OMAHA, Neb. – Few amateurs in this region of the country are as accomplished as Mike McCoy. This week’s U.S. Senior Open at Omaha Country Club will be his 36th USGA championship.
He’s also a five-time Iowa Amateur champion and six-time Iowa Mid-Amateur champion. A member of the Iowa Golf Association Hall of Fame, McCoy, who turned 50 last November, has captured the association’s Player of the Year award a record 10 times. No other player in the state since the award’s inception in 1960 has won it more than three times.
So among the 28 amateurs in the Senior Open field, McCoy, who lives about two hours away from Omaha in West Des Moines, Iowa, would likely be considered the local favorite.
He certainly knows Omaha Country Club. In the past five years, he has made numerous visits to see nationally recognized instructor Tom Sieckmann, the club’s director of golf.
“The golf shots are not as hard as the walk,” said McCoy. “It’s nice to be close [to home]. I’ve got friends and family coming over.”
Should McCoy make the 36-hole cut, the caravan making the trek along Interstate 80 might get a little larger by Saturday morning.
Then again, the odds are stacked against amateurs, who have not fared well in this championship for golfers 50 and over. Since the Senior Open’s inception in 1980, only two have finished in the top 10. Both came in the inaugural championship when William C. Campbell finished second, four strokes behind champion Roberto De Vicenzo, and Ed Tutwiler tied for fifth. That year, players had to be 55 or over to compete.
The age limit was lowered to 50 a year later, but it doesn’t appear to have benefited amateurs.
The next time an amateur came remotely close to contending for the title was in 2009 at Crooked Stick Golf Club in Carmel, Ind., when two-time U.S. Mid-Amateur champion Tim Jackson owned the 36-hole lead before settling for a share of 11th place with weekend rounds of 73-76.
The Senior Open remains the only USGA “open” championship that hasn’t been won by an amateur.
“Those guys [on the Champions Tour] are so good,” said 56-year-old Doug Hanzel, of Savannah, Ga., the low amateur at last year’s Senior Open, where he tied for 53rd. “They are playing every week. The mass majority of amateurs here are working. I still have a job. If I play two or three times, that’s a pretty good week.”
McCoy, who regularly competes in elite national competitions such as the U.S. Amateur, Porter Cup, Western Amateur and Northeast Amateur, doesn’t see why an amateur can’t win. Of course, he realizes it would take a perfect storm to pull it off.
“If they play the best golf that week, they can,” said McCoy. “It would be a really special week. It would be an unusual occurrence. [But] someday it could happen.”
Several amateurs in the field have the pedigree to at least get into contention. Besides McCoy and Hanzel – who became the first golfer in USGA history to make the cut at the Senior Open and make match play in the U.S. Amateur, U.S. Mid-Amateur and USGA Senior Amateur in the same season – Jeff Wilson, Sean Knapp and past Senior Open low amateurs George Zahringer and Paul Simson are players to watch. Simson, 62, of Raleigh, N.C., is the reigning USGA Senior Amateur champion, while Zahringer, 60, of New York, N.Y., won the 2002 U.S. Mid-Amateur at 49, then the oldest champion.
Wilson, 50, of Fairfield, Calif., is a five-time USGA stroke-play qualifying medalist and the low amateur at the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach (Calif.) Golf Links.
Knapp, 51, of Oakmont, Pa., advanced to the finals of Champions Tour Qualifying School in 2011 and was a semifinalist at the 2008 and 2010 U.S. Mid-Amateurs. He has qualified for more than 30 USGA championships and battled Hanzel last year for low-amateur honors.
The rolling hills of Omaha C.C. shouldn’t affect Knapp, either. Every weekend, he plays 36 holes carrying his own bag.
He said last year’s Senior Open experience, especially playing with Hall of Famer and eight-time major champion Tom Watson, helped his preparation for the 2013 Senior Open.
“That was kind of intimidating,” said Knapp, a 12-time Western Pennsylvania Golf Association Player of the Year. “Just everything from dealing with the crowds was huge. I’m looking forward to it. I feel [this course] fits my game.”
Even if an amateur doesn’t content for the title, there are still plenty of incentives this week. The low amateur receives an exemption into next year’s U.S. Senior Open at Oak Tree Golf Club in Edmond, Okla., as well as exemptions into this year’s U.S. Amateur at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., and the U.S. Mid-Amateur at the Country Club of Birmingham (Ala.).
Hanzel took advantage of those perks in 2012, nearly defeating eventual U.S. Amateur champion Steven Fox in the round of 32 at Cherry Hills Country Club in suburban Denver.
“It’s real big,” said Hanzel. “I didn’t realize [at the time] all the exemptions you get. There’s maybe a little more pressure this year knowing all of the exemptions. But just being here is fun, playing with the professionals.”
There is also another carrot dangling for the amateurs. The USGA announced earlier this year that future USA Walker Cup Teams will have a minimum of two mid-amateurs (25 and older). With the 2013 Walker Cup Match slated for National Golf Links of America in Southampton, N.Y., in early September, competitors such as Knapp and McCoy are hoping to be in the selection mix.
Knapp qualified for next week’s U.S. Amateur Public Links at Laurel Hill Golf Club in Lorton, Va. McCoy has already played in the Sunnehanna Amateur and Northeast Amateur, and recently captured the George C. Thomas Invitational, a competition for mid-amateurs, at Los Angeles Country Club’s famed North Course.
“It’s gotten us out of town to play some golf,” said McCoy of the USGA’s decision. “It’s great for the mid-amateur [competitor] because there are more mid-amateurs now back in the [national] tournaments. I used to stay home. There wasn’t as much to play for.”
Added Knapp: “If you were low am [at the Senior Open], it would put you in the mix. My USGA résumé is strong for the last year. But I am not really worried about it. I just want to go play well and have fun. If things work out, they work out.”
One thing is for sure, all of the amateurs in the field will receive plenty of support from the Omaha community. Crowds in excess of 150,000 are expected for the week.
McCoy knows all about how a city in America’s heartland can generate buzz for the Senior Open. He was in attendance 14 years ago when Des Moines Golf and Country Club set attendance records (just short of 200,000 for the week). McCoy even served as a starter during a practice round. Back then, McCoy wasn’t thinking about playing the Senior Open.
Now he’s among the 50-and-over set.
“It’s about the only perk I can think of for turning 50,” said McCoy with a smile. “It’s going to be great. This is the top of the hill. And Omaha has done a great job.”
David Shefter is a senior staff writer with the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.