Richmond, Texas — When Randal Lewis began playing golf at age 17, the U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship did not exist.
So he dreamed of possibly winning a U.S. Amateur. But Lewis’ 20s, 30s and 40s passed without a national championship, including the U.S. Mid-Amateur, which was first played in 1981.
In 1996, Lewis’ best chance came and went in a 3-and-2 Mid-Amateur final loss to John Spider Miller at Hartford Golf Club in West Hartford, Conn.
Once Lewis turned 50, he thought his next best — and probably last — opportunity would to be the USGA Senior Amateur, for which he becomes eligible for in May when he turns 55.
The thought of winning the U.S. Amateur was gone a long time ago, he said, and I had my crack at the Mid-Am, I thought.
This week at Shadow Hawk Golf Club, Lewis used the wisdom of that loss 15 years ago and wielded a reliable putter to finally make his dream come true, defeating 31-year-old Kenny Cook, 3 and 2 in the scheduled 36-hole final on Thursday.
This one … , he said, tightly gripping the Robert T. Jones Jr. Memorial Trophy and letting the emotion wash out of him, this one really means a lot to me. At this stage of my career, I really thought my best chance would come at the Senior Am. I think that’s what makes this one so special. I didn’t see this one coming.
At 54, Lewis became the oldest U.S. Mid-Amateur champion by five years. The average age of the previous 31 U.S. Mid-Am winners was 34.8 years old. Of the possible 126 holes of regulation Lewis could play to work his way through the match-play bracket, he played 124.
One of my biggest concerns this week was the heat, could I hold up from an endurance standpoint, he said. It was tough, I am tired.
The real heat came from Lewis, who could not be cooled in his final three matches in which he led
Just the draw I had to go through, to beat Mike [McCaffrey, the Mid-Am medalist], then Nathan [Smith, the reigning two-time champion] and then Kenny, who is a heckuva player. I needed to play the golf of my life to get through them.
Of the 70 holes he played against that trio, he led 59 of them, and trailed in just three.
There was some shots where he was 95, 100 yards behind me, Cook said. But the guy can hit golf shots, hit a good solid ball.
If Lewis learned anything from that 1996 loss it was not to think about the Masters invitation that has been extended to the championship winner since David Eger’s triumph in 1988.
I just didn’t think about it [this time], he said. I got a good night’s sleep and then came out and played one hole at a time.
Besides that was not the dream.
Being a USGA champion was.
In making his travel plans for the U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship, Lewis specifically did not make his return flight home to Michigan until Friday morning – the day after the conclusion of the championship.
The last time Lewis made such plans was in 1996, which also was the last time he reached the final match.
In ’96, to be honest I was playing some of the best golf of my life, so I went in thinking I might have a chance to win, he said. This time, I just did it that way. I certainly didn’t think I would finish like this.
Standing By Her Man
Had success played out accordingly for Lisa Cook this week, she would have been playing in the U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur Championship final at Bayville Golf Club in Virginia Beach, Va. Lisa Cook, however, failed to advance to match play.
Any disappointment Cook took away from her first USGA experience was quickly replaced by excitement for her husband, Kenny, who reached the U.S. Mid-Amateur final at Shadow Hawk Golf Club.
Lisa Cook arrived in Texas late Wednesday night and was on site at 7:30 a.m. CDT when her husband teed off against Lewis in the scheduled 36-hole final.
I think it’s more nerve-wracking for me, said Lisa as she walked the 10th hole of Thursday’s morning round. When you’re playing, there are always nerves on the first couple of holes, but then you calm down. Here, I’m just standing around worrying about every shot, and it’s out of my control.
Prior to this year’s run, the 31-year-old Kenny Cook, of Noblesville, Ind., has not been a household name in national championships. He played in the 2003 and 2009 U.S. Amateurs and made his U.S. Mid-Amateur debut in 2009 at Kiawah Island Resort. Cook’s career USGA match-play record was 2-2 entering the week.
I think, just like a lot of players, Kenny just needed the opportunity, said Josh Sroufe, Cook’s friend from Anderson, Ind., who arrived on Tuesday. If you’ve ever watched him play you can know he’s got all the shots in his bag. He came here with the mindset of winning this tournament. He didn’t come just to compete, he came to excel.
That he did.
Cook was 2 down after the second hole against Lewis and managed to square the match at the 14th hole. Two down heading into the afternoon 18 holes, Cook only managed to cut Lewis’ lead in half before losing the 27th and 29th holes to fall 3 down.
Aside from the outcome, Lisa Cook believes this week’s experience may spur Kenny to play more competitively.
When he’s playing well, he can beat anybody as we’ve seen this week, said Lisa, who, like her husband, played collegiately at Ball State University. He definitely practices more than he plays. But I hope this shows him
Cook agreed afterward, saying that tasting competition at this level is something he wants to experience again.
I’d be lying if I said no, he said. This will definitely persuade me to work harder.
En route to the final, Cook was calculating in his wins. He led 66 of the 80 holes he played and trailed just one hole. Only one of his first five matches reached the 18th hole.
Cook, a quiet, even-keeled player, said he appreciated the efforts his friend Sroufe and his wife made to support him. When asked what it meant to have Lisa fly in on Wednesday night, Cook fought back tears, just saying I knew she was coming.
Since 1988, when the Augusta National Golf Club began inviting the U.S. Mid-Amateur champion, no Mid-Am champion has made the cut at the following year’s Masters, although Nathan Smith came very close in 2004, missing by a shot. … The championship final was a match of two Mid-American Conference alums: Lewis from Central Michigan and Cook from Ball State. Lewis said that never came up during the match…Lewis’ 15 years between U.S. Mid-Am final appearances easily broke the record of seven held by Tim Jackson (1994-2001) and Jerry Courville (1995-2002) … Last year, Carol Robertson lost to Meghan Stasi 2 down in the U.S. Women’s Mid-Am Championship final at Wichita (Kan.) Country Club. Meanwhile, Robertson’s husband, Jason, missed the match-play cut at the U.S. Mid-Amateur at Atlantic Golf Club in Bridgehampton, N.Y. This year, in a case of role reversal, Kenny Cook lost to Lewis in Thursday’s final, while his wife, Lisa, did not advance from stroke play at the Women’s Mid-Amateur at Bayville Golf Club … In Cook’s first five matches, he trailed for only one hole. In Thursday’s final, Cook lost the first hole, squared the match at the 14th and 15th holes of the morning round, but otherwise trailed for 32 holes. … Prior to Lewis, there had only been eight U.S. Mid-Am winners over the age of 40, George Zahringer being the oldest (49) in 2002.
Stuart Hall is a North Carolina-based freelance writer whose work has appeared previously on USGA championship websites.