Saturday
Aug032019

Mid-amateur Rank, an NHL referee, captures Western Amateur

Writing from Millburg, Michigan

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Some stories are just too good. This is one of them.

Garrett Rank was the only player in the 117th Western Amateur’s Sweet Sixteen who didn’t use a caddie. As a 31-year-old with, as he calls it, “the best job in the world,” that of National Hockey League referee, he could afford a looper. But his father, his biggest fan, died five years ago.

“I saw a lot of mums and dads caddying for their sons out here this week,” Rank said. “Ultimately, secretly, I pushed my bag around in my dad’s honor, and felt like he was out there with me every step of the way.”

His age indicates he’s a mid-amateur. The Western Amateur was once speckled with mid-ams in the field and advancing to match play, but Rank was the first player 25-plus to crash the Sweet Sixteen since Nathan Smith, then 30, in 2009. He lost in the second round.

Rank’s employment hints at Canadian roots, and sure enough, he’s from Elmira, Ontario. Canadians in the championship match are almost as rare as snow in August.

On top of all that, Rank is a cancer survivor. Diagnosed with testicular cancer during his sophomore year at the University of Waterloo, he had to drop the hockey half of his hockey-and-golf scholarship.

Once cleared of cancer and graduated, he enrolled in referee camp and quickly worked his way up to the NHL. And summer since 2012, when he lost to the aforementioned Smith in the final of the U.S. Mid-Amateur at Conway Farms Golf Club, and thus missed a trip to the Masters, has meant serious golf, almost always played against players younger than him.

“That’s what’s driven me in golf for the last seven years,” Rank said. “And this is pretty much the Masters of amateur golf. I’ve been playing in this high-level stuff for seven or eight years and it’s gotten me into some cool situations.”

You know where this is leading, of course. Rank not only made the Western Amateur’s vaunted Sweet Sixteen, he won the championship, scoring a 3 and 2 victory over recent Ohio State graduate Daniel Wetterich at Point O’Woods Golf and Country Club.

Within days, Rank's name will be engraved on the George Thorne Trophy, the same one featuring Chick Evans, Jack Nicklaus, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods, to fill out just one notable foursome. Oh, and Danny Green, the last mid-amateur to win. He was 40 when he won in 1997.

It’s too good, but it’s true. Rank trailed in all four of his matches, but rallied each time. He rolled in long birdie and par putts to win holes, birdie putts to halve holes, and generally out-gritted his opponents every step of the way. Not the longest hitter, he was more accurate than them, and at the Point, where quick greens put a premium on well-struck approaches, the fairway is the place to be.

In the final, Rank hit seven of 13 fairways across 16 holes. Wetterich hit four fairways. Rank only hit 11 greens to Wetterich’s nine, but even some of his misses were calculated. For instance, going long with his scrambling third shot on the par-4 14th, where the cup was placed in a precarious spot on the back left of the massive false-fronted green. After a stylish chip, he missed a four-footer for par, but was able to match Wetterich for bogey after his miss for par. That kept Rank 1-up.

Wetterich won the fourth and fifth holes with birdies after a sloppy start and was 1 up, but lost the next two holes to a par and a birdie, then saw Rank drop an 8-foot birdie putt on top of his 16-foot deuce on the par-3 eighth.

That was big for Rank, and his tee shot to six feet from an impossible pin position on the par-3 ninth was bigger.

“I hit one of the best shots of the week to that back left flag,” Rank said with a grin. “That was a pretty stout shot.”

Wetterich conceded him the birdie putt and a 2 up lead at the turn after three-putting from 40 feet above on the ridge to the right, missing his second putt from eight feet.

Wetterich sank an 18-foot birdie putt on the 10th green to pull within a hole, but his putter cooled and the duo halved the next three holes, which went in Rank’s favor. When Rank dropped a 10-footer on the 14th for his fifth birdie of the match to return to 2 up, Wetterich was up against it playing this hockey player-turned-referee.

“The secret to this week was coming from a very ultra-competitive family,” Rank said. “I imagined I was playing my brother every match out there. He thinks he’s better at golf than I am, so I was just trying to kick everybody’s face in, because that’s what I’d want to do to him if we were playing.”

Thus, his door-sealing approach to five feet on the par-4 15th for his sixth birdie of the match – he was the equivalent of 4-under over 16 holes, including the usual concessions – that moved him to dormie 3. Wetterich needed to win every hole the rest of the way, and when he could only match Rank’s par on the par-4 16th, it was time for golf’s version of hockey’s handshake line.

Rank advanced to the title match by beating hot-tempered David Laskin of Elk Grove, Calif., 2 and 1 in the semifinal. Wetterich knocked off Ricky Castillo of Yorba Linda, Calif., 3 and 2, in part by scoring an eagle out of a greenside bunker on the par-5 13th hole.

While Rank, now the leading mid-amateur in North America, insists he’ll keep his day job while remaining an amateur, Wetterich will play in the U.S. Amateur, then go to PGA Tour qualifying and likely turn pro immediately after. It’s a matter of when, not if.

“I know I have little more work to dial some things in and be more consistent, but I don’t think I’m really far off,” Wetterich said. “I feel I can do some really special stuff."

Rank will keep trying to beat up on the kids coming up.

“I find a lot of motivation with the success we (mid-amateurs) have in the different events,” Rank said. “We truly, honestly get a kick of rolling up to the first tee and the young kids going, ‘Who’s this old guy we’re going to spank today?’ Then we usually do a pretty good job of shocking them.”

Saturday was the payoff.

“I know how cool this is in amateur golf,” Rank said. “It hasn’t sunk in. I’m sure I’ll be even more proud than I am right now. But I’m so honored, so thrilled to win this tournament. I’ve had a lot of close calls in big events. To finally break through is huge.”

Around the Point

Rank is the second Canadian to win the Western Amateur, following Jim Nelford in 1977. He was ready for the grind, having played three straight 36-hole days a fortnight ago between a tournament and U.S. Amateur qualifying. … Rank is waiting on a possible exemption into the U.S. Amateur, which could be his last tournament before NHL officials training camp opens on Sept. 9.  He also has the Canadian Mid-Amateur on his card. … Both players will receive exemptions into next year’s Evans Scholars Invitational at The Glen Club. That will give Wetterich a chance to make a check, but Rank may be busy that weekend, as it comes in the middle of the Stanley Cup playoffs. … A gallery of about 300 attended the title match, and while that wasn’t close to the thousands that roamed the Point in the 1970s and early 1990s, it was a knowledgable crowd that got a kick out of someone closer to their age than that of their children winning the venerable title. … The vibe from the membership favors a return visit, the friendship with the WGA rekindled after 11 years away. … Rank’s acceptance speech was an eloquent as they come, a departure from the short “thank you” speeches that younger players begin and end with. … Next year’s Western Am is at Crooked Stick Golf Club in Carmel, Ind., where Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson won the WGA’s BMW Championship in 2012 and 2016, respectively. It returns to the immediate Chicago area in 2021, the Glen View Club hosting. 

Tim Cronin

 

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