by Ron Bellamy
Clearly, experience counts for something in an event like the U.S. Senior Amateur.
When match play begins August 27 at Eugene Country Club, the Pacific Northwest will be represented by three golfers who have a combined 18 appearances in this USGA championship.
Tom Brandes of Bellevue, Wash., and Pat O’Donnell of Happy Valley, Ore. – who reached the championship match in this tournament in 2015 and 2013 respectively – advanced safely in 36-hole stroke play qualifying on the 6,829-yard Eugene course.
Brandes, the Pacific Northwest Golf Association Hall of Famer who is playing in his sixth U.S. Senior Amateur, followed his par 72 on Saturday with a 2-over 74 on Sunday to finish in a tie for 12th in the 156-player field.
O’Donnell, in his eighth Senior Am, struggled with his irons in shooting a 5-over 77, but his two-day total of 149 was on the right side of the cutline, which turned out to be an 8-over 152, for the 64 golfers advancing to match play.
In the afternoon rounds, Jim McNelis, the Alaska Airlines pilot from Gig Harbor, Wash. playing in his fourth Senior Am, survived bogeys on three of the last four holes to shoot a 5-over for the day and stand at a 7-over 151 to reach match play for the first time.
“Experience helps,” McNelis said. “Each year you learn something about yourself and about managing the golf course. In the medal play you have to manage yourself really well.”
Monday’s matches will reduce the field to 32 golfers. Two rounds of matches on Tuesday will reduce the field to 16. Quarterfinals and semifinals will be held Wednesday, with the 18-hole championship match on Thursday.
On August 27, O’Donnell will tee off at 8:02 a.m. PDT against Buzz Fly of Memphis, Tenn. Brandes is matched at 9:50 a.m. against defending national Senior Amateur champion Sean Knapp, who survived a playoff to reach this year’s match play. McNelis plays at 10:50 a.m. against 2013 Senior Amateur champion Doug Hanzel of Savannah, Ga.
Stroke play qualifying co-medalists were Gregory Condon of Monte Vista, Colo., and Jeff Wilson of Fairfield, Calif., who had two-day totals of 139, 5-under.
Only three other golfers had two-day totals under par. Eugene’s par 3s presented a formidable challenge, with the 222-yard No. 2 hole producing only 10 birdies against 158 scores of bogey or worse, and No. 5, over water at 160 yards or more, allowing just 11 birdies against 122 scores of bogey or worse.
“The par 3s are the meat of this golf course,” Brandes said. An especially “bedeviling shot” was the tee shot over water on the No. 5 hole, with the tees pushed back to 180 yards Sunday.
“Yesterday we were hitting 8-iron, 7-iron,” Brandes said. “Today it was 4-iron, 5-iron. The group in front of me had two of three balls in the water. I put it in the water and made 4.”
Going into match play, Brandes appears confident.
“I’m hitting it pretty well,” he said. “I’m getting a little more comfortable with the course. I know in match play you see a quite a bit different golf course. They’ll move some tees around a little bit. They’ll have it back on 5 and 7 (another par 3 over water), but that’s okay. You’re just playing another guy, not the course.”
O’Donnell’s 77 included a double-bogey on the par 3 second hole when his tee shot rolled off the back of the green, and a bogey on the fifth, and just one birdie when he rolled in a 20-footer on the par 4 17th.
“I didn’t have a very good swing today,” he said. “I drove it well. I just hit a lot of bad irons. Just to get through qualifying is the hardest part, especially when you’re leaking a little bit of oil. Just qualify. That’s what we were trying to do. Keep making pars. I was happy with pars.”
McNelis, who turns 62 on Monday, said he was “leaking oil a little bit coming in. The putter was saving me, and then it ran out of steam.
“This is a tough golf course out here. The scores are relatively high. But it’s a great golf course, the greens are perfect and it’s there for the taking.’
Northwest players unable to advance to match play were Scott Hval of Portland (75-79-154), Keith Norris of Redmond, Wash. (80-74-154) Brad Karns of Vancouver, Wash. (77-79-156), Johnny Coppedge of Canby, Ore. (80-78-158), Brad Douglas of Redmond, Wash. (77-82-159), and Jerry Close of Moses Lake, Wash. (82-79-161).
Karns played in the Senior Amateur last year; Coppedge, Close, Norris and Douglas were all playing in their first USGA championship. (Larry Watts of Springfield, Ore. withdrew after nine holes Saturday after suffering a back injury.)
Hval, who has played in the U.S. Amateur three times and the U.S. Mid-Amateur five times, had opened the day in a good position, at 3-over, but struggled from the start in the second round as he began play on No. 10.
“I started out with a double-bogey, and then all hell broke loose,” he said. “I hit a lot of good shots, but the good shots that I hit, I never made a birdie, and every time I hit a bad shot I made bogey or double.”
Ron Bellamy is the former columnist and sports editor of The Eugene Register-Guard. For past golf writings visit ronbwriter.com.