AUGUSTA, Ga. — As part of their longstanding effort to grow the game of golf, Augusta National invites a small number of amateurs to compete each year in the Masters.
Often they are young, future stars. Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Phil Mickelson all came here as heralded teenage amateurs. Current U.S. Amateur and NCAA champion Bryson DeChambeau will turn pro soon.
Then there is Sammy Schmitz, who finished up Friday afternoon at 12-over par, a mile from the cutline, yet to cheers of a huge throng of family, friends, coworkers, acquaintances and probably even a few strangers who still couldn't believe he, or they, were even here to begin with.
Schmitz is 35 years old, a husband and father of two young girls who hails from Minnesota, lives in Wisconsin and has a real job as a regional director for Healthcare Services Group.
He is your prototypical weekend golfer. By nearly any standard he's a terrific player, a former Division III All-American who once gave the old Hooters Tour a shot. He isn't Jordan Spieth and never will be. Realizing that, he long ago settled into regular life, getting his competitive spirit filled by club championships and some regional amateur tournaments.
Even then, there is only so far your game can go when real life impacts practice time, especially in an area of the country with maybe a seven-month golf season.
Yet last fall Sammy qualified for the U.S. Mid-Amateur, which features players 25 and older. It was played down in Florida. It felt like the destination, not a stepping-stone. "A less than 5 percent chance at winning," said his friend, John Hanner, who served as his caddie here. Even though a Masters invite was possible, no one spoke of it.
Sammy had taken up the game at 11 after he and a friend hatched a plan to make a few bucks by finding and reselling lost balls around the Fountain Valley Golf Club in Farmington, Minn. Not knowing what a range ball was, they collected two five-gallon buckets worth of red striped balls.
The guy that runs the course soon came by the house and said they needed all their range balls back. Impressed with the effort, though, he offered Sammy a job washing golf carts.
So qualifying for the Mid-Am was cool, an incredible accomplishment, especially given the demands of two daughters under the age of 3. His wife, Natalie, went to Florida early in the week, using it as a family vacation. She left, though because she had to get back to work as a nurse. Then Sammy kept advancing and suddenly he was heading into Sunday with a chance.
Natalie and a couple of his friends jetted from Minneapolis to Atlanta and sped eight hours to get to Vero, Beach, Fla., for the final round. Meanwhile, word began to spread about the stakes. An invite to Augusta? Really? Back in Minnesota, Sammy's father, Steven, was reffing a local Bantam AA hockey game on Saturday night when one of the coaches noted to him that Sammy might make the Masters
"I said, 'Are you sure?' " Steven recalled.
By Sunday afternoon he, his wife and other assorted family members were crowded around a computer, trying to follow the Mid-Am any way they could. "My knees were shaking," Steven said.
If this wasn't ridiculous enough, along came the 33rd hole of the 36-hole Sunday match. Sammy was in the lead of the match-play event, but only by two holes, when he hit a driver on the par-4, 290-yard 15th. It wound up rolling into the cup for a hole-in-one.
It put him up three with three holes to go. He essentially qualified for the Masters with an ace on a par four.
"We couldn't believe it," Sammy said. "I never dreamed of it."
The shot was so impossible and dramatic the club put up a plaque to commemorate it. Sammy and his family were invited back for a post-round weekend, which was so fancy that some members of this mostly blue-collar group took a free moment to sneak out for Pizza Hut and beers.
That's the Schmitz family, though. When the hole-in-one was originally hit, everyone back in Farmington descended on the Longbranch Saloon & Eatery to celebrate and begin planning the trip here. Soon Sammy had to call his boss, Jason Skolaski, and tell him he needed this week off because he'd qualified for the Masters.
Oh, that old excuse.
"[He said,] 'Where's my ticket?' " Schmitz said.
Schmitz's cheering section would reach maybe 100 or 150 over the course of the week. That included, for a couple of days, not just his boss Skolaski but also Skolaski's boss.
"The weird thing is I keep finding new people that I didn't know were here," Sammy said.
The entire experience was incredible. The regular-guy-at-the-Masters story became huge back in and around the Twin Cities. To come here and play – travel, tickets, time off, plus additional trips to sneak south for some practice weekends during the Upper Midwest winter – was going to cost maybe $30,000.
As an amateur, Schmitz wasn't allowed to take a sponsorship deal – slipping even a local business logo on his shirt, for instance, is against the rules. (He wore a grey Masters hat he bought in the gift shop.) To help offset expenses a GoFundMe account was created. It hit $25,000 in two days.
Three different houses were rented in Augusta for a week that began with Monday's practice rounds. Every night brought people from back home grilling out and laughing and telling stories.
His mother hails from a big family near the small town of Cannon Falls, Minn. That included her sister, Melissa Rapp, Sammy's aunt, who writes features for the local paper. When her first story about her nephew making the Masters was well received, the paper decided to send her to Augusta to keep writing.
So there in the Augusta National press center, alongside the New York Times and the BBC and the Sydney Morning Herald was the Cannon Falls Beacon.
"It's a small-town paper," Rapp said, "not a very huge circulation. But it's a great story."
By Friday afternoon, Schmitz was just having fun. So was everyone. The crowd of fans trooped along behind him, with big roars for big shots and shrugs when things didn't go so well. Everyone took it for what it was, a chance for the time of their lives.
His mother cheerfully admitted missing a couple putts on Thursday because she was waiting to get a Bloody Mary. His sister thought it would have been classic if Sammy had popped out a can of beer as he walked the final holes. One of Sammy's dad's friends was plotting how to shuffle him off to an Augusta dive bar at some point Friday night.
On the 18th tee Sammy told Hanner a joke so funny that the caddie had to cover his mouth to stifle the laughter, not something you see around these subdued and serious grounds but will happen when a couple regular guys from Minnesota somehow get inside the ropes. When Sammy outdrove the pros in his group, they exchanged fist bumps.
"I was trying to have a lot of fun," Sammy said. "I was looking around as much as I could. It was just such a fun event."
Soon everyone was deciding where to get lunch. Sammy was looking forward to spending the rest of the weekend walking the grounds as a fan. Just because he missed the cut, he doesn't have to leave. "They'll have to peel me out of here Sunday night," he said. He vowed to return in future years as a patron.
"It's going to be a late flight Sunday," he said, "and an early Monday morning."
Work beckons. The real world is calling. This was a couple days away, though. Here in the sun of Augusta, at the end of a world-famous tournament he just competed in, Sammy Schmitz wasn't letting go of this Masters out of golf's wildest of dreams that easily.