Orlando, Fla. – Don Thames is headed to match play in his first USGA Senior Amateur Championship, and it didn’t require any heroic shots or marathon playoffs.
Just to get into the field this week at Lake Nona Golf & Country Club, the 55-year-old from Rancho Murieta, Calif., needed to survive a 10-for-1 playoff at South Hills Country Club in West Covina, Calif.
When Thames qualified for the U.S. Senior Open two years ago, he holed out a wedge shot from 74 yards for a par – he had driven his tee shot out of bounds at the 18th hole at Stevinson Ranch Golf Club in Stevinson, Calif. – and then made a 3-footer on the first playoff hole to get the spot over Ric Burgess.
Thames kept the drama out of the stroke-play qualifying process on Sunday, carding a 1-under 71 on the par-72 Tom Fazio layout for a 143 total to earn one of the 64 available match-play berths.
If you had told me I was going to shoot 143 before we started, I wouldn’t have even played, said Thames. I would have taken the 143 and sat in the clubhouse.
That’s much more enjoyable than shooting a 75 and then being informed you have more golf to play against nine other competitors for one available qualifying spot.
When Thames filed his Senior Amateur entry, he chose the Southern California site rather than the one closer to home because he didn’t want to qualify a day after competing in a 54-hole tournament. With his chances of making it to Lake Nona in jeopardy, a disappointed Thames found a spot in the clubhouse bar.
A few hours and a couple of beers later, he was told to get himself ready for more golf.
Needless to say, I wasn’t really nervous, said Thames.
Half the players were eliminated after the first playoff hole. At the second playoff hole, Thames stuck a short approach to 4 feet. Despite having a tricky downhill putt, he aggressively rolled his ball into the hole for a birdie to extend the playoff with Guy McLeod. But at the next hole, a 152-yard par-3, McLeod badly pulled his tee shot. Thames coolly knocked a 9-iron shot on the green and comfortably two-putted for the spot.
I couldn’t believe it, said Thames of McLeod’s tee shot. He opened the door for me.
But as remarkable as that playoff triumph was, it can’t trump what Thames accomplished in 2008. After hitting his tee shot out of bounds at the 18th hole of his Senior Open qualifier, his chances of qualifying appeared finished. He was laying 4 in the fairway when his wife/caddie, Carole, told him he needed to hole out.
I said, ‘OK, what’s the number?’ asked Thames. She said 74 yards and I holed it.
It’s the best clutch shot I have ever hit, without a doubt.
That led to the best week of Thames’ golfing life. He not only stayed at The Broadmoor, site of the championship, but he played a practice round with Hall of Famer and two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw.
Here he was one of the greatest players … and here I am just an amateur, said Thames, who missed the cut with rounds of 78-81. He gave me so much respect. It was the dream round of my life.
The experience came after a second attempt at professional golf. Thames tried the mini-tour circuit in the early 1980s, but he quickly ended that quest after one year. He got reinstated as an amateur in 1985 and continued to play local and state events in California. When he turned 50, Thames made another attempt at pro golf, this time making it through the first stage of Champions Tour qualifying before failing to obtain one of the precious few cards at the final stage in St. Augustine, Fla.
Thames actually had turned pro a year earlier, playing one- and two-day competitions while still maintaining his regular job as a financial advisor.
I wanted to get that feel of playing for money, he said. It’s definitely a different feel.
Thames regained his amateur status for a second time in 2005 and has since enjoyed amateur golf at the senior level. A couple of weeks after surviving his qualifier, fellow Rancho Murieta member Gary Ramsden also made the Senior Amateur field at the Richmond, Calif., sectional. The club had a reception for the two golfers prior to their departure.
It worked out great for us, said Thames. The club has been very supportive.
Ramsden, however, did not get into the match-play draw after a second-round 82 left him at 13-over 157.
Meanwhile, Thames enjoyed a stress-free afternoon.
Maybe I’ll watch some [NFL] football, he said with a smile.
It sure beats preparing for a playoff.
David Shefter is a USGA communications staff writer. E-mail him with questions or comments at email@example.com.