(Reposted with permission of the USGA.)
By Tom Mackin
By the third extra hole of his semifinal match in the 2015 U.S. Senior Amateur against Steve Liebler of Irmo, S.C., Tom Brandes thought the two might just play on forever. So he went for the green in two on the 507-yard par 5, and the decision paid off.
His shot narrowly cleared a bunker, landing just off the front-right edge of the green. He chipped to a foot for a conceded birdie, and when Liebler missed his own birdie putt, the match was over.
“I said to myself, ‘You know what, I’m going to win or lose this thing right now,'” said Brandes, 59, of Bellevue, Wash. “That’s why I hit 3-wood. I had 210 yards to cover the front bunker. After that I didn’t worry about it. I had the number and a little hurting wind, so I knew I could take 3-wood and get it there.”
A par on the second hole earned Liebler a lead he maintained until the 13th hole, when Brandes returned the match to all square with a par. Clutch up and downs by both players highlighted the next seven holes.
“On the third extra hole, I expected his putt to definitely go in,” said Brandes. “I mean how good was his putt (for par) on the first extra hole? How good was the chip (from just off the front of the green to 2 feet) on the second extra hole? I was fully expecting him to make the last putt. In fact, I was looking at my (yardage) book thinking what I was going to hit on the next hole.”
Brandes also benefited from a lucky bounce on the 18th hole. He pulled his tee shot left and the ball caromed off a tree and back into the fairway. “I planned that,” he laughed. “I called the bank shot.”
The pressure of playing extra holes to reach the final of a national championship didn’t faze Brandes. “I don’t think about it,” he said. “I love golf. The way I thought about it was hey, I’m getting to play more holes at a great golf course. You kind of detach yourself from the moment. I’m just playing golf. That’s how I try to remain calm.”
A brief rain delay when the match reached the 10th green also didn’t affect the Pacific Northwest native.
“I love playing in overcast conditions and no sun,” he said. “It didn’t bother me at all. I’m a picker, not a digger, so I think that comes from growing up in the Northwest. Conditions were fine, the course just got really long because of the dampness.”
He also didn’t realize until the first green that he and Liebler had played together during the 2012 USGA Men’s State Team Championship at Galloway National Golf Club, in nearby Galloway Township, N.J.
“I knew he looked familiar but it took me a while to figure it out,” he laughed. “The Washington team was paired with the South Carolina that year (the teams tied for 13th). I told him about it on the first green and he remembered, too. It’s a small world.”
With a spot in the finals, Brandes has easily exceeded his two previous appearances in the U.S. Senior Amateur. In 2011, he lost 1 up in the Round of 64 to eventual champion Louis Lee, of Heber Springs, Ark., at Kinloch Golf Club in Manakin-Sabot, Va. In 2014, he reached the Round of 16 at Big Canyon Country Club in Newport Beach, Calif., before losing, 2 and 1, to Michael Turner, of Sherman Oaks, Calif.
Brandes, a five-time Washington State Golf Association Senior Men’s Player of the Year, brings a long list of victories into the final against Chip Lutz, including the Washington State Senior Open in 2011 and four consecutive Washington State Senior Amateur Championships from 2011 through 2014. He also was runner-up to George Zahringer by one stroke in the 2013 Seniors Amateur Championship at Royal Aberdeen.
“I have had a great year this year,” said Brandes, who won the 2015 Washington State Mid-Amateur. “All of my buddies back home are telling me I can win this. Now I wasn’t going to be Tiger Woods coming here expecting to win. But I’ve been playing well, so we’ll see where it gets me.”
New Jersey native Tom Mackin is a frequent contributor to USGA websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.