by Ron Bellamy
Johnny Coppedge admits that he certainly won’t be the best golfer in the field in the 64th U.S. Senior Amateur Championship that begins Saturday, Aug. 25, at Eugene Country Club.
But, the best athlete? Well, the 55-year-old life insurance specialist from Canby, Ore., who played quarterback at two universities, would figure to be in that discussion.
The 156-player field at the championship includes 10 golfers from around the Northwest. The region’s contingent is headlined by PNGA Hall of Famer Tom Brandes of Bellevue, Wash., and by Pat O’Donnell of Happy Valley, Ore. Both players have finished runner-up in this national championship, O’Donnell in 2013 and Brandes in 2015.
Because of Brandes’ finish in 2015, he was fully exempt into this year’s championship, and did not have to go through qualifying. On July 30, O’Donnell played in a sectional qualifier (held at Eugene Country Club) where he earned co-medalist honors in qualifying for the championship proper.
After two rounds of stroke play on Aug. 25-26, the field will be cut to 64 golfers for six rounds of single-elimination match play culminating with the championship match on Aug. 30.
“It’s an honor,” said Coppedge, a 2-handicapper who qualified by shooting a 3-over 75 at the Eugene CC sectional qualifier on July 30, claiming the final available spot by winning an improbable and unexpected seven-man playoff on the first hole.
“I respect the game,” Coppedge says. “I’m not the best golfer, and I don’t claim to be. I’m more of an athlete than I am a golfer. The bottom line is I know if I can get to the match play at Eugene, I’ll be tough. I’ll play anybody match play.”
The son of a PGA club pro, Coppedge was an Oregon prep sensation as a multi-sport athlete at Stayton (Ore.) High School.
He scored more than 1,800 career points for the basketball team and in 1982 turned down a basketball scholarship at Gonzaga to accept a football scholarship at Montana, where he also played basketball and was on the golf team.
Backing up a future NFL head coach and offensive coordinator, Marty Mornhinweg, Coppedge set school records at Montana in the last game of his sophomore season, when he attempted 62 passes and completed 35 in a 31-17 loss to Idaho State, marks that still rank third and fifth respectively on the all-time school list.
He then transferred to his dream school, the University of Oregon, walked on as a quarterback and in his junior season of 1985 backed up eventual NFL star Chris Miller, seeing action in five games.
Coppedge didn’t play football his senior year – he believed he’d been promised a scholarship, and when it wasn’t offered, he instead joined the golf team, where he played with such stars as Steve Rintoul and Tim Hval, found himself shooting 69 in qualifiers and “getting lapped,” and had “a great time.”
He played tournaments the summer after he finished school, but then life happened. He got into the life insurance business, married Laurie 25 years ago and coached their sons, Hayden and Cody, in youth sports, until they reached West Linn (Ore.) High School, where they were star athletes on championship teams in basketball (Hayden eventually walked on at Oregon) and football (playing for now-coach Chris Miller).
That didn’t leave time for the Oregon Golf Association championship circuit, but Coppedge played club championships at Oregon Golf Club when he lived in the West Linn area (having moved to Canby, he now plays at Willamette Valley Country Club) and won a couple times.
Not long ago, a friend suggested that he try to qualify for the U.S. Senior Amateur, noting that at age 55 Coppedge would be one of the youngest players in the field, and that it would be held at Eugene Country Club, a course he’d played often while at the University of Oregon.
The ever-competitive Coppedge was hooked on the idea. “I’ve been telling guys for six months ‘I’m going to qualify for this thing,’” he said. “They’d look at me, like, ‘Really?’”
To test his nerves, Coppedge entered the qualifier for the U.S. Senior Open at Waverley Country Club, shot a 76 that could have been better and felt confident about the Senior Amateur qualifier. Then about a month before that event he came down with a stomach ailment, and his game, relying on his strong iron play and short game to overcome a historically balky driver, hit a rough patch.
“I was playing like a dog,” he said. He phoned Don Krieger, father of Scott, his UO golf coach, and a mentor in the insurance business, and got a couple of tips over the phone. In the qualifier, his game held together, but when he finished at 75, he figured he was out of the running for the fifth qualifying spot.
Then, fate intervened. Tim O’Neal, a former OGA Mid-Amateur champion who shot 73, was assessed a two-stroke penalty for reporting late for his tee time, and suddenly seven golfers who shot 75 were in a playoff. On the first hole of the playoff, a par-4, Coppedge reached the green in regulation and was the last man standing, after other players missed birdie putts, with a chance to sink a 14-footer to reach the U.S Senior Am.
He made it. With some help.
His son, Cody, a UO junior, was his caddie. “He made a great read,” Coppedge said. “He said a ball out. I thought it was more. I played it a ball out and he was dead right.”
In the moment, Coppedge said, he’d thought of his late father, Jack, the longtime pro at Santiam Golf Club in Aumsville, Ore.
“When I was born, my dad said I was going to win the U.S. Open,” he said. “Well, my dad passed away 19 years ago. I thought, ‘It’s not the U.S. Open, but it’s the U.S. Senior Am, and it’s as close as I’m going to get.’
“I was like, ‘Dad, help me.’ When I hit that putt, I think he had a play in it too.”
A look at the rest of the Pacific Northwest contingent that will compete in the 2018 U.S. Senior Amateur
* Tom Brandes, Bellevue, Wash. Brandes, who turns 62 on the first day of the championship, is the only exempt entry among the Northwest contingent by virtue of his runner-up finish in the 2015 U.S. Senior Amateur, when Pat O’Donnell caddied for him the final match.
