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114th Utah State Am Begins Wednesday With Defending Champ Jeff Evans on Cruise Control

The 114th Utah State Amateur gets underway Wednesday at The Country Club with defending champion Jeff Evans in the driver’s seat until someone bumps him. One of the many things that makes the Utah State Amateur unique is that it treats its champions well. Most tournaments exempt their champions, but very few exempt them into the number one seed in match play, thus getting to skip the two days of gut wrenching qualifying rounds.
Jeff gets to glide around the beautifully manicured Country Club the first two days on cruise control and enjoy the scenery, get extra acquainted with the course, and tune his game for match play. The others will be grinding it out in hopes of earning one of the other 31 match play spots, and the last qualifier will get the first chance to eliminate the current champ.
And so the drama begins and history moves on. Who will be the 2012 Utah State Amateur champion?
While Evans has a big advantage, the reigning champion has been unable to successfully defend his title for the past ten years. This is the longest spell of unrepeated champions in the glorious history of the oldest continuously held tournament in the world. Daniel Summerhays won it back-to-back in 2000 and 2001 and there have been no double winners since.
Evans faces a strong field, and one former champion Zac Blair could also be considered a defending champion. He won the title three years ago and hasn’t played in the tournament since. In essence, Evans and Blair both go into this tournament with State Am winning skeins of five straight matches, but Blair isn’t exempt from the two days of qualifying and making the final 32 is no easy task in a field of 150 plus players of which 66 are plus handicappers and another 30 are under a one handicap.
Dan Horner is another former champion whose game is sharp and must be rated among the favorites. The only other former champion playing near the top of his game is Darrin Overson, who last won it on the Centennial Year of the tournament. Other champions in the field but would be considered long shots are Todd Barker, Jason Wight, Gregg Oliphant, Eric Hogg, and Steve Borget.
Recent champions who are ineligible because they have turned professional include Nick Nelson, Tony Finau, Michael McRae, Tommy Sharp, and Daniel Summerhays.  The 2010 champion, Joe Parkinson, is on an LDS mission.
Other top amateur players of the moment that are all realistic contenders for the title include Mason Casper, Devon Purser, Nick Drost, Christian Jensen, and Mike Jurca.
Mike Branca, son of Country Club head professional Ron Branca, has a chance, but has been so busy in his new job as Director of Competitions for the UGA that he hasn’t had a chance to tune his game.
Stratton Schulz, last year’s runnerup, still has a taste for the title. There are some other very strong former runnerups that include Alex Sutton, Carl Jensen, Kirk Siddens, and Jon Morgan who still have the game to win.
There are seven members of The Country Club who qualified for the tournament and could add a serious flavor of surprise. The top players of the Country Club set are Jon Wright, David Cannon, and Christopher Grant.
Valley View has the most players of any club with nine and its top players are Nick Despain and Brennan Coburn.
The 50 and over group has little chance of winning this tournament where endurance is such a big factor, but some of them still have dreams and dreams generally precede actualization. Among those who have the game to go with the dreams are Mike Jorgensen, Kirk Siddens, Craig Woodward, Steve Borget, Jeff Powars, Steve Poulson, Bill Probst, and Todd Barker. If any of them were to make a strong run at the title it would be a big story.
The youngest in the field is 15-year-old Kai Ruiz at 15 from Hobble Creek.  There are 22 teenagers in the field.
The top teenager in Utah, and the recent winner of Junior World in the 15-year old age group, is Rhett Rasmussen. He won one of the State Am qualifying rounds, but is playing in the USGA Junior Championship this week which is in conflict with the State Am.
Each Utah State Am develops its own storylines that are unique. What they will be this year are yet to be written. One possible historic moment that would have added some sizzle to the event has already been dashed when Steve Brinton, a member of The Country Club, a member of the UGA Board of Directors, and the tournament chairman, had to withdraw because of a shoulder injury. He had earned a spot in the tournament and had the possibility of reaching match play for the sixth decade, which would have been an amazing record. Being capable of making match play in six different decades is a remarkable feat. As it now stands, Brinton shares the record of appearing in match play in five different decades with Jack Ridd.
The Country Club is perhaps in its best condition ever and this will surely be another memorable Utah State Amateur.
The pairings have been announced and are available on the UGA web page under championships, then under Utah State Amateur, then pairings.
The tournament format calls for a 36-hole two-day qualifying test on Wednesday and Thursday with the low 31 and defending champion Jeff Evans advancing to match play. The match play will have two rounds on Friday, with the quarterfinals and semifinals on Saturday, and a 36-hole championship match on Sunday.
The Breakfast of Champions will be Friday morning at 7 a.m. at The Country Club and all former champions are invited and encouraged to attend.