It doesn't take much for Joe Watts to get passionate about something. He wears his enthusiasm like a neon sign. When he gets going on something, you have to calm him down, break his train of thought, distract or unplug him.
This week he'll preside over his final Utah State Amateur Championship after 40 years covering it as a sports writer, and most recently, directing it front and center as the executive director of the Utah Golf Association for almost two decades.
He first watched this tournament, the longest continually contested golf tournament in the world, as a sports editor for the Logan Herald Journal. And his love for this weeklong, grueling affair continued when he took a similar job at the Provo Herald.
I sat down with Watts and simply asked him why he was so hooked on this event. He retires from his post at the end of the year.
Of course, this was like inviting a Labrador retriever to a tennis match.
Watts spoke of the drama, battles, frayed nerves through qualifying, making of cuts, huge match play victories that went down to the wire or into extra holes. He named some of the golfers who'd gone on to great college or PGA Tour careers or are sprinkled around the West working as club professionals.
He spoke of Doug Bybee, who has played in a record 45 matches of the match-play portion of the event. He praised the talent of Billy Korns, who he never saw win the state amateur titles in 1941, '42, '46, '48, '50 and '51 and compiled a 37-5 record in match play. Korns is simply the most dominating player in this event ever.
"He was the greatest amateur player of his time in this state and I'd bet he'd be equally up to the challenge if he'd lived and played in this era," said Watts.
Watts spoke of the 1967 semifinal between twin brothers, Craig and Kean Ridd, and how they'd made their way through the 36-hole qualifying into match play and ended up playing one another for one spot in the finals. The twins took it into extra holes as their parents watched, rooting for both but knowing only one would stand. It would be Craig. Kean is the current director of golf at East Bay in Provo.
He spoke of the match play final two years ago at Soldier Hollow when long-hitting teen Tony Finau, the finest Tongan golfer alive, held off Nationwide-bound Daniel Summerhays, himself a former champion and teen phenom in this event who'd go on to win a nationwide event in Columbus, Ohio, later that summer.
The state am that year provided Soldier Hollow, a 36-hole layout on the foothills south of Midway, a new course record when Michael McCrae fired a 67 on the gold course and a 62 on the silver.
Watts could go on and on.
Speaking of this event, his eyes are focused and a smile stretches across his face. He starts picking off dates, names and plays as if they were part of strokes on a canvas by Rembrandt.
His passion for this event leaks out in streams and chunks like bytes of data that are more stories and chapters than folders of memory.
Watts once lectured a gathering of reporters that it was near sacrilege for a golf writer to schedule vacation time during the state amateur tournament in July, that family outings and vacations should be built around the event.
I agreed, then went to Fish Lake, where I'll be this week.
But of the state amateurs I've covered, it is true the drama is intense as it gets and there are stories around every fairway and behind nearly every scorecard. There is no event like it, and it is true this is the longest-running golf tournament in the world, due to interruptions everywhere else on earth for World War II.
I suspect even when Watts retires, we won't see the last of his big brimmed straw hat, his glasses perched on his nose above a smiling face as he surveys the field, follows a group around or greets players as they come to the interview room. This would be his vacation, his joy.
Watts' background as a journalist has made it fun and simple to cover golf in Utah, and this state enjoys some of the best print and broadcast coverage of golf found anywhere in the region. A lot of that is because of Joe Watts.
Farewell, Joe.Savor the birdies.
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