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Celebrating 125 Years of Golf in Utah
This story originally appeared on the USGA’s website on May 26, 2012. It has been slightly modified and updated.
Long before he would defeat Bob Jones in the 1926 U.S. Amateur, George Von Elm just wanted to win the Utah State Amateur. The tournament meant everything to golfers in Utah in those days, and not much has changed. From its founding in 1899 through the 2019 event, the State Am will have been contested for 121 consecutive years, making it the longest continuous golf tournament in the world.
The State Am is the tournament that has paired brothers against one another, produced father and son champions, showcased a female star, dealt with occasional controversy and just kept going all these years, including when America was involved in World Wars I and II.
If you’re wondering why the State Am was played during world wars, when major championships such as the U.S. Open and the British Open were ceasing operations, the answer is both practical and emotional.
During World War II, in particular, the event provided a playing opportunity for soldiers stationed in Utah. Beyond that, it is apparent that continuing to stage the State Am was very meaningful to the Utah Golf Association.
“They did anything to keep it going, to keep that record intact,” said Ralph Emery, a longtime golf professional whose father, Al, was the tournament chairman in 1943. “They took a lot of pride in that.”
Longevity aside, the championship’s greatest characteristic is how deeply golfers care about the event and its tradition.
The State Am did not begin with Von Elm, but he’s a good place to start. Salt Lake City’s Forest Dale Golf Course is a modest, nine-hole layout, but it once was the center of Von Elm’s golfing universe. Then operated as The Country Club, the course is where Von Elm caddied and shagged balls and developed his game as a teenager.
In 1917, he won the first of his three State Am titles on that course at age 16, launching a legendary amateur career.
His brother, Roy, once said that the experience of winning State Am matches prepared Von Elm for greater challenges, such as taking on Jones in the U.S. Amateur. Von Elm upset Jones in the 1926 final at Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J., delivering Jones’ only defeat in a five-year period of the championship (Jones won in 1924, 1925, 1927, 1928 and 1930). After turning pro, Von Elm also competed in several U.S. Opens, including a runner-up finish in 1931, the longest playoff in the event’s history.
There is considerable competition for the title of first family of Utah golf, but the Summerhays clans would be tough to beat. The State Am has paired two sets of Summerhays brothers against one another. In 1966, Bruce Summerhays beat his brother Lynn in the semifinals on his way to the title.
“The State Am was something I always wanted to win,” said Bruce Summerhays, who went on to win three events on the PGA Tour Champions. “It really pushed me into wanting to play and knowing I could play really good golf.”
The next generation matched Lynn’s sons, Daniel and Boyd. Daniel was the defending champion in 2001 at age 17 when he met Boyd in the quarterfinals.
“That’s the most awkward golf experience I’ve ever had,” said Daniel, who edged his bother, 1 up. “Nobody was happy when the match was over, not even me.”
With his brother’s encouragement to make that victory truly meaningful, Daniel went on to win his second title. He has played eight years on the PGA Tour, earning top-10 finishes in both the U.S. Open and PGA Championship in 2017, but has fond memories of the days when merely qualifying for the Utah Amateur and reaching match play was a big achievement.
“Just talking about it brings back some good feelings,” said Daniel. “Whatever talent I had, that’s where it came into fruition.”
Boyd also has several fond memories of the State Amateur – both as a player and father. His son, Preston, now 17, matched Uncle Danny’s feat of winning back-to-back titles, earning his victories in 2018 and 2019. A week after his win in 2019, Preston also won the 2019 U.S. Junior Amateur at the Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio.
The State Am’s most memorable brotherly competition came between twins Craig and Kean Ridd in the 1967 semifinals, a 23-hole duel that Craig won on his way to the title. The battle was staged in front of the twins’ father, Jack, also a two-time winner in 1963 and ’64.
The Ridd family’s victories came within a brief span, in contrast to the Blair’s titles. Jimmy Blair (1973) and Zac Blair (2009) each won the State Am in the summer before becoming a Brigham Young University golfer.
Todd Miller, who was in the middle of his BYU career, made the 2004 tournament memorable for reasons other than winning. A son of 1973 U.S. Open champion Johnny Miller, Todd won quarterfinal and semifinal matches on a Saturday to advance to the finals. Rather than play golf on a Sunday, which conflicted with his religious beliefs, Miller announced he would forfeit the match to Clark Rustand.
After some deliberation in the months that followed, the UGA decided to maintain the traditional schedule of a Sunday finish, following stroke-play qualifying on Wednesday and Thursday and two rounds of match play on both Friday and Saturday.
The 2004 event also introduced the first female contestant in tournament history. Awarded a special exemption as the 2002 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links champion, Annie Thurman Young advanced to match play and won in the round of 32 before being eliminated. More recently, Grace Summerhays, the younger sister of Preston, qualified for this year’s Utah Amateur.
The bulk of State Am entrants must advance through regional qualifying, which was introduced in 1982 in response to the growth of the event’s popularity. Previously, any golfers who met the required USGA Handicap Index® were eligible to play at the tournament site. The competition annually attracts 700-800 entrants.
In 1967, sportswriter Joe Watts, a lifelong Utahn, declared the Utah State Amateur the greatest tournament in the world. His love for the event eventually led to his becoming a longtime executive director of the Utah Golf Association. While Watts may be biased in his feelings about the State Am, that widely shared belief in Utah makes the tournament what it is.
Kurt Kragthorpe is a columnist for theSalt Lake City Tribuneand was a contributor to the book 100 Years of the Utah State Amateur.