For Brandes, this will be a homecoming of sorts – he first played golf as a freshman at Eugene’s Marist High School, though he gave up the sport a year later to focus on soccer, which he played collegiately at Seattle University. Iconic Eugene Country Club head pro Wendell Wood once saw Brandes hitting balls and said, “Just go play, kid,” and Brandes did that, and has never taken a lesson.
The dominant senior amateur golfer in the Northwest, Brandes was inducted into the Pacific Northwest Golf Hall of Fame in 2015. He has played in five U.S. Senior Amateur championships and numerous other USGA events and, on top of that, was runner-up in the 2013 British Senior Amateur. He’s won five PNGA Senior Men’s Amateurs, is a six-time PNGA Senior Men’s Player of the Year, and has won his club championship at Seattle’s Rainier Golf & Country Club 15 times.
* Pat O’Donnell, 64, Happy Valley, Ore. The gold standard for senior amateur golfers in Oregon, O’Donnell is a two-time Oregon Golf Association and PNGA Senior Men’s Player of the Year.
O’Donnell is a five-time Oregon Senior Amateur champion, winning three straight from 2014 through 2016, and has won nine Oregon Senior stroke play championships.
He is experienced in USGA championships. He was the runner-up in the 2013 U.S. Senior Amateur, and is playing in the championship for the eighth time overall, and seventh consecutive time. He also played in the 1972 U.S. Amateur and twice in the U.S. Senior Open.
O’Donnell shot a 1-under 71 in the qualifier at Eugene Country Club last month to share medalist honors. How low can he go? He shot his age last year at 63.
* Jim McNelis, Gig Harbor, Wash. McNelis, who turns 62 on Aug. 27, the first day of match play, was the medalist in the qualifier at Tacoma Country & Golf Club, shooting a 1-under 71.
McNelis has extensive experience in USGA championships – he has played in three U.S. Senior Amateurs, most recently last year, and three U.S. Mid-Amateur championships, most recently in 2011. He’s played in the British Amateur and Senior Amateur, and played in the 2011 U.S. Senior Open, where he had a practice round with Ben Crenshaw and Fuzzy Zoeller.
McNelis won the 2017 Washington State Senior Men’s Amateur title in a seven-hole playoff and was runner-up this year.
A longtime pilot for Alaska Airlines, McNelis was taught to fly by the same teacher who taught him golf – Betty Hicks, runner-up in the 1948 and 1954 U.S. Women’s Open.
* Scott Hval, 57, Portland. Born in Eugene, the dentist is a member of a prominent Oregon golf family. His late father, Gary, was a great Oregon junior player who won the OGA Juniors title in 1955. His brother, Tim, is the PGA head professional at Portland Golf Club.
A three-time Oregon Senior Amateur champion, Scott has also won Oregon Amateur and Oregon Mid-Amateur titles. He played in three U.S. Amateur championships (2001, 2003 and 2005) and five U.S. Mid-Amateur championships, most recently in 2012. He shot a 1-over 73 to qualify at Eugene.
* Larry Watts, 59, Springfield, Ore. Co-medalist in the qualifier at Eugene with a 1-under 71 to qualify for his first U.S. Senior Amateur, having recently regained his amateur status. A middle school teacher and administrator as well as the golf coach at Thurston High School in Springfield, Ore., Watts plays at Emerald Valley Golf & Resort in Creswell, Ore. and in the summer he caddies at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort.
* Brad Karns, 57, Vancouver, Wash. Qualified in Eugene with a 1-over 73. Karns won the 2016 Washington State Senior Men’s Amateur and was the medalist in the Oregon qualifier for the U.S. Senior Amateur last year.
* Jerry Close, 57, Moses Lake, Wash. Qualified at Tacoma Country & Golf Club by shooting a three-over 75 and then surviving a playoff. A retired member of the U.S. Air Force, Close is a five-time senior club champion and former overall club champion who plays 200 rounds a year. This is his first USGA championship.
* Keith Norris, 61, Redmond, Wash. Norris, who moved to Washington from California in April and is a member at Sahalee Country Club, qualified by shooting a 2-over 74 at Tacoma Country & Golf Club. A standout high school golfer in Buffalo, N.Y. and long-suffering Buffalo Bills fan, as a youth Norris was twice an alternate for the U.S. Junior Amateur (but didn’t make it in) and played two years at Temple University. A 1-handicap, this will be his first USGA championship.
* Brad Douglas, 56, Redmond, Wash. A five-time club champion at Tam O’Shanter Golf & Country Club in Bellevue, Douglas qualified at Tacoma Country & Golf Club by shooting a 1-over 73 to reach his first USGA championship. A high school golfer at Snohomish (Wash.), Douglas largely gave up the game after graduation until his 40s, when he began playing events in the Pacific Northwest PGA pro-am series and Washington State Golf Association events. A 2-handicap, Douglas made several previous attempts to qualify for USGA events – the U.S. Open, U.S. Senior Open and Senior Amateur. He had a breakthrough season in 2017, winning the Senior Division of the Bremerton (Wash.) City Amateur and the Senior Division of the Ft. Lewis Amateur, and winning the net division of the WSGA Best-Ball Championship.
Ron Bellamy is the former columnist and sports editor of The Eugene Register-Guard. For past golf writings visit www.ronbwriter.com.