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Utah State Amateur Returns Home—-To The Country Club
by Joe Watts
The Utah State Amateur Championship, the longest continuously held tournament in the world, left home in 1976 and has been wandering around from site-to-site for 37 years and this year returns to its home, The Country Club.
In that long absence the tournament naturally matured and has earned its rightful place among the finest state amateurs in the country. On July 18th 157 players will tee it up at the Country Club for the 114th consecutive running of the Utah State Amateur.
Coming home brings fond memories, and one of the off shoots of the tournament this year will be the chance to focus on the past and on the illustrious history of our forbearers, the ones who were the leaders in establishing golf in Utah way before its expected time.
It was The Country Club that gave birth to the Utah State Am in 1899 at the one-year site known as Gilmer Park. A few visionaries started it, and were promptly unsatisfied and created Forest Dale Golf Course where the Utah State Amateur was nurtured through childhood. As the club grew the vision expanded as well and through grit and determination the leaders, led by Hal Lamb, built a new grandiose golf course on the present site and it opened in 1921.
Fittingly, the first Utah State Am champion on the new site was won by none other than the most famous Utah golfer for the first half century, George Von Elm. Other Utah Golf Hall of Famers to win the State Am on these special grounds have been Hal Lamb, Ed Kingsley, and Bill Korns.
Perhaps it would be a good idea for The Country Club to host the Utah State Amateur again in 2021—–100 years from that special time. That’s only nine years away.
Another aspect of this year’s tournament is the focus it will bring to one of Utah golf’s most special families, three generations of Brancas, namely Tee, sons Ron and Don, and grandson Mike. Tee was the head professional at The Country Club for 50 years and then turned it over to his son, Ron. Don won the Utah State Am back-to-back, the last win also being the last time the State Am was held at the Country Club. And now here we are, 37 years later and Ron’s son, Mike is playing in the tournament and is a legitimate contender in a field full of contenders. He earned his way into the tournament in the Player Performance category. Mike is the Director of Competitions for the Utah Golf Association, and would ordinarily be managing the tournament, but has received a waiver from his work assignment in order to play in this special event.
One of the special moments for all tournament players, spectators, and officials will be when they have the opportunity to cross the Tee Branca Bridge when approaching the 11th green. That will be a moment to pause and reflect on our glorious golf history, on the friendships that have been created on golf courses everywhere, on the vision and dedication of previous generations who built such beautiful facilities for our benefit, and the meaningful contribution the game has had on our individual lives.
And, of course, the major focus will be on this year’s field of worthy contenders who have survived a grueling qualifying season that has reduced the field to 157 players from the original entry list of nearly 800 players.
The field for this year’s tournament is assuredly one of the strongest in recent years. Zac Blair, son of another famous Utahn and former State Am champion, Jimmy Blair, has established himself as the dominating force in Utah amateur golf and is the favorite going in. He won the title three years ago at Valley View, but has skipped the State Am the past two years to play in more prestigious national events. This year the schedule fits for Blair and he would love to win a second State Am. His presence ups the ante for everyone else. Blair won the first five tournaments of the year. However, it won’t be easy and the other amateurs aren’t going to concede the matter.
Mason Casper, grandson of Billy Casper, is on a hot streak. He was medalist in the State Am Qualifying at Stonebridge and then won two of the most prestigious tournaments on the Utah schedule, the Provo Open and the Art City Amateur. He set a tournament record of 64-64-128 at the Hobble Creek Golf Course. Who knows? Maybe we’ll even see grandpa caddying for grandson!
And, of course, you can’t count out Jeff Evans, the defending champion, and son of another outstanding Utah professional, John Evans. Jeff can coast for a few days and get comfortable with the golf course because by virtue of being the defending champion he is the automatic first seed in match play. All the others have to grind every shot for 36 holes in order to earn one of the 31 other coveted match play spots. Furthermore, it has been ten years since anyone has repeated as champion and if history is to be repeated he will win. At no time in the history of the State Am has there been 11 years without a repeat winner.
Former champions Dan Horner and Darrin Overson will surely be hanging around to pick up the pieces if others falter. Other former champions include Eric Hogg, Gregg Oliphant, Todd Barker, Jason Wight, and Steve Borget. Previous runnerups who still have championship dreams are Carl Jensen, Kirk Siddens, Alex Sutton, Stratton Schulz, and yes, even the chairman of this event, Steve Brinton. Brinton, who is on the UGA Board and is also chairman of this year’s State Am, has played in the match portion of the Utah State Am in five different decades, and was runnerup to Darrin Overson in the Centennial State Am. If he makes match play he will become the only player to have played in the match play portion of the tournament in five decades.
Five other members of The Country Club are in the tournament. The five are Jim Tybur, who has been club champion about 15 times and was granted one of the two host club exemptions; Jon Wright, the current club champion who qualified with a 70 at Stonebridge; David Cannon, who qualified at Stonebridge with a hot round of 67; Max Metcalf (son of Mike Metcalf, who qualified at Wingpointe; and Tom Young, who also qualified at the Wingpointe Golf Course qualifier. All five of them are strong players and with the advantage of local knowledge several of them could well be factors in the tournament.
Another focus of this year’s championship will be the golf course itself. It is in immaculate condition and is perhaps the best conditioned golf course in Utah. The course is in such good condition that when all is said and done it could be declared the champion. The players are in for a treat. The greens are in as near perfect condition as is possible. The course itself is worthy of headlines.
“I’ve never seen the course in better condition than it is right now,” said host pro Ron Branca, “and that’s a very high compliment because this course has almost always been in good condition, but cross your fingers, keeping it that way is tougher than getting it that way.”
And who would know about the great conditioning of the golf course if it wasn’t showcased by hosting a headline attracting event such as the Utah State Am?
And so, while the Utah State Am is just a dot in the history of the world, it is our dot and this is our moment of enjoyment.
Welcome to the 114th Utah State Amateur at The Country Club.