In normal times, Sammy Schmitz would spend this week watching the Masters. And the preview shows. And the highlight shows. And telling friends and family members about the difficulty of picking a club on the approach to the 10th hole, or about the way the undulations on the 14th green can deceive.
In these abnormal times, Schmitz has had to change his annual routine. So he’s spending the week watching old Masters tournaments, and telling friends and family members about the precision needed on the par-3 sixth, and the safest places to miss the 15th green at Augusta National.
In 2015, Schmitz, the former All-America from St. John’s, won the U.S. Mid-Am to earn a berth in the 2016 Masters. He played two rounds at the Masters, missing the cut but gaining lifelong memories.
Schmitz is a Minnesota native who recently moved to a house near the driving range at Troy Burne, the beautiful course in Hudson, Wis. He continues to compete as an amateur, and he and his frequent partner, Jesse Polk, last fall qualified for the U.S. Four-Ball Championship, which was to be held this May but was canceled because of COVID-19.
This week, Schmitz and his instructor, Joe Greupner of Braemar, reflected on their week together at Augusta National.
“Everywhere I go, people still ask me about it. You have to go there to have any understanding of how amazing it is. Now, when I watch the Masters, I feel like I know every nook and cranny of Augusta National. I feel pretty lucky about that.”
Greupner remembers driving down Magnolia Lane for a practice round and having every security guard and Augusta National employee greet Schmitz and him by name.
“We couldn’t believe they had taken the time to memorize our faces and names,’’ Greupner said.
They went to the immaculate driving range, and found themselves next to Rickie Fowler. Billy Payne, then chairman of Augusta National, strutted down the line of golfers, shaking hands, and came to Schmitz and Greupner, asking Greupner, “How did you get a golfer from Minnesota to the Masters?’’
Payne added a colorful word or two to that sentence.
Fowler was wearing golf shoes that looked like ankle boots. He had written Payne for permission to wear the nontraditional spikes, and Payne had granted it. But standing there on the range that day, Payne told them, “I still hate those shoes.’’
Payne added a colorful word to that sentence.
On Wednesday of his Masters week, Schmitz played in the annual Par-3 tournament at Augusta National. His wife, Natalie, caddied, and his daughters, Aubree and Allie, used the greens to reprise the game they so often played at home, when Schmitz would putt on the living room carpet into their hands.
On the ninth hole, Aubree, then 3, threw a ball from the back of the green toward the hole ... and it went in. The crowd’s roar might as well have been for a majestic shot by Jack Nicklaus.
“How cool is that?’’ Schmitz said. “She threw it in from 50 feet away. She was dancing and everyone just blew up.’’
Schmitz found tour pros, especially Fowler, to be generous with information as they played practice rounds. He was paired with Cameron Smith and Mike Weir for the first two rounds, and played his first nine holes in even par.
As Schmitz and Greupner walked from the ninth green to the 10th tee, Greupner looked up at the hand-operated leaderboard, and there was Schmitz’s name.
“I so desperately wanted to take a picture,’’ Greupner said. “But, of course, you can’t have cameras at the Masters.’’
Schmitz’s round unraveled over the next three holes. He finished with an 81 Thursday, then rallied to shoot a 75 on a difficult, windy Friday. That 75 beat plenty of stars that day, including Paul Casey, Justin Rose, Louis Oosthuizen and Ian Poulter.
Throughout the first two rounds, a large group of fans followed Schmitz around the course. When he’d hit a good shot, you would hear shouts of “Go, Johnnies!’’
“I’d like to do that every year,’’ Schmitz said. “But I do feel really lucky that I was able to do it even once. My wife and I still talk about it all the time. We look back on it constantly. And during Masters week, my TV doesn’t shut off.’’
Speaking on Wednesday, he said, “I’m watching it yesterday, and we were reliving all of the stories. We’re so bored this week that we’re re-watching all of the old Masters tournaments. We still talk about being there quite a bit, and probably always will.’’
Schmitz is constantly asked about Augusta National, and he notes that, because he was allowed to play practice rounds there in the fall of 2015 and early in 2016,
“I got to watch that tournament get built. I was there in February and March, and I got to see all of the wiring get routed all over the course and the bleachers being set up. I felt like I got to experience the tournament from beginning to end.’’
During one of those trips he played a practice round and had lunch with Bryson DeChambeau.
For Schmitz, two rounds of golf led to a lifetime of stories.
“Everywhere I go, people still ask me about it,’’ Schmitz said. “You have to go there to have any understanding of how amazing it is.
“Now, when I watch the Masters, I feel like I know every nook and cranny of Augusta National. I feel pretty lucky about that.’’