At Monday’s welcome dinner for the 12th USGA Men’s State Team Championship, reality stared Wyoming’s Mark Isakson, John Hornbeck and Dave Balling straight in the face. At age 59, 58 and 57, respectively, the three men knew they were the oldest of the 52 teams in the field—and possibly one of the oldest ever in the event’s 21-year history (the USGA wasn’t tracking such data closely in the early years after the inception of the biennial event in 1995). But just how old didn’t really sink in until they found themselves at the table with the trio from California, Ashwin Arasu, Dan Erickson and Tom Hutchison, the youngest team competing.
“I’m sitting there next to them and asked, ‘So how old are you?’ ” Isakson said. When one first responded 17, Isakson repeated the question to the next, who noted he was 17 as well, as did the third when he too was asked.
“So we’ve got them by about 123 years of experience,” joked Isakson two days later when recalling the moment. “[But] I don’t think it added up for much.”
Indeed, by the end of Wednesday’s first round at C.C. of Birmingham, the Wyoming squad was 14 strokes back of the California kids and trailing the four teams tied for first by 28 strokes while sitting in 52nd (last) place. “I don’t know why we seem to not have a good first round,” said Hornbeck, who shot a 10-over 81 after shooting 68 in his practice round. “We always start out slow and just build, but this year we’ve got a [36-hole] cut, so we don’t have time to build.”
Balling and Isakson could do no better, each shooting 87s to leave the team at 26 over.
Mind you, it’s not as if these three are duffers scrounged up at the local muny in Laramie. Hornbeck, from Saratoga, Wyo., reached the quarterfinals in last week’s U.S. Senior Amateur and played in the U.S. Senior Open in July. Although Balling, from Cody, is a rookie in the event, this is the fifth time that Isakson, from Sheridan, has represented Wyoming.
Yet with the average age of the field being 36.02, the trio gives its competition a head start of sorts.
“We don’t get to play as long as some of these kids do,” said Hornbeck, playing in his fifth Men’s State Team. “They’re playing all year-around, and we only play three or four months out of the year. So we’re not as sharp as they are.”
Traditionally, both the men’s and women’s State Team Championship attracts mid-amateur-age players since the event is played in the fall, when college students are in school and can’t break away for the event.
Both Isakson and Hornbeck say there are some good young players in the state, but that the team is at a disadvantage due to the make-up of the state’s populace.
“Because there isn’t necessarily a lot of [career] opportunities in Wyoming, when kids get to 26, 27 and 28, they go somewhere else to make their living. So we end up with this big gap between 25 and 40 where we don’t have a lot of [good] players,” Isakson said. “We have a lot of good, older players, but we’re missing that [25 to 45] group, which is what this [championship is for]. All those guys in their late 20s. Or pre-college kids.”
Beside the Wyoming trio, there are seven other players 50 and older in the field with the oldest being 61-year-old Chip Lutz of Pennsylvania.
Hornbeck hopes for better results on Thursday, but appreciates that the cumulative effect of all the golf he’s played in recent weeks might be taking its toll.
“I’m wearing down a little bit,” Hornbeck said. “You know we’re not spring chickens.”