducted at the Country Club of Birmingham three years ago, losing in 19 holes to Brad Valois after earning the No. 2 seed through stroke play. He also carded a 65 on the East Course that week.

“It probably would have helped if we played the other side,” quipped the long-hitting Cook about the Men’s State Team being conducted exclusively on the West Course. “You’ve got to hit it in the fairway [on the West]. I am not trying to overpower the golf courses. It’s not worth it. The rough might not be quite as bad as three years ago, but it’s still penalizing.”

The biggest adjustment for the team has been the bermudagrass. On Monday and Tuesday, the trio worked overtime in the practice area getting used to playing short shots from a turf they don’t see in Indiana. Widner normally uses his 60-degree wedge around the greens, but has gone almost exclusively to the 56 this week. Unfortunately for him, his rounds of 79-76 have been thrown out in the 3-count-2 format.

“I’ve never been happier to see a 76 get kicked out,” he said on Thursday. “Hopefully tomorrow I will go out and shoot a good score.”

Widner, who is competing in his second USGA championship, does have one of the more unique occupations among those in the field. He is the chief financial officer for Tau Kappa Epsilon (TKE), a popular college fraternity that has 250-plus chapters in the United States and Canada. His boss, CEO Donald Aldrich, also happens to be an avid golfer and the two have teamed up to win four-ball events, including the 2016 Olympia Fields National Four-Ball Championship.

Brett Widner said the camaraderie among the Indiana players is a big factor in their success in a team competition. (USGA/Chris Keane)

“Believe it or not, it’s run like a regular business,” said Widner. “In the summer, none of our chapters are in school and although I still work a 40-hour week, I get a lot more opportunities to practice.”

Rowen doesn’t have quite the same USGA portfolio as his U.S. Amateur Four-Ball partner, Cook, but having competed two years ago at French Lick, he’s gained a better understanding of what kind of physical and mental game is required to succeed in a national championship.

That learning curve was tested on Thursday after he played the inward nine in 6-over 42. He told himself to stay patient and eventually the birdies started flying. When he converted a short putt on the par-5 fourth, Rowen thought something special was in the works. Then he drained a 30-footer on the difficult par-3 fifth and stuffed his approach on No. 6 to 5 feet for another birdie.

The lone mistake came on No. 7 when indecision and a failure to commit to the approach shot cost him a stroke.

“It’s a completely different style of golf than what we play day to day,” said Rowen of USGA setups. “You’ve got to be able to adjust to it.”

While Indiana enters the final round seven strokes behind leader Connecticut, the trio understands a great round on Friday could catapult them up the leader board.

But whatever happens on the final day, all three have been impressed by the hospitality the Country Club of Birmingham has shown the players.

“It’s amazing the amount of membership here that is all about golf,” said Cook. “Everything they’ve done here is top notch.”

Indeed, it has been a special week.

David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at dshefter@usga.org.

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