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The Country Club hosts the 125th Utah State Amateur, play begins Monday
John Bodenhamer went straight to George Von Elm in reciting the history of The Country Club.
That’s also a good starting point for the story of the 125th State Amateur. Only five years before an epic victory over Bobby Jones gave him the 1926 U.S. Amateur title, Von Elm won the first State Am contested at The Country Club’s current site in northeast Salt Lake City.
That degree of historical significance will accompany the trophy presentation July 1. The next State Am champion may not necessarily be a future Utah Golf Hall of Fame inductee, a University of Utah golfer or a member of a famous golf family, but winning at The Country Club usually requires such credentials. BYU’s Zac Jones again will try to alter the Ute theme on the team’s home course, having won last summer at Soldier Hollow Golf Course following consecutive titles for Utah golfers.
“The Utah players will definitely have an advantage,” Jones said. “I think it makes it fun. Anything that adds some competition and some edge makes it fun.”
Whatever drama occurs in a year when an elk herd briefly occupied the course in February will extend the long relationship of the Utah Golf Association and The Country Club, providing a tough test and undoubtedly producing another worthy winner.
The 125th State Am is notable for multiple reasons, starting with a return to The Country Club for the first time in 11 years. In another 11 years, the club will host the 2034 U.S. Women’s Amateur. That’s why Bodenhamer, the United States Golf Association’s Chief Championships Officer, places the club in “rarefied air.”
Among the U.S. Women’s Amateur’s upcoming stops are Southern Hills CC in Oklahoma, Oakland Hills CC in Michigan, Oakmont CC in Pennsylvania and The Olympic Club in California.
“The Country Club is a special place,” Bodenhamer said. “It’s important that we go to what we think of as the cathedrals of the game.”
UGA administrators feel the same way. Colin Clawson, the UGA’s Director of Championships and Golf Operations, drew The Country Club for his first State Am in that role. “It’s intimidating, for sure, but I see it as a huge opportunity,” Clawson said. “People still talk about the last time it was at The Country Club (2012) as their favorite one. The State Am always feels like a big deal, but this is even bigger, because of how amazing the golf course is.”
UGA Executive Director Easton Folster cited “a certain amount of reverence” for the club, noting how the venue will generate energy and excitement for everyone involved.
There’s more exclusivity, too. The 125th State Am marks a return to a 156-player field, as will be the case except in the years when Soldier Hollow Golf Course’s 36-hole facility accommodates 288 golfers. More demanding regional qualifying events will bring a higher-quality field to The Country Club, although the match-play bracket will still have 64 golfers.
Those who make the final field are in for a treat. “The thing that I love so much about The Country Club is you can play it every day and I just don’t get tired of it,” said reigning club champion Jon Wright, the 2012 State Am winner. “That to me is the sign of a great golf course. I look forward to it every time … It always feels different to me.”
When play begins June 26, The Country Club will be hosting the State Amateur for the 42nd time in 125 years, but only the second time since 1975. The relationship is meaningful, according to UGA President Mike Bailey, a longtime club member and historian.
“The Country Club and the State Amateur are inexorably tied in history,” Bailey said. “It’s incredibly important for The Country Club to continue to host the championship. It would be a tragedy if the two didn’t continue to be linked.”
Bailey added, “The Country Club really enjoys giving back to the game. That’s the reason we host the State Amateur and the U.S. Women’s Amateur. We know about the special history of the golf course, and we wanted to give back to the game.”
In this century, the club is establishing a trend of hosting a major event about every five years, with the 100th Women’s State Amateur in 2006, the State Am in 2012, the Pac-12 Men’s Golf Championship in 2016, the State Am in 2023, the Pac-12 event again (presumably) later this decade and the U.S. Women’s Amateur in 2034.
The latest State Am will add another chapter to a 125-year-old story. It all started in 1899 at the club’s original Gilmer Park location, where R.B. Harkness won the title on a layout described as “a makeshift, nine-hole course in a cow pasture on the property” in Raye C. Ringholz’s book, “Centennial: The Country Club.”
