Fireworks start early at Sahalee Players Championship

Min Woo Lee
Min Woo Lee, seen here teeing off the first hole at last year's Sahalee Players Championship, is again in the field this year. He is currently the No. 6 ranked amateur in the world according the WAGR.

Much like the audacious vision that spawned storied Sahalee Country Club in the forest east of Seattle, the Sahalee Players Championship (SPC) has grown into one of the top showcases for the best amateurs in the world. And the 24th edition, being held July 2-4, is no exception.

This year's field is led by Australian standout and 2016 U.S. Junior Amateur champion Min Woo Lee, currently ranked No. 6 in the World Amateur Golf Rankings (WAGR). He'll face plenty of stiff competition, including from the likes of 18-year-old high school sensation Cole Hammer, who exploded onto the golf scene by qualifying for the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay. The University of Texas-bound bomber recently teamed with fellow high school notable Garrett Barber to dominate the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball championship in Florida and is ranked 43rd in the WAGR.

The SPC was the brainchild of a small group of Sahalee members, and the Pacific Northwest Golf Association, committed to bringing major championships and the best players in the world to the Northwest, according to co-founder and longtime tournament director Mike Jonson.

"From the beginning, the goal of the club's founders was to create a nationally recognized golf course and be one of the premier clubs in the country that the top players would want to come play," Jonson says.

Andrew Putnam
Andrew Putnam, a native of Tacoma who now plays on the PGA Tour, finished second at the 2010 Sahalee Players Championship.

That vision has more than been realized. The club has hosted three majors: the 1998 PGA Championship, 2010 U.S. Senior Open, and the 2016 KPMG Women's PGA Championship, as well as the 2002 WGC-NEC Invitational.

And the Sahalee Players Championship has become a must-play for numerous top amateurs and future stars who've gone on to success on the PGA Tour.

"When we started, we didn't have the slightest idea what it would take," Jonson laughs. But the founders have built a lasting legacy.

Dustin Johnson, Kyle Stanley, Bryson DeChambeau, Ryan Moore, Kevin Chappell, Michael and Andrew Putnam, Xander Schauffele and Adam Hadwin are just some of the notables who've won or competed in previous SPCs.

"Sahalee was always one of my favorite events of the year," says Tacoma-native Andrew Putnam, a winner on the Web.com Tour last year who finished second to Dustin Johnson in the FedEx St. Jude Classic on the PGA Tour in early June. "I always made it a priority to be there. Sahalee is one of the most demanding courses in the Northwest and always requires you to be on top of every aspect of your game. I loved the challenge every time I teed it up there."

The championship has seen plenty of drama over the years, including the unprecedented 2004 season that saw Tacoma-native Ryan Moore dominate amateur golf, winning the SPC by five shots with a jaw-dropping 16-under-par 272 for the four rounds during a summer that included victories in the Western Amateur, U.S. Amateur Public Links and U.S. Amateur.

"It's meant so much to help support these young players over the years and provide the opportunity for them to test their skills against the best, then to see them go on to greater success," says Jonson, who retired following last year's tournament.

Jonson might have given way to new tournament director and Sahalee member Kevin White, but his legacy carries on with the 24th Sahalee Players Championship, administered in partnership with the Pacific Northwest Golf Association.

"We are thrilled to usher in a new era that builds on Mike's tireless work," White says. "We've got big shoes to fill, but we've got a great field and we've seen more members step up to volunteer than ever before. It'll be a great week."

That field includes a number of great storylines. It features 14-year-old Jeevan Sihota of Victoria, B.C. According to White, he's won his age category twice at the Callaway World Junior Championships.

One name in the field will be recognizable to football fans as well. White has extended an invitation to Joe Neuheisel, a UCLA standout and son of former University of Washington football coach Rick Neuheisel. The Arizona-native narrowly missed qualifying for the championship when he carded five birdies during last month's qualifier but was undone by three bad breaks among the worst White has ever seen.

"He smiled through it all and still put up a score that almost got him in," White says. "That's the kind of player we want in our field."

But Sahalee members will be pulling for one of their own. University of California-Berkeley-bound 18-year-old Connor Golembeski was the last player to qualify after firing a one-under 71 and outlasting Dominican College freshman Hunter Wescott in a four-hole playoff.

"It's so cool to qualify for such an important tournament on my home course," Golembeski said. "It was one of my main goals for the summer. I can't wait."

Golf lovers are invited and encouraged to attend what should be one of the biggest fireworks displays throughout the 4th of July holiday week. If Golembeski's play is any indication, they won't be disappointed. He ripped a 340-yard three-wood during the playoff in the SPC qualifier. "I guess it was a little adrenaline," he says with a laugh. "I was kind of pumped."

Admission and parking for the Sahalee Players Championship are free. The tournament schedule, biographies of each competitor, tee times and pairings will be available at www.sahaleeplayerschampionship.com. Once the competition begins, live scoring will be available there as well.