By Rich Myhre Herald Writer
After winning a recent qualifier for the United States Amateur golf tournament, Mark Strickland of Mukilteo knew he had accomplished something special.
But as family and friends began bombarding his cell phone with congratulatory calls and texts, “that’s when it finally sunk in just how big this tournament is,” said the 22-year-old Strickland, a 2010 graduate of Kamiak High School and a senior-to-be on the Western Washington University golf team.
“It was,” he added, “overwhelming to see all the support.”
The U.S. Amateur, which begins its seven-day run Monday at the Atlanta Athletic Club in Johns Creek, Ga., “will be the biggest tournament I’ve ever played in,” Strickland said. “For amateur golf, this is as big as it gets. It’s the pinnacle of amateur golf.”
Indeed, only a handful of Snohomish County golfers have ever qualified for the U.S. Amateur. The county boasts a single champion, Jack Westland of Everett, who won the tournament in 1952, which was the same year he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
Strickland earned his spot in this year’s U.S. Amateur on July 22, posting a one-stroke victory in a 36-hole qualifier at the Tom Doak-designed Tumble Creek Club at Suncadia Resort outside of Cle Elum. He shot 72 and 68 for an even-par total of 140 (the course was reconfigured from par 71 to par 70 for the qualifier), and was in the first group to finish, meaning he had to wait for the rest of the field to complete their rounds.
“I went to the (driving) range with my caddy, and we were just hanging out and looking at the scores,” he said. “And I was thinking, ‘Wow, these guys aren’t going as low as I thought they would.’ But it was raining a little bit and then it started to rain a little bit harder.”
Strickland had played the first 18 holes at 2 over par, which “was pretty disappointing,” he said. “I left a lot of shots out there. I missed a couple of short putts.”
Hoping to play better for the second 18 holes, he started on No. 10 and promptly lost his tee shot out of bounds to the right, resulting in a double-bogey 6. But he rallied the rest of the way, shooting 4-under-par over the remaining holes for his victory.
Andrew Kennedy of Redmond and James Fahy of Vancouver, B.C., who finished second and third, also qualified for the U.S. Amateur.
The U.S. Amateur opens with 36 holes of stroke play. The top 64 finishers from the field of 312 then move to match play, including a 36-hole finale. The match-play rounds will be televised nationally.
Every year the U.S. Amateur brings together an elite field, with some, no doubt, headed to future stardom on the PGA Tour. “That’s what I’m excited for,” Strickland said. “I want to play against the best players and to compare myself against the best.”
Though no big paycheck awaits the winner, there is still plenty at stake. The winner receives exemptions to play in next year’s Masters, U.S. Open and British Open, and an exemption for the next five U.S. Amateurs.
With that in mind, “it’s going to be a total life-changer if I win,” Strickland said. “But I don’t really daydream about winning. I can’t think about that yet. I know those are the facts, but that’s the farthest I let myself get.”
Of course, given the magnitude of the tournament, Strickland doubts he will be perfectly calm in the minutes before he hits his first tee shot.
“I don’t think that’s possible,” he said. “You can visualize it in your head to try to get used to it, but that’s not going to cut it.
“There are early jitters in any tournament, but for this one you can probably multiply it by a 100,” he said with a laugh. “But once I hit the first tee shot, everything is going to be good.”