As the winner of the U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur last November, Salt Lake City’s Kelsey Chugg earned a berth in the inaugural Celebration of Champions, a prelude to the U.S. Open. Tuesday’s exhibition at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in New York made Chugg part of this week’s celebration of Utah golf.
With the combination of her USGA national title and four Women’s State Amateur victories, the former Weber State golfer is in the conversation about Utah’s best female golfers in history. The U.S. Open brought her together with Tony Finau, who has become the best homegrown PGA Tour player the state ever produced, and Rhett Rasmussen, the first Utah high school graduate/active college golfer to qualify for the Open since 1980, when Jay Don Blake of Dixie competed during his Utah State career.
You can get there from here, as Rasmussen showed by advancing through local qualifying at Alpine Country Club and a sectional event in California. At the Open’s other extreme, Finau is exempt as one of the PGA Tour’s top 30 finishers in the 2016-17 season.
Finau, from West High School, and Rasmussen, of Corner Canyon and BYU, will tee off Thursday with widely ranging expectations. In the past four years, Finau has finished 18th or better in each of pro golf’s four major tournaments at one time or another, and he believes he should contend in all of them. Rasmussen, who’s in the middle of his college career, would be thrilled to make the 36-hole cut.
“If you look at people who do well in majors, they don’t have any holes in their game,” said Boyd Summerhays, Finau’s coach. “He’s proven that his game is well rounded.”
Finau is No. 37 in the Official World Golf Ranking, a remarkable position for a player at this stage of his career. He has a long way to go to match Blake’s longevity on the PGA Tour, yet Finau’s performance in majors already has topped Blake’s showing.
And that’s not even factoring in the drama and degree of difficulty at Augusta National in April, when Finau tied for 10th place in the Masters after spraining his ankle in the Par 3 Contest the day before the tournament. A top-10 finish in Finau’s first Masters appearance would have been meaningful enough, even without that background.
“Because of what happened, it was an amazing week,” Summerhays said. “You’ll remember it the rest of your life. … It was like a culmination of his life story, where everything, all his skill sets — physically, emotionally and golf-wise — he had to call upon.”
By making six consecutive birdies on the back nine Sunday, Finau moved into the top 12 and assured himself of a return to Augusta in 2019. He’s also in the field for this year’s British Open and PGA Championship, and is hoping for a better showing in the U.S. Open than in his most recent appearance, having missed the cut by one stroke in 2016.
Rasmussen is among 20 amateurs in this week’s field, the most since 1962. Just getting to Shinnecock is an achievement. Rasmussen was among only five of 86 players advancing from a sectional site in San Francisco, where he shot a 66 on The Olympic Club’s Ocean Course and added a 71 at Lake Merced to finish in a three-way tie for third.
Rasmussen is one of those prodigies the Utah Junior Golf Association has nurtured lately. Whenever he hits a wedge shot close to the hole, BYU coach Bruce Brockbank likes to remind him, “That’s the Rhett I used to watch in junior golf.”
Rasmussen established himself as a Cougar star by winning Stanford’s tournament as a freshman. He played inconsistently as a sophomore, but rallied in May to help BYU reach the NCAA Championships for the first time since 2006. He’s the first current Cougar to play in the U.S. Open since Oscar Alvarez competed at Shinnecock in ’04, and only the second BYU golfer to make the field since Bobby Clampett in 1979.
Alvarez shot 78-80; those numbers are not unreasonable for an amateur playing at that level. Rasmussen will have the challenge of teeing off No. 1 in the final threesome Thursday (2:42 p.m. New York time). The greens will be firm and fast, play will be slow and the course will be demanding.
“He’s a pretty tough competitor, and he has a pretty good belief system,” Brockbank said.
That’s what it takes to get into the U.S. Open, regardless of what happens there. Chugg experienced the flavor of the event Tuesday during a four-hole, alternate-shot competition in the wind. “Unbelievable,” she told Utah Golf Radio afterward. “It is just so gorgeous out here. It’s a really hard golf course, though.”
Finau and Rasmussen will take their shots Thursday, fully understanding what’s ahead of them.
THURSDAY’S TEE TIMES
Lehi resident Tony Finau will play at 11:03 a.m. MDT with Luke List and Gary Woodland. Rhett Rasmussen of Draper will play at 12:42 p.m. MDT with Michael Hebert and Michael Block.