Augusta, Ga. – You can bet the ranch that Randal Lewis isn't going to win The Masters over the weekend but he's the odds-on favorite to be the happiest of the 96 contestants on the property at Augusta National Golf Club.
By becoming, at age 54, the oldest U.S. Mid-Amateur champion last fall, Lewis earned an invitation to the year's first major championship. Since the 1989 Masters, the winner of the USGA’s championship for players 25 and over has received a Masters invite, but no reigning champion has ever survived the 36-hole cut.
"I'm still not sure I've gotten my head around it completely," Lewis said Wednesday before participating in the tournament's traditional Par-3 Contest, where he nearly aced the sixth hole. "It's big and I knew it. The Masters is unlike anything else. It's a much bigger stage than anything else I could imagine. It's been really cool and exciting.
"I'm just trying to keep my wits about me. It's such an incredible experience, especially at this point in my life. To be here and do this, I'm lucky. And every day that I'm here, I just try to walk around and take it all in."
Lewis' ticket to Augusta was punched at Shadow Hawk Golf Club in Richmond, Texas, when he beat Kenny Cook, 3 and 2, in the 36-hole Mid-Am final for his first USGA title. It's the championship that highlights his competitive year. Fifteen years earlier, he nearly got to Augusta, but he lost, 3 and 2, in the final to John “Spider” Miller at Hartford G.C. Three years later in 1999, he advanced to the semifinals.
But last year's victory was extra special, considering where it came in his amateur career.
"That was a thrill," said Lewis, wearing an Augusta National shirt and hat bought from the golf shop. "I love the Mid-Am. It's my favorite USGA event. Realistically, the U.S. Amateur is dominated by college kids and it's unrealistic to think that I could win it, especially at my age.
"The Mid-Am is for working guys and it kept my hope up for a lot of years. If you can drive it good and putt it good, you never know what can happen. The window was close to being closed. As I went through the match play at Shadow Hawk, I realized that something special was going on."
Lewis points to a couple of key moments that changed the direction of his competitive golf.
"My left knee had been bad for a long time," he said. "I thought I was being smart not to have surgery but as it turns out, I should have had surgery a long time ago." He underwent arthroscopic surgery last summer. "I finally had a decent knee," he said.
And, like many competitive amateurs of his age, his putting had been a source of concern for a long time. He tried extra-long putters and other alternative putting grips. But an article in a golf magazine said that 91 percent of all touring professionals either use the line stamped on the ball or draw a line on it for alignment purposes.
"I had always had trouble with alignment and once I got accustomed to it, I began to putt really well," he said. "That's the key to winning any tournament and it will especially be the key here. If I don't putt exceptionally well ... I won't be going home. I'm staying here all weekend, even if I don't make the cut."
Lewis has a different routine to prepare for the Mid-Am. From April to September, the Alma, Mich., resident practices three evenings a week and plays on weekend mornings. But because the stock market was extremely volatile in August and September, the financial planner didn’t get to play or practice as much as usual.
"My expectation [going into the Mid-Am] was to have fun and hopefully play as well as I could," said Lewis, who defeated two-time defending champion Nathan Smith in a dramatic 19-hole semifinal match by knocking a wedge approach to within 4 feet for a winning birdie.
Lewis has plenty of competitive credentials. After graduation from Central Michigan, where he played on the golf team, he tried a Florida mini-tour for four weeks and quickly found out that professional golf was difficult. He quickly got his amateur status back and qualified for the U.S. Amateur in 1983.
Since then, he has won two Michigan Amateur titles and one Michigan Mid-Amateur. He was inducted into the Michigan Golf Hall of Fame in 2009.
At The Masters, Lewis played in the Par-3 Contest with Bubba Watson and Aaron Baddeley. A week earlier, he played a practice round with Phil Mickelson and on Monday, he walked the grounds with Tom Watson. After Watson nearly won the 2009 British Open, Lewis realized that age didn’t have to hinder his chances to compete.
So after his Mid-Am triumph, Lewis wrote a letter to the 1982 U.S. Open champion about playing a practice round at Augusta. Watson obliged by writing back and Lewis’ wife, Melanie, framed it.
During his practice round with Mickelson, the 1990 U.S. Amateur champion encouraged him to relax and have fun. "That's easier said than done," said Lewis, who also consulted with sports psychologist Dr. Gio Valente on the mental preparation it takes to face this huge challenge.
But Lewis chose not to partake in one of the amateur invitee's cherished traditions: sleeping in the Crow's Nest, a dormitory-style room at the top of the Augusta National clubhouse. Obviously, Lewis is considerably older than the five other amateurs in the field, but he also suffers from sleep apnea and he felt his breathing machine might disturb his fellow amateurs
Nevertheless, he still attended the Amateur Dinner on Monday night and while most expect little from Lewis performance-wise this week, he still wants to perform well. "There's that pride factor," he says. "As players and competitors, we want to play to the best of our abilities. I think I've gotten over the score issues.
"I've played enough tournament golf that some weeks you've got, some weeks you don't. The front nine [at Augusta National] is really hard and it's important to get off to a good start. The back nine is not easy but there are more scoring opportunities. If I can get through the front nine with a reasonable score, I have a chance on the back nine."
However, he knows his limitations as he tries to tackle one of the most demanding courses in tournament golf.
"The greens are real interesting and you have to be in the right places on the greens to get the putt you want," said Lewis. "Because of my [lack of] length, I'm coming into the greens with a lot longer clubs than most everyone else. It's hard for me to stand out there with a hybrid from 200 yards and try to fit a shot into a certain part of the green."
Lewis, whose USGA Handicap Index is a plus-2, is thrilled to be a part of The Masters, but is quick to emphasize what the U.S. Mid-Amateur means to him.
"Winning the Mid-Am will always be my biggest accomplishment in my golf career," said, who is grouped the first two rounds with past Masters champion Jose Maria Olazabal and Robert Garrigus. He tees off at 8:01 a.m. EDT on Thursday. "Playing [The Masters] is a real bonus and you have experiences you can't duplicate anywhere else. This will be most enjoyable week of my career. And winning the Mid-Am will be the most satisfying week."
And nowhere else but in golf, can an amateur have what is nothing less than the best of both worlds.
Note: Lewis opened the Masters with a disappointing 9-over-par 81.
Mike Purkey is the deputy editor for Global Golf Post. To subscribe, go to www.globalgolfpost.com