CASHIERS, N.C. – For 35 years, Doug Hanzel has been chasing a USGA championship trophy.
Ever since he qualified for his first event, the 1978 U.S. Amateur at Plainfield (N.J.) Country Club, Hanzel has dreamed of winning a national championship.
He is realistic: winning six consecutive matches against elite competition isn’t easy. It takes skill and occasionally a little luck.
And Hanzel, who graduated from Kent State in 1979, was focused more on his future career in the medical field than on his golf game when he played that U.S. Amateur in ’78.
But lately, Hanzel, a pulmonary critical-care physician, has scaled back his workload, which has provided more time for golf.
He has qualified for the last three U.S. Senior Opens, earning low-amateur honors in 2012 and 2013, and last year, the 56-year-old Savannah, Ga., resident made USGA history as the first player to qualify for match play at the U.S. Amateur, U.S. Mid-Amateur and USGA Senior Amateur in the same year. He took eventual U.S. Amateur champion Steven Fox to the 18th hole in their second-round match at Cherry Hills Country Club in suburban Denver.
Hanzel also advanced to the semifinals of the Senior Amateur last fall.
That run – the entire season, for that matter – provided the confidence and motivation for Hanzel to make a run at the 2013 Senior Amateur title at Wade Hampton Golf Club.
On Thursday, Hanzel fulfilled that dream. He knocked off medalist Chip Lutz, 3 and 2, in the semifinals and then defeated Pat O’Donnell by the same margin in the final.
In his 20th USGA event, Hanzel could finally call himself a national champion.
“They can’t take that away from you,” said Hanzel, fighting his emotions after being handed the Senior Amateur Championship Trophy. “I’m at a loss for words. I know you get a lot of perks for winning, but the perk for me is to have your name on a USGA trophy.
“The Senior Amateur, I thought I could win. I thought I had enough game to win. But to do it is something else because you have to win six matches. That’s hard.”
Three days ago, Hanzel nearly was sent home in the first round. He bogeyed the 18th hole and was forced into extra holes by David Pohlmann. Out of character, Hanzel decided to be aggressive on the 19th hole, the par-5 first at Wade Hampton. He had laid up earlier, but chose to go for the green in two with a hybrid. His ball landed just short of the green and he made a winning birdie.
“I don’t think I was in any trouble during that match, but anytime you go to extra holes, it can go any way,” said Hanzel. “We don’t play match play all that much, so sometimes it does take a little getting used to.”
Hanzel got on a roll over his next five matches, never going past the 17th hole. He won his third-round match, 7 and 5.
“I’ve learned not to get ahead of myself with the match play,” he said. “Sometimes you get passive in match play and are afraid to go after pins because you’re afraid to make a bogey. I kind of know how aggressive to be at times.”
Unlike some competitors in this year’s field who briefly turned pro and later got their amateur status back, Hanzel never had any professional aspirations. From the time he entered Kent State, he wanted to be a physician like his older brother. A native of the Cleveland area – he grew up in Orange Village – Hanzel graduated from Kent State in 1979. He went on to medical school at Wright State in Ohio and did his residency at the Cleveland Clinic.
Twenty-four years ago, he moved to Savannah to escape the cold winters. It didn’t hurt that there was year-round golf, but Hanzel actually took a brief hiatus from competitive golf to focus on his medicine. He still managed to qualify for the U.S. Amateur in five different decades (1978, ’79, ’80, ’86, ’94, ’95, ’96, 2001, ’06 and 2012) without much success.
But since turning 55, Hanzel has enjoyed a renaissance, especially on the senior circuit. Last year, he won the Georgia State Senior Amateur and was the low amateur at the U.S. Senior Open. This year, he was the only amateur to make the cut in the Senior Open at Omaha (Neb.) Country Club.
Through it all, he has battled Type I diabetes, which was first diagnosed 15 years ago during a routine doctor’s visit. For the last seven years, Hanzel has needed insulin shots and he wears a pump on the golf course to monitor his blood-sugar levels.
Wednesday’s weather delay proved to be a major blessing as he woke up with a level of 42. A normal reading is between 90 and 100
“I didn’t feel well,” he said. “It was just a bump in the road. You just learn to deal with it.”
Hanzel carries sugar tablets and makes sure to drink sports drinks. It’s much easier to play when his levels are high than when they dip into the 30s and 40s.
“Even my wife keeps asking me, ‘Are you OK?’” said Hanzel. “If it goes low, you’ve got issues.”
Thankfully for him, the only issues Hanzel created were for his opponents.
Odds and Ends
Despite receiving an exemption into next week’s U.S. Mid-Amateur at the Country Club of Birmingham (Ala.) for being a finalist, Pat O’Donnell said he would have to turn it down. “I am out of [vacation] time,” said O’Donnell, who works as a maintenance analyst at Boeing. “I am kind of down to about 38 dollars here.” … Hanzel will play the Mid-Amateur, having been previously exempt as the low amateur at the U.S. Senior Open … Hanzel said he likely would use his U.S. Amateur exemption next year to play at Atlanta Athletic Club … Hanzel stayed this week with longtime friend Richard Moore, who owns a home at Wade Hampton. … Hanzel wore a long-sleeved red shirt for the semifinals and final, but said he’s not superstitious. “I actually brought a short-sleeve out this afternoon, but it got kind of cool, so I left the red on,” he said. … O’Donnell is excited to be exempt for the 2014 Senior Amateur at Big Canyon C.C. His brother lives in Murrieta, Calif., and he has friends who are members of the Newport Beach club.
David Shefter is a USGA senior staff writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.