Looking for a ‘working man’ to root for at the 124th Utah State Am? Meet 37-year-old air traffic controller David Jennings
Venerable golf tournament begins Monday at Soldier Hollow Golf Course in Midway with a field of 288 players chasing the prestigious title
College golfers, recently graduated college golfers and future college golfers, have won the last seven Utah Men’s State Amateur golf tournaments.
That’s no surprise. Guys who don’t have to work for a living yet, can play and/or practice every day, or are accustomed to the grind of and pressure of college golf tournaments, have dominated this venerable tournament — billed as the longest continuously held golf tournament in the world — for decades now.
Well, the 124th Utah State Am begins Monday at Soldier Hollow Golf Course in Midway, and we have a candidate for those who would like to see one of the “older, working guys” break through like commercial real estate broker Jon Wright did in 2012 at The Country Club in Salt Lake City and again in 2014 at Ogden Golf & Country Club.
Meet 37-year-old David Jennings, an air traffic controller by night and highly accomplished amateur golfer by day — sometimes just hours after he’s completed a graveyard shift at the Salt Lake City International Airport. Having won the Utah Mid-Amateur Championship — for golfers 25 and older — last May at Wasatch Golf’s Lake Course for the unprecedented third-straight time, Jennings has to be considered one of the favorites this week at Soldier Hollow.
“After the Mid-Am (in which he shot 7-under 209 to tie Cameron Crawford and then won in a playoff) I struggled a little bit, but I am starting to find my game again and hopefully a practice session or two will sharpen it up before the tournament starts next week,” Jennings said last Thursday at the State Am Media Day.
That was moments after he fired a 69 from the tips at the 7,719-yard Gold Course, besting several other former champs at the get-together to discuss the 124th State Amateur.
All 288 golfers in the field will play a round at the Gold Course and a round at the Silver Course, which is “only” 7,355 yards from the back (gold) tees and usually plays a stroke or two easier than the Gold 18. Match play begins Wednesday with the low 64 players from stroke play Monday and Tuesday advancing; All matches will then be contested on the Gold Course.
What will it take to make the cut for match play? The last time the State Am was held at Soldier Hollow — three years ago — the cut came at 5-over 149 and 12 golfers on that number had a playoff for the last nine spots. Colton Tanner shot 8-under 136 to win medalist honors, edging teenager Preston Summerhays by a stroke, but Summerhays got the last laugh by winning the tournament for the second-straight year, having also won at Oakridge the previous year.
Summerhays is not in the tournament this year, but the famous golfing family that now spans Utah and Arizona will be well-represented by a pair of 14-year-olds, Cameron Summerhays and Jack Summerhays. Cameron, the youngest player in the field, is Preston’s brother (and Boyd’s son) and Jack is Daniel’s son.
“All the kids coming out hit it longer and straighter, it seems,” said Jennings. “Even the young ones.”
Jennings is from Farmington, graduated from Viewpoint High, and played for the school previously known as Dixie State University (now Utah Tech) before settling into a career helping airplanes land and take off. He often plays in tournaments right after a graveyard shift, but says he “will have a day of normal rest” before this year’s State Am.
“I have gone straight from work to a tournament a lot the last few years,” he said. “That’s what I have to do if I want to play. That’s how it works out. But I am as used to it as you can get. I manage it.”
Jennings, who plays out of Oakridge Country Club, says he has won two matches at the State Am “a bunch of times” but has never got past the round of 16 and into the quarterfinals.
“I am just trying to get to where you have to walk,” he said, referencing the rule that says competitors can’t use golf carts once they reach the quarterfinals.
University of Utah golfer Martin Leon, from Chile, is the defending champion, having edged Utes teammate Blake Tomlinson in 39 holes last summer at Alpine. Other former champions in the field are Jordan Rodgers (2015), Wright, Cole Ogden (2013), Dan Horner (2008), Nick Nelson (2007), Clark Rustand (2004), Darrin Overson (1998) and Steve Borget (1985).
Midway’s Bill Probst, who was 66 last November, is believed to be the oldest golfer in the field, according to UGA assistant executive director Easton Folster, who has been directing the organization since executive director Jake Miller left last month to take a post with the USGA.
“Having players of all ages is one of the things that makes the State Am great,” Folster said.
Another fun ingredient, to some, is how the tournament often evolves into a friendly competition between the state’s college golf programs, usually BYU and Utah. Cougars such as Joe Parkinson (2010), Ogden (2013), Rodgers (2015), Patrick Fishburn (2016) and Kelton Hirsch (2017) opened last decade with wins, but recently the Utes have finished on top, with Mitchell Schow winning in 2020 at Jeremy Ranch and Leon taking the big silver trophy last year from fellow Ute Tomlinson, now a pro.
When Soldier Hollow hosted its first State Am, back in 2006, the winner was Tony Finau, the current PGA Tour star who will be playing in The Open Championship this week at St. Andrews.
BYU golfer Elijah Turner, 23, has been chasing the State Am title for several years now, and says the tournament is the “ultimate prize” for a Utah amateur and Soldier Hollow is “the ultimate venue” for event. Turner shot 66-66 at Soldier Hollow a year ago in the U.S. Amateur qualifying and has qualified for that tournament again this year.
“Soldier Hollow is vastly unappreciated,” Turner said. “I mean, both courses are great, and they get them in outstanding condition. It is awesome to sit up at the Gold Course and look down at the entire course. It is a beautiful sight.”
Next year’s State Am, the 125th, will be contested at The Country Club in SLC, but the field will be limited to 144 as it was years ago.
Folster said a record 912 golfers signed up to participate in a qualifier this year, a number that doesn’t include 40 to 50 players who are exempt for various reasons.
As for what it will take to make the cut, Folster predicts it will be “a hair over par,” especially if conditions are mild.
“We would like it to be a little over par,” he said. “Anything under par would be close to sealing the deal.”
Turner, who tied for second in stroke-play qualifying last year before losing 5 and 3 to Leon in a first-round match, believes the cut will come at 1 or 2-over.
“It really depends on the wind, honestly,” he said. “If it gets windy in the afternoons, like usual, that number could get up to 3 or 4-over.”
Remembering what conditions were like in 2019, Jennings said something around 5-over will probably make the playoff — again.
“The greens weren’t very fast (Thursday), but they usually get them really fast for this,” he said. “Throw in windy conditions, and these courses are really tough, especially the Gold Course in the afternoon.”