Casual golf fans tune into the game for about four months every year, from mid-April and the Masters through the British Open in mid-July. They focus on the big names and the big stories. I’ll grant you, with Tiger flipping his car in the ditch in February — pretty much ending his career — and Phil coming back to sneak away with the PGA Championship, the Tour is more fun than it’s been in a while. But for my money, the US Mid-Amateur tournament (held in late September when the leaderboard regulars are out test-driving their new Gulfstreams) is the best tournament in the country. Why is the US Mid-Am the best?
This tournament has been around since 1981 and is designed for the post-college player who’s not quite solid enough for the US Amateur tournament — Tiger won it three times — or never pursued a PGA TOUR card, but can still play high-level, competitive golf. The USGA recognized that fewer than half of the amateurs who qualified for the US Amateur were over 25, and there wasn’t a tournament for the over-25 golfer who was finally old enough to rent a car but not quite ready for the AARP.
A golfer has to be at least 25 — as of September 12, 2021 — to qualify for the US Mid-Am, so the Collin Morikawas (surprise winner of the Memorial) and Nick Zalatorises of the golf universe aren’t even old enough to play in the Mid-Am. If they were old enough, they could qualify — you’ve got to have a 3.4 handicap. The max for the US Amateur, by comparison, is a measly 2.4.
US Mid-Am Format
The USGA has given everybody a little something in the tournament format. They start with two days of stroke play, and the top 64 players make the cut for a match play knockout competition to determine the winner. Knockout competition and match play tend to bring out the bloodthirst in normally genteel golfers since every hole is a separate competition. You win the hole with the fewest strokes, and you win the tournament with the most holes won. If a player is really on fire, they can win before all 18 holes are played. One way to look at it is that in stroke play, it’s you against the course; in match play, it’s you against another player.
Here’s a fun fact about the US Mid-Am. It’s open to both men and women, although there is a separate tourney for women. Who knew the USGA was cutting edge in gender equity?
There’s No Prize Money, So What Does the Winner Get at the US Mid-Am?
Players in the Mid-Am really are there for the love of the game and the competition. Still, there are some pretty cool perks for the winner — like exemptions to some major tournaments and the Robert T. Jones Memorial Trophy — but only for a year, like the Stanley Cup. These are the real prizes:
- Exemption from qualifying at the next 10 US Mid-Am tournaments
- A gold medal (but unlike the trophy, it’s the champion’s to keep)
- Exemption from qualifying at the 2022 and 2023 US Amateur
- Exemption into the 2022 US Open at The Country Club in Brookline, MA
There’s also the likely opportunity to play in the 2022 Masters. It’s not an official invitation like the US Open, but every Mid-Am winner since 1988 has been asked to play. The winner must maintain amateur status for eligibility to the majors, but I’d say it’s worth it just for the chance to tee off at Augusta.
Miacomet Golf Club
Miacomet is the only public course on Nantucket. It’s open year-round, should you be on the island in January and feel the urge to play some polar bear golf. The club has been around since the early 1960s but has only been a full 18-hole course since 2003. The entire course was renovated in 2007, resulting in a course that’s ranked #12 in Massachusetts by Golf Digest. And after playing it myriad times, I think Miacomet is a top 100, seriously. It is that good.
The course itself has an unusual layout, with most of the front nine tight and compact, while the back meanders way down to 16 before it does a hairpin turn back up a long 17 and 18. What’s a bit unusual is that the first and second holes are tucked into the front of the back; the green on 2 is right by the tee box on 10. Anyway, once you play 2 and cross the parking lot and hike down the cart path towards 3, you’re in for a treat. Holes 4 through 9 zigzag back to the turn. The front of the course is 3,407 yards from the back tees, a solid warmup for the slightly longer (3,483 yards) back nine. Seems easy right? Wrong. There is almost always a strong wind that blows golf balls into the fescue.
You get lulled into a false sense of security and well-being on 15. It’s only 177 yards, and if you can avoid the acres of bunker around the green, a gettable birdie. Then there’s the death march to the clubhouse: 1,377 yards (a mile is 1,760 yards, you’re welcome) over three holes with just a few bunkers to mar the lengthy green fairways. It’s the kind of stretch that’s deadly in its simplicity. And most days, the Southern trade winds is blowing 20mph+ right into your face. Escaping this final stretch in par is excellent. I spend a fair amount of time on Nantucket, and this course is just fun.
The final match-play rounds of the US Mid-Am tournament itself will be at Sankaty Head Golf Club, also on Nantucket, in Siansconset. Sankaty Head is an old-school golf course, one of the few world-class links courses in the US. It was founded in 1923 when David Gray, an early partner of Henry Ford, spearheaded the effort to build the course in the shadow of the Sankaty Head lighthouse. Gray donated 280 acres of eastern edge land to the cause and the original clubhouse.
It’s hard to say what’s the most mind-blowing aspect of the course. But the 270-degree wraparound view of the Atlantic is my first, second, and third choice. There are also ridiculous views of the lighthouse from almost anywhere on the course.
What Makes Sankaty Head a Links Course
An honest-to-God links course is literally in the sea, and the course follows the natural terrain of the coastline. Early course designers had to work with the landscape, and the course layout is the traditional 9 all the way out and 9 to bring you back in. Sankaty Head might not be exactly beachfront, but the course architect considers it a links course. So who am I to argue? Either way, it’s a hell of a course that finds different ways to spank you at every hole.
Standing on the first tee box at Sankaty Head and you might think you’re in Scotland. The course doesn’t have any trees to hook into, just a windswept turf that plays fast and hard.
From the air, the course looks like a figure eight with the clubhouse at the intersection. Just to make it more fun, the back nine is another figure eight. It’s built so that the middle impacts six of the nine holes and the wind comes from more than one direction. All the time. Jim Urbina, the course architect, decided to use the contours of the land as a strategic element of the course. Without any tree buffer, balls just roll all over the place. I never thought I’d miss losing a ball in a tree and just taking the drop. On this course, errant balls are usually in play.
In my perfect world, I would have a caddie tote my bag around, tell me how to hit my shots, and share a cigar and a drink after my round. As it is, caddies are getting hard to find, but I’ll let you in on a secret. Sankaty Head is the place to find caddies, minted from the first and one of the last caddie schools.
A Brief History
The club established a caddie school in the 1930s. Rich New Englanders who summered on Nantucket wanted caddies (even needed them) to have a chance against the contours of the Sankaty Head course. It’s a classic example of if you build it, they will come. On an island of 3,000 people, there just weren’t a lot of professional caddies. So the first kids at the caddie school in 1930 were from Depression-riddled Boston neighborhoods. They lived in tents between the fairways on 11 and 13. The early years of the caddie school had a Lord of the Flies feel; without a lot of adult supervision, the camp almost closed by 1960.
The idea of not having caddies who really know the course made a lot of members worry that the course might actually fold. So they revamped the entire program by founding the Sankaty Head Foundation, expressly for developing caddies in free summer camps. Tax-exempt status always helps raise money, and the IRS granted the foundation that distinction in 1964. One of the established rules for the foundation was that at least 25% of the caddies would be from underprivileged backgrounds. Here’s another fun fact: in the IRS paperwork, the organization is named a “summer camp” where the campers caddie for golfers to offset their room and board, figured to be $3 a day.
Sankaty Head is the only real caddie camp left in the country. Last year’s campers missed out because of COVID-19. But they are back this year and no doubt waiting for an assignment at the US Mid-Am.