Since 1999, Bonney Lake’s Sean Packer had been trying to qualify for United States Golf Association national championships.
The former Auburn Riverside High and Western Washington University standout tried a variety of qualifiers – for U.S. Opens, U.S. Amateurs, U.S Junior Amateurs, U.S. Mid-Amateurs and U.S. Amateur Public Links.
The 27-year-old had fallen short in 35 to 40 of them.
So when Packer walked into the clubhouse at Gold Mountain Golf Complex last month after 36 grueling holes to get into the 2012 U.S. Amateur Public Links, he thought the same song and dance would play out after firing a 6-over-par 150 total.
One of the tournament officials grabbed his scorecard, and lit up when he saw the score.
“That caught me off-guard,” Packer said.
And then the news came right after that – Packer had made it into the 156-player field at Soldier Hollow Golf Course in Midway, Utah, which is approximately 45 miles southeast of Salt Lake City.
“I literally started jumping up and down outside the clubhouse door,” Packer said. “I had waited a long time at that moment.”
Today, Packer tees off for the first of two stroke-play rounds. The low 64 after Tuesday will advance to match play starting Wednesday.
The course Packer is playing is beastly – 7,670 yards at 6,000-feet elevation, a par 71. It is the longest layout in the history of the U.S. Amateur Public Links. The PubLinx is for golfers who keep their handicap at a public course.
But after seeing the course in practice rounds Saturday and Sunday, Packer said he thinks it won’t be the long-hitter’s paradise many thought coming in. The landing areas, particularly the greens, are small, which will put more of a premium on precision.
Yet, Packer – a two-time Tacoma City Amateur winner (2004, 2010) – will be battling more than just a field of elite players and a tough course. He has an ailing back.
A few days after he qualified for this championship, Packer was the leader at the Bellevue Classic – and was warming up before the final round on the driving range.
“I hit one last 7-iron ... and when I made contact, I just got a shooting pain up my back, and it seized up,” Packer said.
He played the round, but the back pain would not go away.
In the days afterward, he was treated by a chiropractor, then played the Washington State Men’s Amateur in a modified back brace. Three weeks ago, he also entered the Tacoma City Amateur.
“I was hitting squirrely shots that were low,” Packer said. “It was because I had no flexibility.”
Finally, after having a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) exam at a neurosurgeon’s office, Packer found out what was causing the pain. He not only had two bulging discs, he was also diagnosed with arthritis in his lower back – something his grandfather and mother also suffered from at an early age.
“This was really new to me,” Packer said. “I had never experienced pain or other issues associated with being an athlete.”
Since the second round June 17 at the Tacoma City Amateur, Packer had not picked up a golf club, much less practiced. A strong muscle relaxant has since helped loosen up his back – enough where he felt well enough to fly out to Utah on Friday.
And he was rusty in his first practice round. The timing of his swing was so off, the longest drive he hit on the first three holes was 75 yards.
“Literally I had the bill of my cap over my eyebrows,” he said. “I was so embarrassed.”
Since then, he has worked his way back into regular form – and is intent on finishing his first USGA championship.
“I had it in my head a long ago that these (USGA tournaments) were big,” Packer said. “NBC sells it so well on television, too. And ... it is a national championship.”email@example.com 253-597-8442 blogs.thenewstribune.com/golf @ManyHatsMilles