How an NHL ref's inspiring golf win has changed the outlook of the upcoming U.S. Amateur
It wasn’t long after Garrett Rank won the Western Amateur last week that the magnitude of the victory became clear to the 31-year-old from Canada. Or, more precisely, in his golf bag.
Upon defeating recent Ohio State grad Daniel Wetterich, 3 and 2, in the 18-hole final, Rank became the first mid-amateur to win the prestigious title since Danny Green in 1997. The end of that 22-year drought set off a chain reaction within the mid-amateur community. Dozens of friends started calling and texting Rank’s cell phone, which might've been beating more frenetically than his heart as he reached inside his golf bag to grab it.
“We have a huge fraternity,” Rank said of his fellow 25-and-older golfers. “We’re all pretty tight and pull for each other. We all secretly love to beat the young guys and carry the torch for amateur golf.”
Scott Harvey was one of the guys who texted Rank, letting him know that the win was not only cause for celebration but inspiration. “Something like this gives a charge throughout the mid-amateur ranks,” said Harvey, the 2014 U.S. Mid-Am champion who teamed with fellow mid-am Todd Mitchell to win the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball title earlier this year at Bandon Dunes. “We all feed off it. It provides you a lift that you could do something similar.”
Rank’s accomplishment, then, comes at an ideal time as the most significant amateur tournament in the world, the U.S. Amateur Championship, begins Monday at Pinehurst (N.C.) Resort. Not since John Harris in 1993 has a mid-amateur won the Havemeyer Trophy—a 26-year gap that is by far the longest in the championship’s 124-year history. (For comparison, the previous longest streak was nine years, from 1973 to 1981.)
Recent data on the play of mid-amateurs at the U.S. Amateur suggest an awful lot of inspiration will be needed for the 41 mid-ams who are competing in the 312-player field at Pinehurst. In the past 12 years, just two mid-amateurs have advanced to the quarterfinals (Nathan Smith at Atlanta Athletic Club in 2014 and Neil Raymond at The Country Club in 2013). The last time a mid-am reached the semifinals was Austin Eaton III at Merion in 2005, and the last time one reached the finals was Tom McKnight in 1998 at Oak Hill Country Club.
Rank and Harvey are among the most high-profile mid-ams who’ll be competing at Pinehurst. Other notables including Stewart Hagestad (No. 7 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking), former U.S. Mid-Am champs Mike McCoy (playing in his 20th U.S. Amateur) and Matt Parziale, as well as reigning U.S. Mid-Am winner Kevin O’Connell, and past U.S. Senior Amateur winners Sean Knapp and Jeff Wilson.
Talk to most mid-ams and the explanation for the struggles are obvious. “The kids play golf every day of the week. Mid-ams play golf when they can,” Harvey said. “For the kids it’s like they’re essentially on tour. It’s all day, every day.”
With most mid-ams also working full-time, getting the chance to practice as much as their college counterparts is difficult. In turn, it’s tougher to keep your game sharp.
“I’m lucky,” said Rank, who works as an NHL referee, “I’ve probably got the best job of the mid-am group that allows me to stay concentrated on golf in the summer. But for most mid-ams, even if they have a week off to compete, they’re at the event still worrying about what’s going on at home with their wife, with their kids, with their work.”
Another advantage for younger players is, well, their youth. To reach the finals of the U.S. Amateur means playing seven rounds of golf in six days. The cumulative effect results in a fatigue factor, according to Rank, which is tricky for mid-ams to avoid. Moreover, mid-amateurs are more likely to be dealing with nagging injuries that have to be properly nursed over a long week for them to advance.
The power game of most college players is also a point of differentiation from mid-ams. That could factor this week at Pinehurst, where the No. 2 and No. 4 courses will share hosting duties. USGA officials are tipping out No. 2—the Donald Ross masterpiece—at 7,555 yards for the championship, and No. 4, recently redone by Gil Hanse, will measure 7,627 yards.
Even so, Harvey, 41, a North Carolina native who lives 75 miles from Pinehurst in Greensboro, believes that Pinehurst No. 2 will offer mid-amateurs an advantage in a different way.
“You’re going to get in spots around the greens where you’re going to have to take your medicine instead of going for the heroic shot, and you might bring double into play,” Harvey said. “A mid-am might play a little more conservative and move on.”
Though the odds don’t seem to be in a mid-am’s favor, Rank believes the U.S. Amateur trend can be reversed. “I think it’s just a matter of time before a mid-am wins,” he said.
And Rank is appreciative that he’ll have a chance to give it a try. Despite having played in the U.S. Amateur seven times, he missed on earning a spot in 2019 by one stroke at his qualifier in Canada. But his Western win moved him inside the top 50 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking, earning him the last spot in the U.S. Amateur on Wednesday.
“I would hope [all the mid-ams] would get some confidence in me winning, because I’ve gotten confidence from them in the past,” Rank said.
Even if it doesn’t happen at Pinehurst, Rank’s win won’t likely go for naught among mid-ams, insists Harvey.
“I think it’s exciting and it will be very uplifting from a standpoint of for the last several years, mid-amateurs have been dropping off. Fewer and fewer are playing during the summer,” Harvey said. “But to see one of us go really deep in a major tournament like this, you know it might kind of revive some who are sitting on the sideline and not too excited anymore.”
Just imagine what a win at the U.S. Amateur might do.