I was fortunate to win last year on a course I’d played a thousand times and I had a definite home-course advantage, —Jon Wright
MIDWAY — A giant golf event that was a major athletic gauntlet just grew tougher.
Jon Wright says he’s up for the challenge, but he confesses defending his title as Utah State Amateur champion this week will be no easy task.
The 115th version of this event began Monday at Soldier Hollow. For the first time in history, it will have 64 match play qualifiers, who will be whittled down from a field of 288 players. In years past, the match play field has been half as big.
In other words, twice as many golfers have been allowed in this tournament, opening the field to more talent and narrowing chances for survival.
During Monday’s first round of medal stroke play, Wright triple bogeyed the par-3 No. 15 and made four birdies and two bogeys for a 1-over-par 73. He played with the two previous champions, Joe Parkinson (2-under 70) and Jeff Evans (even-par 72. On Tuesday, they chase Nicholas Smart, who fired a 4-under 68 on day one to become the early clubhouse leader.
Wright, a 42-year-old real estate businessman, knows this event is grueling and taxing. All the fun derived from playing in the tournament is balanced out with the physical and mental demands it extracts from all participants.
It’s what makes hoisting the trophy such a coveted experience.
As if it’s not tough enough, the Utah Golf Association will require participants for the first time in history to walk the final three rounds of match play.
Soldier Hollow is not an easy course to trek. The course is immaculate, and as the site of last year’s U.S. Public Links Championship, it is more prepared than any of the three previous times it has hosted the event to test Utah’s best non-professionals.
Mix up hot temperatures, managing a difficult golf course with few trees, and going against the best amateurs in the state? Wright knows the score.
A year ago Wright defeated one of the state’s best amateurs, BYU’s Zac Blair, in a semifinal match, 2 and 1. He then defeated Christian Jensen 3 and 2 for the championship at The Country Club.
“I was fortunate to win last year on a course I’d played a thousand times and I had a definite home-course advantage,” he said.
Even as a defending champion and being exempt from qualifying for the state amateur event, taking off an entire week is something Wright and many of his former teammates at the University of Utah, his friends, peers and playing buddies at his home course cannot do.
“I know plenty of players who could compete in this event, but they can’t take off that much time from work. They’d have to take a week of vacation and that just isn’t something they can do.”
This, in theory, favors collegiate and other younger players not entrenched in running a business or working for a boss 40 hours a week.
Wright was an All-WAC player for the University of Utah and played from 1991 to 1995 before turning professional and playing as a pro until 2003. He was reinstated as an amateur in 2006 after waiting three years.
“I’ve played a little amateur golf since then, but not as much as I thought I would.”
Wright played the USGA State team championship for Utah in New Jersey and hopes to play in the Pacific Coast Amateur later this month.
Because the real estate market was slow a year ago, Wright says he played far more golf and was better at it last year when he won the State Amateur. With things heating up in his business, he’s taken less time to play rounds in 2013. Still, Wright led the first round of the Salt Lake City Amateur this year and finished in the top six.
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Nine former champions have checked in to try and beat him — the most former winners in the field in a very long time. The group includes Steve Borget, Jason Wight, Todd Barker, Darrin Overson, Clark Rustand, Dan Horner, Parkinson and Evans.
Parkinson won in 2010 at Alpine Country Club but went on a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and never had the chance to defend his title.
So, in Wright and Parkinson, you have two first-time defenders who are motivated to get the fight going.
All three most-recent champs are in solid position if they can finish Tuesday's second day of medal play near par and grab good seeds for match play, which begins Wednesday.
Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at email@example.com.