Defending Champion Ben Smith Leads Field for 109th Michigan Amateur
The Heather Course at Boyne Highlands Hosts; Carl’s Golfland Presenting Sponsor
HARBOR SPRINGS – The 109th Michigan Amateur Championship, being played on The Heather course at Boyne Highlands Resort and starting Monday, will be the first championship competition of the summer for defending champion Ben Smith of Novi.
Read The GolfBlogger’s The Heather Golf Course Review
The June 22-26 state championship, presented by Carl’s Golfland, will have Boyne’s safety protocols and the Golf Association of Michigan’s safety-first tournament practices in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Smith, whose spring golf schedule at Georgia Tech was cancelled amid the pandemic, said he can’t wait for the Amateur to begin.
“I’ve been able to practice and play at our facility at school this spring, but I think everybody wants to get back into competition, and this is a big one for me, it means a lot,” he said. “That’s why we practice.”
The Heather course, chosen at the National Course of the Year by the National Golf Course Owners Association in 2019, is familiar championship ground to the field, and already holds a lofty place in the state’s golf history.
The Heather has previously hosted the Michigan Amateur three times – in 1998, 2006 and 2011 for the historic 100th Michigan Amateur. It has also hosted the GAM Mid-Amateur Championship multiple times as well as an American Junior Golf Association tournament for several years, and the 54-year-old Robert Trent Jones Sr.-designed course is perhaps best known as the golf course that launched the resort golf industry in Northern Michigan.
Ken Hartmann, the senior director of competitions for the GAM, said The Heather is everything a tournament needs to define a worthy champion.
“We’ve had great Michigan Amateurs there that produced great champions, and The Heather has everything you want in a course for competition,” he said. “It’s a great design with different challenges, the 18th hole that everybody talks about and the people at Boyne know how to host golfers. We have played a lot of qualifiers and championships there in addition to the Amateurs, and it never disappoints.”
Over 630 golfers entered and the field has been pared down to 156 through qualifiers held across the state in the last few weeks.
Josh Richter, Boyne’s director of golf, is looking forward to watching the competition of the state championship and once again showing off The Heather to the best amateur golfers in Michigan.
“Realistically, we feel hosting this championship and helping to make it a special event is important for the growth of the game,” he said. “It gives us an opportunity to show our course to great golfers of all ages from the entire state and inspire others to compete. It’s important as a marketing tool, obviously too, because The Heather is a great championship golf course that represents all the quality golf that Boyne has in the state.”
Boyne, which features three resorts in Michigan with 10 golf courses, started with The Heather when the late Michigan Golf Hall of Famer Everett Kircher, in large part to keep his ski resort employees around and working during the snowless summer months of 54 years ago, decided to get into the golf business.
He sought out Jones, the most popular and successful architect of that era, and commissioned him to design The Heather. Golfers started coming in 1966 and have been since. The course is a timeless 7,118-yard gem consistently ranked among the best golf courses in Michigan and the Midwest.
“It’s a tough, great track,” Hartmann said. “What you see is what you get. The design allows us to set it up with different challenges on the holes, but you don’t have to trick it up. It makes you play the game, and to win you have to play great.”
Smith estimated he has played The Heather six times in competition.
“It’s a great golf course, and I think it benefits the players who are good ball strikers,” he said. “That bodes well for me. It is always in really good condition and for the Amateur the greens will be perfect. It’s more demanding off the tee than Oakland Hills (North course) was last year. There are more hazards, more spots you do not want to go. The greens are tough. It’s going to be a great test.”
His game plan is simple.
“For me, I want to keep it out of the hazards off the tee,” he said. “Not a lot can go wrong from the middle of the fairway, especially in match play. I’m pretty confident in my short game and wedge game, and then if I get my putter going, it can be a great week.”
A year ago, the now 20-year-old Smith held the historic Staghorn Trophy after turning back Patrick Sullivan, a University of Michigan golfer from Grosse Pointe, 2 and 1 in the final match of the 108th Michigan Amateur Championship at Oakland Hills Country Club’s North course. He reached the final match with a 2 and 1 semifinal win over defending champion Beau Breault of Hartland, who has since turned professional.
“Beating Beau in the semifinal was probably what I remember most about the tournament,” said Smith, who became just the sixth golfer in Amateur history to take stroke play medalist honors and go on to win the championship in match play. “Beau is such a strong player and he was defending.”
It’s Smith’s turn to defend this time, and he hopes to work through stroke play and get in the mix in match play.
“It’s a long week but I’m ready to go after a long layoff,” he said.
In addition to Smith, there are four other former Amateur champions who have qualified or are exempt for this year’s starting field of 156 golfers.
They include three-time champion Steve Maddalena of Jackson, who at 60, is the oldest player in this year’s starting field. He won his Amateur titles in 1980 at Belvedere Golf Club, 1990 at Meadowbrook Country Club and 1995 at Red Run Golf Club.
The others are 2006 champion Greg Davies of West Bloomfield, 2008 champion Jimmy Chestnut of Royal Oak and 2015 champion Ryan Johnson of New Boston.
An even dozen of last year’s “Sweet 16” are back, including Smith, Sullivan, 2018 runner-up Anthony Sorentino of Rochester Hills, Ian Martin of Saline, Tom Stevens of Northville, Jimmy Dales of Northville, Michael Busse of Rochester Hills, Scott Sparks of Shelby Township, 2018 stroke play medalist Andrew Walker of Battle Creek, Dan Ellis of Lansing, Scott Strickland of Bloomfield Hills and Coalter Smith of Grosse Pointe.
Other top players in the field include the last two GAM Champions, Mitchell White of Muskegon, and James Piot of Canton, as well as last year’s GAM Mid-Amateur champion Michael Coriasso of White Lake and 2017 Mid-Amateur champion John Quigley of St. Clair Shores.
The Michigan Amateur field plays stroke play Monday and Tuesday to determine a low 64 scorers to fill out the match play bracket. Two rounds of matches on Wednesday determine the celebrated “Sweet 16” final golfers, and two more rounds of matches Thursday identify a final four for the semifinals and final match on Friday.
Smith avoided having a match reach the No. 18 hole last year at Oakland Hills North, but the much-talked-about No. 18 hole on The Heather is certain to be a factor in stroke and match play. Hartmann considers the 18th, which requires strategy off the tee and an approach shot over a large pond, one of the best finishes for competitive golf in Michigan and many other places.
“It’s a really hard hole first, but it’s also right there at the finish where it can mean a bad finish and of course swing a match to extra holes or end it dramatically,” he said. “It’s a hole that gets into players’ heads before they get there sometimes. It’s intimidating and it takes a delicate tee shot and great second shot to a big green with a lot of different hole placements. They all have the shots to play the hole great because they are great players. It’s pulling them off under pressure that makes the difference.”
“The pond at 18 is one of those places you do not want to go,” he said. “it is not that hard of a shot over the pond because the green is big, but it always means something at that point. That makes it harder.”
via Greg Johnson