NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. – Mark Nickeas is definitely what one would call a late bloomer when it comes to golf. Although he grew up minutes from Royal Birkdale in Southport, England, he never seriously picked up the game until he had moved to the United States and retired from another popular sport.
For 13 years, Nickeas played professional soccer, first for Plymouth Argyle and Chester City in England’s second division – soccer’s version of Triple-A baseball – and later in the now-defunct North American Soccer League (NASL) with Los Angeles, Vancouver and San Jose. He also played a season in the Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL) with Dallas.
Nickeas, a first-time U.S. Senior Amateur competitor this week at Big Canyon Country Club, turned professional at 16 after graduating high school and was in Liverpool’s apprenticeship program as a defender. While a junior player with Plymouth Argyle, he once played against the legendary Pelé when his Santos team visited for a friendly match on a European tour from Brazil.
After a couple of seasons with Plymouth Argyle and Chester City, Nickeas was loaned to the Los Angeles Skyhawks in 1977 to gain more experience. Nickeas compared it to baseball players competing in Winter League ball in the Caribbean or Venezuela.
In Los Angeles, Nickeas met his American-born wife, Sherrie, and the couple spent two more seasons in England until Nickeas’ contract with Chester City expired. He returned to the U.S. permanently in 1979, first with the Los Angeles Aztecs and then the Vancouver Whitecaps from 1980-84.
Nickeas and his family settled in Westlake Village, Calif., where his son, Mike, grew up playing baseball. Mike, now 31, was drafted in the fifth round of the Major League draft by the Texas Rangers in 2004 and he remains in professional baseball. A catcher known for his defense, Nickeas played with Triple-A Buffalo (a Toronto Blue Jays’ affiliate) this year, hitting .207 with three homers and 17 RBI in 49 games. This was the first season in the last four that he wasn’t called up to the big leagues, where he owns a lifetime batting average of .177 in 74 games (Mets and Blue Jays), with two homers.
Since he wasn’t a September call-up, Mike agreed to caddie for his dad, and Nickeas posted a 3-over 75 on Sunday for a 36-hole total of 148, which puts him safely inside the cutline for match play.
It was a great experience to have him on the bag, said Nickeas, who won the 2011 California Golf Association Senior title at Saticoy Country Club.
Nickeas, who turns 58 next month, also qualified for the 2010 U.S. Senior Open at Sahalee C.C. in suburban Seattle and qualified for last year’s U.S. Senior Amateur, only to be forced to withdraw when he wife became ill.
With the championship in Southern California this year, Nickeas made it a goal to qualify. Big Canyon is a two-hour drive from their home in Ventura County.
Nickeas still follows soccer closely and caught Liverpool’s game Saturday in the Premier League before his afternoon stroke-play round.
I still stay in touch with a lot of the guys and watch a lot of it on TV, said Nickeas. It’s huge now. All the games are on now. It’s great.
His next goal is to see his son qualify for a USGA championship. He says Mike is gifted enough to accomplish it.
He hits it a mile and has great hands, said Mark. Hopefully one day I can carry his bag for him in one of these.
Veteran Small Befuddled Despite Advancing
Allan Small, 63, of Florham Park, N.J., had two ways of looking at his round on Sunday. Despite making six birdies, he shot 3-over 75. Or he could turn it around and consider that, despite a five-putt green and a four-putt green, he shot 75.
That’s right – nine strokes on the green in two holes, not to mention a pair of three-putts. No wonder Small was somewhat shell-shocked as he described the round he had just completed, which added up to a cumulative 36-hole score of 147, two strokes inside the match-play cut of 149. .
It’s the biggest test of my mental fortitude I’ve ever had to deal with, said Small, the former president of the Metropolitan Golf Association who has competed in 22 USGA championships, all of them since he turned 41. I had just missed a 2-footer for a bogey on the fourth hole, and I don’t know if that affected me or not.
Small had an 11-foot sidehill putt for par on the par-4 fifth. It was a little right-to-lefter, and I knocked it 2 feet past. Then I knocked the next one 2 feet past, and the next one, and the next one. I kept waiting for someone to say, lag it!
Small gathered himself to birdie the next hole, then parred in on his outward nine. He made birdies on Nos. 11 and 12, and then, faced with a 15-foot downhill putt on No. 13, he four-putted to wipe out the back-to-back birdies. He salvaged his round – and his match-play berth – by birdieing Nos. 14 and 17, the latter a 25-foot putt with a break Small estimated at 6 feet, dying it into the hole to make match play for the fourth time in his four Senior Amateur starts. He has won his first match and lost in the Round of 32 all three previous times.
