It’s a typical winter weekday morning inside the Braemar Golf Dome in Edina. Lined along the range are the usual driving-range suspects — the hacking and hopeful, those taking lessons and those beyond repair, halting swings producing crooked shots.
At the far left side of the dome, over by the artificial putting green, a 35-year-old amateur ranked 2,535th in the world is taking a break from his health care services job and smacking the ball improbably straight.
He’s a father of two young daughters who lives in River Falls, Wis. He has a left shoulder that occasionally pops out of socket, a history of sciatica and, like most working stiffs, little time to work on his game. This winter, for the first time in more than a decade, he didn’t pack his clubs away when snow fell.
Sammy Schmitz starts his backswing, hears a buzzing, freezes and says, “Look at that.’’
The words “Augusta National’’ are flashing on the screen of his phone.
This week, more than 20 years after he introduced himself to the game by stealing range balls from Fountain Valley Golf Course in Farmington, Schmitz is in Augusta, Ga., preparing to play in the Masters.
He’s a long shot who holed a long shot, making him perhaps the most unusual entrant from Minnesota ever to make the Masters field. Having aced a par-4 in October on his way to winning the U.S. Mid-Amateur and earning a berth at Augusta, he will this week try to become the first Mid-Am champ ever to make the Masters cut.
A regional director for Healthcare Services Group, Schmitz rented a house for his wife and two daughters, and brought along a swing coach who didn’t plan to ever return to Augusta. At the world’s most picturesque golf tournament, Schmitz will carry a banner for all those Minnesotans who don’t let weather, employment, injury, expense or inconvenience keep them from the world’s most addictive and difficult game.
“It’s a double life for me right now,’’ Schmitz said. “Working during the week, playing golf on the weekends, traveling around the country — it’s something I’ve never done before. The Masters has been on my mind all the time, all winter.’’
A GOLFER WHO HATES TO PRACTICE
Schmitz made the Farmington High team as an eighth-grader. “I started my first tournament by duffing two balls in the water off the first tee,’’ he said. “I made 10 on my first hole. Shot a 101. Great way to break in.’’
Then more a grinder than an exceptional ball-striker, Schmitz played well enough at St. John’s University to try the mini-tours, including the one named after Hooters. When that career didn’t work out, he played little competitive golf in his mid-20s.
“He started seeing names at the top of leaderboards, guys winning Minnesota player of the year, and he rightly thought, ‘Why can’t I do that?’ ’’ said his swing coach, Joe Greupner, the head pro at Braemar for 38 years. “He’s won player of the year four of the last five years and would have made it 5-for-5 if not for an injury. He can really play.’’
Greupner has coached high school, college and amateur champions, as well as senior tour pros. “I’ve never taught anyone who adapts lessons as quickly to their swings as Sammy does,’’ he said. “There will be people watching the players on practice range at Augusta and thinking that Sammy has a much better move through the ball than some of the tour pros.’’
Schmitz is the opposite of most amateurs. He calls himself a “terrible practicer.’’ He plays better in competition than on the range. “That’s why I have high hopes for him this week,’’ Greupner said. “He knows how to elevate his game.’’
Schmitz is proof of the magical link between a hockey shot and a good golf swing. The Schmitz family is synonymous with hockey in Farmington, where the hockey facility is named “Schmitz-Maki Arena.’’ Sammy played hockey in high school. His father, Steve, wanted him to play at St. John’s, but Sammy chose to specialize in golf.
He might have specialized in hockey if not for his parents’ insistence that he make his own spending money.
The Schmitz family lived across the street from Fountain Valley Golf Club. One night when he was about 12 Sammy had a friend over and they decided to pick up a few golf balls to sell back to players.
Soon Bryce Olson, the owner of the club, was knocking on the Schmitz’s door, and Sammy was proudly showing off two 5-gallon jugs filled with golf balls.
“I had to tell him, ‘Sammy, the ones with the red stripes on them are range balls,’ ’’ Steve Schmitz said.
Sammy tried to make money selling lemonade on the course. He admits he even sneaked onto fairways to steal balls that were in play. “I figured out pretty quickly that the players wanted the balls that said Titleist,” Sammy said. “We chucked the ones that said Pinnacle into the bushes.’’
