Long before he would defeat Bob Jones in the 1926 U.S. Amateur, George Von Elm just wanted to win the Utah State Amateur. The tournament meant everything to golfers in Utah in those days, and not much has changed. From its founding in 1899 through the 2019 event, the State Am will have been contested for 121 consecutive years, making it the longest continuous golf tournament in the world.
The State Am is the tournament that has paired brothers against one another, produced father and son champions, showcased a female star, dealt with occasional controversy and just kept going all these years, including when America was involved in World Wars I and II.
If you're wondering why the State Am was played during world wars, when major championships such as the U.S. Open and the British Open were ceasing operations, the answer is both practical and emotional.
During World War II, in particular, the event provided a playing opportunity for soldiers stationed in Utah. Beyond that, it is apparent that continuing to stage the State Am was very meaningful to the Utah Golf Association.
“They did anything to keep it going, to keep that record intact,” said Ralph Emery, a longtime golf professional whose father, Al, was the tournament chairman in 1943. “They took a lot of pride in that.”
Longevity aside, the championship’s greatest characteristic is how deeply golfers care about the event and its tradition.
The State Am did not begin with Von Elm, but he's a good place to start. Salt Lake City's Forest Dale Golf Course is a modest, nine-hole layout, but it once was the center of Von Elm's golfing universe. Then operated as The Country Club, the course is where Von Elm caddied and shagged balls and developed his game as a teenager.
In 1917, he won the first of his three State Am titles on that course at age 16, launching a legendary amateur career.
His brother, Roy, once said that the experience of winning State Am matches prepared Von Elm for greater challenges, such as taking on Jones in the U.S. Amateur. Von Elm upset Jones in the 1926 final at Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J., delivering Jones' only defeat in a five-year period of the championship (Jones won in 1924, 1925, 1927, 1928 and 1930). After turning pro, Von Elm also competed in several U.S. Opens, including a runner-up finish in 1931, the longest playoff in the event’s history.
There is considerable competition for the title of first family of Utah golf, but the Summerhays clans would be tough to beat. The State Am has paired two sets of Summerhays brothers against one another. In 1966, Bruce Summerhays beat his brother Lynn in the semifinals on his way to the title.
“The State Am was something I always wanted to win,” said Bruce Summerhays, who went on to win three events on the PGA Tour Champions. “It really pushed me into wanting to play and knowing I could play really good golf.”
The next generation matched Lynn's sons, Daniel and Boyd. Daniel was the defending champion in 2001 at age 17 when he met Boyd in the quarterfinals.
“That's the most awkward golf experience I've ever had,” said Daniel, who edged his brother, 1 up. “Nobody was happy when the match was over, not even me.”
With his brother's encouragement to make that victory truly meaningful, Daniel went on to win his second title. He has played eight years on the PGA Tour, earning top-10 finishes in both the U.S. Open and PGA Championship in 2017, but has fond memories of the days when merely qualifying for the Utah Amateur and reaching match play was a big achievement.
“Just talking about it brings back some good feelings,” said Daniel. “Whatever talent I had, that's where it came into fruition.”