It’s safe to say he has never entered match play in such a conundrum.
I don’t know what to do [on Monday], said Small, who has played in two U.S. Senior Opens, in 2006 and 2011. I’ve never been in this position before because I am using a new stroke. Once I missed one, I started missing and missing. But obviously, I made some birdie putts, too.
Small decided to revamp his putting stroke after he took 35 putts in the Senior Amateur qualifier. I said, I can’t go there and do anything if I’m putting like this, he said.
Small had gone to a heavy putter in 2006, but he returned to his longtime Ping putter and adopted a stance with his arms extended away from his body (like Justin Leonard, Small said) in advance of this championship.
I’m not sure if I will try to find a heavy putter, said Small. Tomorrow’s match play, and I’m not going to tell them not to give me 1-footers.
Member Dubois Sneaks Into Match Play
At one point on Sunday, it looked as though Big Canyon Country Club member Don Dubois would be watching the rest of the championship from the sidelines. Dubois, 55, of Newport Beach, turned at 2-over 38 and was at 5 over for 27 holes.
I knew I had to shoot at least 1 under [on the inward nine] just to get in the playoff, said Dubois, who is competing in his 12th USGA championship. I had to be patient and I was hitting the ball well. So I knew if I had a couple of good things happen I would be all right.
Dubois ended any worries by holing a 30-foot birdie putt on the par-5 18th hole for a 1-over 73 and a 36-hole total of 4-over 148, good enough to qualify for match play. Had Dubois two-putted, he would have been involved in the large playoff for the final spots on Monday morning. Last week at the U.S. Mid-Amateur at Saucon Valley Country Club in Bethlehem, Pa., Dubois played his final three holes in 1 under par to qualify for match play by one stroke.
It’s no fun to get in those big playoffs, said Dubois, a quarterfinalist in the 1976 U.S. Junior Amateur and a two-time U.S. Open qualifier (1986 and 1988). I started hitting it better. So I feel good going into match play.
So do the members at Big Canyon.
Short Story: Kilgore Misses Match-Play Cut
Cy Kilgore, of Beverly, Mass., tells the story of having equipment representatives visit his club to chart players’ distance off the tee. Kilgore gave them his Handicap Index®, a plus-2, then hit a couple of drives.
They thought their equipment was broken, then they asked if I had hit the ball well, said Kilgore, who told them that, yes, he had hit a typical drive.
Kilgore, 61, is likely the shortest hitter in this year’s U.S. Senior Amateur field. He said he averages 215-220 yards off the tee, which means he routinely hits first into the green, often from a sizable distance behind his fellow competitors.
The average guy here hits it 250 to 260, said Kilgore. I just don’t generate enough clubhead speed. If I get some roll, I can sometimes get it out to 230, but most of the time I’m at 215 or so. There were people hitting 3-woods 30 yards past me.
The lack of distance didn’t keep Kilgore from winning his 18th club championship at his home course, Tedesco Country Club, in July. Nor did it prevent him from posting a round of 1-over 73 on Saturday at Big Canyon Country Club in the first round of stroke-play qualifying, which gave him a realistic shot at making the match-play bracket for the first time in his six USGA championships.
Kilgore’s round on Saturday was buttressed by 14 greens in regulation, and just one fairway missed. He knew he would need another consistent effort on Sunday, but he got on the wrong track and couldn’t get off. He bogeyed seven of his first eight holes en route to an 83, seven strokes out of the playoff for the final match-play berths.
I didn’t do anything to get the momentum going, said Kilgore, who counts a Bermuda Amateur victory and two Massachusetts tournament of club champions wins as his career highlights.
Kilgore’s USGA events include three U.S. Mid-Amateurs and three U.S. Senior Amateurs, and he was happy to get the chance to play one of his practice rounds this week with two-time Mid-Amateur champion and two-time Walker Cup player Tim Jackson.
To watch a quality player like that, it’s exciting to see, said Kilgore of Jackson, who placed second in stroke-play qualifying at 6-under 138. Even though nobody was playing for score, it was still impressive.
Kilgore, who estimated Jackson’s average drive at 280 yards in practice, said distance was not his downfall on Sunday.
It wasn’t a lack of length, he said. It was a lack of execution.