The club relocated in 1905 to what’s now Forest Dale Golf Course, then moved to the permanent site near Parleys Canyon in 1921. The State Am was pushed back to October that year to allow for more maturation of the course. Von Elm beat Hal Lamb 8 and 7 in the 36-hole final match, thanks largely to an eagle-birdie-birdie start in the afternoon round.
That win launched a trend of Utah Golf Hall of Fame members earning State Am titles at The Country Club. Lamb won in 1922, ‘23 and ‘24. Ed Kingsley was a 17-year-old caddie at the club when he won his first of four championships in 1932. Four of Bill Korns’ record six titles came at the club, starting in 1941, and club member Lou North took the 1956 trophy.
The 1975 tournament would mark the State Am’s last visit until 2012 and is memorable for Don Branca’s victory as a son of the host professional, whose legacy is honored by the Tee Branca Bridge in front of the No. 11 green.
Don Branca’s second straight State Am win came when defeated former University of Utah teammate Mack Christensen 10 and 8 in the 36-hole final match, after being tied through 11 holes. “I don’t know how much of a home-course advantage it might have been, but I felt very comfortable on The Country Club course. It was home to me,” Branca said in the book “100 Years of the Utah State Amateur.”
Same story for Wright in 2012, although as a reinstated amateur at age 41, he was further removed from his Ute golf career. “I have a lot of great memories,” Wright said. “There were a lot of tough matches.”
His road through the 32-golfer bracket included a 22-hole battle with Nic Booth in the second round, a 2-and-1 win over future PGA Tour player Zac Blair in the semifinals and a 3-and-2 defeat of Christian Jensen in the final match.
Wright won again in 2014 at Ogden Golf & Country Club, scheduled as the 2024 State Am site.
PGA Tour stars such as Jon Rahm, who won the 2016 Pac-12 tournament by four strokes, and Collin Morikawa were tested by the layout that played as a par-71 that week, with the par-5 No. 3 converted into a par-4. Rahm shot 12 under par for 72 holes; 1-under was sufficient for Aaron Wise, another PGA Tour winner, to tie for 10th place.
The State Am will be the first major event at The Country Club for superintendent Eric Gifford, who produced great results with the Siegfried & Jensen Utah Open at Riverside Country Club in Provo.
Upon his arrival in August 2021, Gifford “made an impact almost immediately,” Wright said. “Last year, throughout the season, (the course) just got better and better.”
Clawson is promising a tough test for exempt players and qualifiers who make it to The Country Club, where a two-day total of 8-over-par 152 was good enough to reach a playoff to complete the 32-golfer bracket for match play in 2012. The expansion to 64 should slightly raise that number. “At least for stroke play when we tip it out, it will be incredibly difficult,” Clawson said. “We want to make sure we have the right players” for match play.
Jones, a 3-and-2 winner last year over Simon Kwon, a University of California golfer from Skyline High, hopes to be in the mix again. In late January, Jones shot 65-69-66 to win the Arizona Intercollegiate in Tucson, BYU’s first tournament of the spring season.
The validation that comes with a State Am championship “definitely carries over,” Jones said. “If I’m good enough to win the State Am, I’m good enough to play in college events and win at a high level.”
If they try to qualify, BYU teammates such as David Timmins, Tyson Shelley and Keanu Akina would become potential contenders. Utah’s Martin Leon, the 2021 State Am champion from Chile, stayed in town last summer; homegrown teammates such as Braxton Watts and Hunter Howe also are logical favorites.
The extremes of the field could include junior golf stars Cooper Jones (Zac’s brother), Parker Bunn, Kihei Akina and Boston Bracken, juxtaposed against Wright and John Owen, who made the semifinals last year at age 49.
Wright, 52, tied for first place in the Senior division of the Copper Rock Amateur in February. He would love to get into match play in the State Am and try to become the tournament’s oldest champion. “I still feel like I can be competitive,” he said.
*This feature, written by Kurt Kragthorpe, was previously published in the 2023 March issue of Fairways magazine, the official publication of the Utah Golf Association. Photo courtesy of Fairways Media/Randy Dodson.