SLEEPY HOLLOW, N.Y. – This is the beauty of amateur golf in all its altruism and earnestness – it’s your friendly neighborhood everyman atop the leaderboard at the 42nd US Mid-Amateur Championship.
“I work at a fruit stand,” quipped Harry Bolton only half joking.
Playing out of Royal Canberra Club in Australia and one of 28 international players from 19 different countries outside of the USA, Bolton is employed at a fruit grocery by a friend and fellow member at Canberra. They must be superfruits of some sort as he stands T-3 at 4 under for the 36-hole stroke play section of the event – easily within the cut for the 64-player, single-elimination match-play bracket.
Don’t let Bolton’s humility, sincerity and trademark Australian friendliness fool you; he has serious game. COVID-19 hit Australia especially hard, the shutdown coming soon after the conclusion of Harry’s outstanding Division II Newberry College career where he won numerous medals and a South Atlantic Conference championship. Only now is Bolton able to return to America and resume his amateur career in full. His 3-under 67 at formidable Sleepy Hollow Country Club set an impressive pace.
Bolton’s game plan was impeccable and his execution nigh flawless on Sunday. He hit all 14 fairways and 17 of 18 greens at Sleepy Hollow, the lone miss coming at 18 where he zoomed his approach long and left into thick rough on the short side of the flag high above hole level and faced an icy-slick green with a treacherous false front.
“I knew where I was on the leaderboard and I wasn’t about to do anything stupid,” he noted.
He played safely to the middle of the green instead of trying a far more dangerous flop shot. Smart. No. 18 is never a good place to make a mess, no matter what the tournament, but especially not a USGA national championship event. He two-putted from 30 feet, the bogey ruining his otherwise clean card, but “he got the low round of the tournament to the house,” as seminal golf writer Dan Jenkins might have said.
Bolton carded back-to-back birdies at No. 3 and 4 and then added an eagle-birdie sequence at Nos. 15 and 16, the postcard-gorgeous par 5 and par 3 that have become icons of the golf course. He can now enjoy a stress-less evening, savor his dinner, sleep in and prepare for a late tee time Monday for the start of match play.
Meanwhile, never mind that Stewart Hagestad lives a double life as a financial analyst and sizzling hot fixture on world-wide amateur golf circuits. Sure, his golf resume reads like a dream: four winning walker Cup teams in a row, low amateur in the 2017 Masters Tournament and two previous victories in the Mid-Am (2016 at Stonewall in PA and 2021 at Sankaty Head in Massachusetts). But, the dude is a monster skier.
“Check out these videos of my family and I,” he chortles gleefully, eyebrows shooting skyward as the stoke fires inside him. “We went heli-skiing at Sun Valley!”
One by one, you see Stewart and his family shredding fresh powder in virgin, untouched Idaho snow. Later on, the helicopter will drop them off further up the mountain for more runs. During the interview someone mentioned skiing in Argentina – it’s winter right now in the Southern Hemisphere – and suddenly Hagestad’s mind was high on a mountainside, his Head all-mountain skis pointed straight down the fall line ready to send it.
“The 104s or the 110s?” he pondered to himself, meaning how wide the underfoot to handle the pow. He’s tall, so the 110s are the right call. Then came the first ski dream of the season.
“Let’s go in the trees, and let’s do some bumps,” he said with relish -- enough relish to smother every hot dog at Fenway Park.
There were few bumps if any on the golf course for Hagestad. His 2-under 69 at Sleepy Hollow yesterday puts him at 3 under for the tournament, tied for fifth. Twice he carded bogeys followed immediately with a bounce-back birdie, a critical skill necessary for any tournament golfer, but especially useful in a USGA event.
It's like being a baseball pitcher, he agreed. You have to have a short memory.
“It’s all attitude,” Hagestad said.
Momentum in golf is the next stroke, and on a golf course full of “half-par” holes, Sleepy Hollow fortunes can swing as quickly as a mogul field can chew up a skier. As he transitions from stroke play to the bracket, Hagestad agreed with an indisputable truth of match-play golf: You aren’t going to play great the whole time; you just have to play well in the clutch. It’s that aggressive-yet-confident attitude combined with a mastery of a galaxy of golf shots that makes Hagestad so dangerous in any match-play tournament. Sporting a sparkling 22-4 record in match play in the USGA Mid-Am, Hagestad is one of the few players in the field that can will and opponent into submission.
Hagestad faces down criminally narrow, wildly bumped, deep-powder double black diamond ski runs with a lusty “Cowabunga!,” so Dockers-wearing zombies in pink and purple Peter Millar shirts are lunch to guys like him. And if he wins, the whole family can celebrate with a ski trip to Argentina or Chile.
Finally, keep a steady eye on Michigan’s David Szymanski, a stellar golfer and a rising star of an attorney. Szymanski’s 2-under 69 at Sleepy has him at 1 under for the tournament, tied for 20th and well within the cut for the 64-player match play bracket. He had to charge hard and late to do it.
“I bogeyed one and three with three putts, though the second one was from 50 feet and over a ridge,” he recalled.
The skid continued as the rain drizzled down morosely. A birdie at the short, par-5 sixth, the easiest hole on the course was erased and then some by back-to-back dropped shots at eight and nine.
“The bogey at eight was actually a good bogey,” Szymanski admitted. He had to replay a wedge shot that spun off the green the first time.
But Sunday’s one-hour rain delay proved the turning point.
“I had just hit my approach to 10 feet at 10 and wasn’t about to think about that putt for however long,” he noted emphatically. He made the putt and then went to the shelter to wait out the delay, checking NFL scores and delighting in the unexpected road victory of his beloved Detroit Lions over the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs.
After the real clouds cleared, it was a metaphoric cloudburst by Szymanski that catapulted him into the match play phase – three consecutive birdies at 14, 15 and 16.
“My ball was actually on one of the rails on the 14th green,” he stated energetically, describing the serpentine 20-foot, sharply double-breaking putt that started his run. With a late dive right, the ball tumbled into the cup and he was back to level par for the tournament. A textbook two-putt birdie at 15 was followed by a smooth pitching wedge to three feet at 16.
Szymanski should have ice water in his veins on a golf course. He has to face down federal appellate judges in his daily work – no easy task as federal court practice is particularly dense and detailed work. His latest case involves a constitutional issue of political import: the intersection of second-amendment rights and zoning ordinances.
So therein lies the magic of USGA amateur events and all the other “cocktail circuit” championships. These players are just like us. They’re green and grateful. They play for the love of the game. They are the beating heart of golf.
They may not be touring professionals, but to paraphrase the advertisement, these guys are good, too. And with all this happening at historic and gorgeous Sleepy Hollow, it’s Christmas in September for golfers. Don’t miss this rare and wonderful chance. You snooze, you lose -- just like in match play.