Fountain Valley found a solution to the Schmitz problem — hiring him to clean golf carts in the morning for a few bucks, plus free golf.
Schmitz began playing constantly and caught the eye of teaching pro Phil Hurrle. “I was playing baseball and trying to play golf, and I hit a 75-yard slice on every shot,’’ Schmitz said. “Phil came up and said, ‘Why don’t you let me show you how to swing a golf club and you can caddie for me.’ He’s a phenomenal ball-striker. That’s how I learned the basics.’’
One of the assistant pros at Fountain Valley was Gerry Greupner, Joe’s cousin. “I made a mistake,’’ Schmitz said. “Gerry told me to come see Joe when I was in high school. I was stupid and didn’t do it.’’
When Schmitz reached his late 20s his brother-in-law, Kane Bauer, worked with Joe Greupner and developed a beautiful swing. That reminder brought Schmitz to Braemar.
“I was having serious back issues,’’ Schmitz said. “I couldn’t swing a golf club. I had disc problems and sciatica. Before I figured out how to be a better golfer, I needed to learn how to swing in a way that wouldn’t injure myself.
“Joe taught me how to do that, and that led to me taking golf more seriously around the time I turned 30. I looked at the state Mid-Am schedule and thought, ‘I want to be player of the year.’ I have had no back issues since I started seeing Joe, and my game took off.’’
PAIN, AMBITIION, BEER-DRINKING OPPONENTS
Along with back problems, Schmitz has a left shoulder that will pop out of socket, thanks to an old hockey injury, and there is a notch in his bones that prevents it from being popped back in easily. Once this winter Greupner saw Schmitz collapse to the floor of the golf dome in pain and had to rush him to the emergency room.
Greupner also teaches Schmitz’s friend Jesse Polk. Schmitz will be the best man in Polk’s wedding this spring, and the two partner together in amateur four-ball tournaments.
In February, Schmitz and Polk entered the 60th Annual International 4-Ball Tournament at the Fox Club in Palm City, Fla. They flew through Atlanta on the Thursday before the tournament started to squeeze in a practice round at Augusta before heading to Florida. They knocked off the rust for two rounds, then dominated the field on Sunday to come from behind to win, joining Jack Nicklaus and Tommy Armour III on the list of champions.
The weekend illustrated the life of the ambitious amateur. There were no fans or scoreboards on the course. There weren’t even many marshals. A few golfers drank beer.
Schmitz and Polk touched nothing stronger than water. After a flurry of birdies and difficult par saves down the stretch on Sunday, Polk made a birdie on 18, then the two repaired to the clubhouse to learn they had won. They shook hands, posed for a few pictures, ate a hurried lunch, then Schmitz rushed to the airport to make it back to River Falls for work on Monday.
As amateurs their winnings consisted of well less than $1,000 in pro shop credit at the course — less than each of them spent to travel to the tournament.
After Sammy won the Mid-Am — the national championship for amateurs 25 and older — on Oct. 8, his wife, Natalie, started a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for the trip to the Masters. After quickly receiving more than $25,000, Sammy wrote on the GoFundMe page: “I have decided not to accept any more donations until further necessary. I started this fund less than three days ago and can’t believe how much support we received locally and nationally.’’
Schmitz is using the funds for Masters expenses, while promising that any money he doesn’t spend will be donated to the Minnesota Golf Association.
Unlike most of the players he’ll compete with at the Masters, Schmitz pays for the privilege of competing, and has to fit in practice sessions and weekend rounds around a full-time job.
Most workdays, he has breakfast with his family, heads to his downstairs office for conference calls, and then drives around the region, visiting nursing homes and vendors. He wedges lessons and practice sessions into his day, and this winter he spent about every other weekend in a warm-weather state, competing to sharpen his game.
“It’s been a crazy winter,’’ Schmitz said. “I’m lucky to have had so much support.’’
'IS THAT THE GUY GOING TO AUGUSTA?'
