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Len Ziehm On Golf

Let’s not forget about the U.S. Mid-Am

The U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship could get lost in the shuffle with the Ryder Cup coming to town just two weeks later. That might be understandable, but I hope it doesn’t happen.

Chicago, in particular, and the Midwest, in general, need more big tournaments each year – not less. And, make no doubt about it, the U.S. Mid-Am is a big tournament. It’ll be played at Conway Farms and Knollwood Club, in Lake Forest, from Sept. 8-13.

Conway, which will host the bulk of the competition, landed the Mid-Am before it was awarded the PGA Tour’s BMW Championship for 2013. This Mid-Am, though, will add to Conway’s comparatively brief but already rich tournament history. Designed by Tom Fazio and opened in 1991, Conway has already hosted tons of college events – among them the Big Ten and NCAA Championship; a U.S. Open sectional and one U.S. Golf Assn. national championship, the U.S. Junior in 1998, when James Oh defeated Aaron Baddeley in the title match.

Knollwood is older – a Colt Alison design that opened in 1924 – and its tournament history isn’t as rich but it did host Chicago’s only other Mid-Am – in 1982 when Elgin’s Bill Hoffer won the title.

Both these private clubs are among the very best in the entire country – not just the Chicago area.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had a better combination of courses,’’ said Bill McCarthy, the U.S. Golf Association’s director for both this Mid-Am and the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship. Over 500 volunteers, many from the two clubs, have stepped forward to help in the staging of this Mid-Am.

Here is why it is important.

The U.S. Golf Assn. long ago saw a need for a national championship for serious amateur players after they turned 25. Hence, the Mid-Am was born 31 years ago. Post-college amateurs still need something like this. They may not be as good as most professionals their age but their interest in competition is there. The USGA had a record 5,271 entries for the 1997 Mid-Am. Fifteen years later the tourney drew a more modest 3,810, but that is still 67 more than were accepted in 2011 when Randal Lewis, of Alma, MI., won the title at Shadow Hawk in Richmond, Tex.

“This tournament is for players for whom the game is truly an avocation, a business card, a celebration of golf at its best,’’ said Gene McClure, the championship chairman and a USGA executive committee member. Plus, the Mid-Am is one of the big events in which there is no admission charge. In fact, spectators are encouraged to come. That makes it special, too.

Most important, the players considered it a big deal. Todd Mitchell, the amateur star from Bloomington, IL., gave me proof of that after he tied for third in the recent Illinois State Amateur at The Links of Kokopelli in downstate Marion. Mitchell won the Illinois Am in 2002 and 2003 and has been a consistent contender ever since against much younger players, but the Mid-Am holds a bigger place in his heart.

In 2008 Mitchell went to the title match of the U.S. Mid-Am at Milwaukee Country Club.

“I had never advanced that far. It was a very special year,’’ said Mitchell. “It was a fantastic feeling, and nothing since then has been close.’’

Mitchell isn’t assured a place this year. He was first alternate in the qualifier at Piper Glen, in Springfield. There will still be a big Illinois contingent in the field at Conway. The state had three qualifiers, and they advanced 13 in-state residents to the Mid-Am finals.

Scott Hasley, of Winnetka; John Wright, Aurora; Matt Olson, Chicago, Chad Arsich, Mokena; and Nick Schenk, St. Charles, made it from one qualifier at Chicago Highlands. Andrew Price, Lake Forest; Scott Rowe, Hinsdale; Brian Silvers, Byron; Michael Vansistine, Caledonia; and Richard Balla, St. Charles, survived the qualifier at Mauh-Nah-Tee-See Club in Rockford; and Tim Sheppard, East Peoria; John Ehrgott, Peoria; and Scott Rech, Chicago, made it at Piper Glen.

The winner of the Mid-Am gets an invitation to the Masters. That perk led to the last winner, Lewis, becoming the oldest first-time Masters participant and oldest-ever Mid-Am champion. He was 54 when he shot 81-78 to miss the cut at Augusta National in April.

“I didn’t play well,’’ said Lewis. “Augusta was so long and you got no roll. I had to lay up on all the par-5s.’’

Still, the experience produced memories for a lifetime. He played with Tom Watson, Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson, among others. His practice round with Mickelson came a week before the tournament, before 50,000 people streamed through the gates. “Surreal’’ was how Lewis described it.

Bubba Watson did a good job of keeping Lewis loose during the Masters’ popular Par-3 Contest, when he was surprised to find some of the spectators standing as close to three feet from him.

Then came the start of the tournament itself, when Lewis was paired with Jose Maria Olazabal and Robert Garrigus. His first tee shot was maybe his last highlight from the Masters.

“Garrigus hit his first drive way left and Olazabal went right. I killed mine right down the middle,’’ recalled Lewis, who comes from a town with a population of 9,800). He spent seven weeks of last winter in Florida to prepare for his week at the Masters.

“When I got back to Michigan I was a little depressed,’’ he admitted. “There was quite a letdown after the Masters.’’

That was understandable, but didn’t detract from his play last year at Shadow Hawk, when he whipped a field of mostly younger guys. Lewis had lost in the Mid-Am final in 1996 and was eliminated in the semifinals in 1999. He wasn’t thwarted last year, however.

“The adrenalin kicked in there,’’ said Lewis of the time immediately after he found himself in contention. “I didn’t know if that chance would ever come again. I didn’t want to let it slip away. I played as hard as I ever have in my life.’’

His game hasn’t been the same since. He pulled a hamstring a week before the U.S. Senior Open in August. It was held in his native Michigan, and Lewis was also battling “horrible’’ tendinitis in his left hand that required a cortisone shot.

“I had nine on one hole,’’ he admitted, and his health concerns limited his preparation for his Mid-Am title defense. His main tuneup was the U.S. Amateur last month in Denver.

This Mid-Am will be the 59th USGA championship held in Illinois, the most recent being the 2011 U.S. Girls Junior at Olympia Fields. The 264-man starting field features 27 exempt players. The others were determined in 64 nation-wide qualifying rounds.

Stroke play qualifying rounds will be held at both Conway Farms and Knollwood on Sept. 8 and 9, and match play will be conducted at Conway from Sept. 10-13. The championship match will be over 36 holes.