Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Nick Nelson came into last year's State Amateur as a bit of an unknown, but now, as the defending champ, he's the favorite as play opens today.

At the beginning of last year's Utah State Men's Amateur golf tournament, few competitors or tournament officials had heard of Nick Nelson.

He wasn't among those named on anyone's "players to beat" list.

As the week progressed, however, others in the field began to learn of the former Lone Peak High golfer who had slipped away for a couple of years to play for Odessa Junior College in Texas.

And as he, one by one, disposed of his challengers en route to becoming the 2007 champion, Nelson's golf game quickly earned the respect of every top player in Utah. He is no longer an off-the-radar player.

"Going into the State Am last year, I was kind of struggling with my game," Nelson said. "But playing the way I did and beating the guys I beat gave me confidence that I had never had before. Winning the championship was kind of a kick-start to my success and to the confidence I needed to be a better player."

As nearly 300 players tee off today on Soldier Hollow's two courses with a goal of dethroning Nelson, the now senior-to-be at Utah Valley University is hoping to prove that last year's win was no fluke. Since he's exempt into match play, he'll use today's and tomorrow's medal-play rounds to get more familiar with the courses.

"I know my game is a whole lot better this year than it was last year. I'm much better with my control and my consistency. So if I go out with the right confidence, I might be able to do it again," said Nelson, who flew in to defend his crown from North Carolina, where he's been working and practicing for the summer.

Considering a State Am champ has defended his title 16 times in the tournament's 110-year history, Nelson's goal is not unrealistic. In fact, if he wins this year, he might even delay turning professional next summer just long enough to go for a three-peat.

Realistically though, this year could be much like last year in a different way. Most in the field feel there is no clear cut favorite and that at least half the field is capable of winning — and no one would be shocked if again another underdog like Nelson emerged as champion. In fact, about half the field has a 1 handicap or better, which indicates there are plenty of players with the game to get the job done.

"It's just a feat to get to match play, and once in match play, anyone can win it," said 2005 champion and two-time medalist Michael McRae.

Actually, if one had to pick a pre-tournament favorite, it would likely be McRae. When the State Am was held at Soldier Hollow two years ago, McRae set a course record on both the Gold (67) and Silver (62) courses to win medalist honors by eight shots. He also took home medalist honors last year at Thanksgiving Point.

"I'm more concerned with going a lot farther in the tournament than winning medalist again," said McRae, who lost in the quarterfinals in 2006 and was upset in the first round last year.

The recent St. Mary's College graduate, who plans to turn professional this fall, has actually struggled some with his game this summer as a result of some swing changes that he feels are necessary to take him to the next level. Still, McRae feels his game has advanced far enough that winning a second championship is certainly attainable.

"Nothing would feel better than to come out on top this week," he said.

With only 31 match-play spots up for grabs, it's going to take two days of outstanding golf just to advance to the weekend. In 2006, a 36-hole score of 2-over par 146 was good enough to reach match play. Most feel the cut will come a shot or two lower this year.

"With six par-5s on the Silver Course (where match play will be held), it's going to be those who chip and putt the best," McRae said.

One thing could change that prediction — the weather.

"If the wind comes up, the golf is going to get a lot more difficult," 1998 champion Darrin Overson said.

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