He spends more time in his car than on the range, more time working than practicing. He played multiple times at the Concession Golf Club in Bradenton, Fla., which offers a similar layout to Augusta National and might be even more difficult. He made three trips to Augusta National before arriving there for final preparations.
“Golf is not an inexpensive sport,’’ Polk said. “We invest a lot in the game because we love it, and because of the camaraderie with people who love the game the way we do. Sammy is absolutely devoted to his wife and kids. It’s not easy for him to spend so much time on the road. He’s also an amazing competitor.’’
“Everybody has their thing,’’ Schmitz said. “Golf is my thing. I love it. I love the game. I love the challenge. Every time I tee it up the course is different, the conditions are different, how I feel is different. I love competition.
“It seems like all the guys I know and love to golf with, those are becoming my best friends as I make my way through life.’’
Natalie isn’t complaining. She works part-time as a nurse and cares for Aubree, 3, and Allie, 1.
Natalie was a champion gymnast at River Falls High School. The basement of their two-level home features the kids’ playroom and Sammy’s office; the main floor features a massive putting green that doubles as Aubree’s dance floor. When Schmitz practices putting, his daughters serve as human golf ball returners.
At Braemar, other golfers will ask each other, “Is that the guy going to Augusta?’ ’’
At grocery stores in River Falls, there is no doubt. Aubree will walk up to strangers and announce, “My Daddy is going to the Masters.’’
“We’re both competitors, so I understand,’’ Natalie said. “When he plays a tournament, I feel like it’s game time. One time Sam called home after he lost a tournament and was saying, ‘The guy who beat me is a really good guy, he deserves it,’ and I said, ‘Stop making excuses. You should have won.’ ”
Natalie said something even more blunt after Schmitz hit the shot of his life. He was playing in the 36-hole championship match of the Mid-Am, in Vero Beach, Fla., on Oct. 8. On the 15th hole, he hit a driver on a short par-4. His fade landed on the bottom level of a two-tiered green, began climbing the bank away from the pin, then rolled back and finally dropped in the cup for a hole-in-one.
Polk and Natalie had flown into Atlanta with friends Jordan Hawkinson and Will Hickey and had driven all night to make it to the first tee just before Sammy. Polk said his sunglasses hid tears after the hole-in-one, and he began talking about the Masters.
Natalie, knowing Schmitz had not clinched the victory yet, told Polk, “Get your stuff together.’’ Or something close to that.
“He was not interested in celebrating that hole-in-one,’’ said his caddie, Jonathan Hanner. “When he walked to the next tee box, he wasn’t even smiling.’’
Schmitz closed out the match on the next hole, winning 3-and-2 over Marc Dull. The guy from the end of the range at Braemar was going to the Masters.
“There are great players who have never played in the Masters,’’ Greupner said. “It’s the smallest field of any major, and they include amateurs. I really can’t believe he’s going.’’
THREE DAYS, 90 HOLES, 97,000 STEPS
As a young pro, Greupner roomed one winter in Florida with Mike Ford, son of former Masters champion Doug Ford. Greupner would go on golf trips with the Ford family and hang on Doug’s descriptions of Augusta National.
Greupner has been the head pro at Braemar for 38 years. He would play Augusta National occasionally and attend the tournament because he had access to two tickets as a PGA pro. When the Masters started allowing him only one ticket, he stopped going, and expected to never return.
“I wouldn’t be going back if it wasn’t for Sammy,’’ Greupner said. “To go back with him, as a coach, at this point in my life, is so special. I thought my ship had sailed.’’
Schmitz played Augusta National for a weekend in March, cramming in 90 holes over three days. His FitBit registered 97,000 steps.
This week when he walks Augusta National he will see massive galleries including dozens of his friends and family members. He will play alongside stars. He will stay one night in the Crow’s Nest, the small room atop the clubhouse where Masters rookies bunk, just as Tiger Woods did on his first visit.
As Schmitz walks the manicured fairways, he’ll have three charms in his pocket. Natalie gave them to him to represent his wife and daughters.
“Yes, I want to make the cut,’’ he said. “I’m also determined to have fun. This will be such a great experience for me, and my family and friends. I want to enjoy this.’’
Maybe, for old time’s sake, he’ll steal a range ball or two.