2005: Rice shoulders pain, guts out upset victory

Rocky Face, Ga.

As he stood on the first tee before the final match of the USGA Senior Amateur, 65-year-old Mike Rice was a huge underdog.

He had injured his left shoulder the day before. He couldn’t hide the fact he was in pain. Warming up before the final, he winced every time he hit a full shot. Furthermore, he was facing the defending champion, 59-year-old Mark Bemowski of Mukwonago, Wis., a steamroller of a golfer who had extended his Senior Amateur winning streak to 11 consecutive matches.

Even Rice’s fiercely loyal wife, Becky, was pessimistic. “I wouldn’t have given him much chance today,” Becky said after it was all over. “I don’t think he got any sleep. He was up for good about 2 (a.m.). His shoulder was really hurting him. Before we came to the course this morning, he couldn’t even use his left arm to load the luggage.”

In the end, the persistent Rice staged a major upset, winning the 17th and 18th holes for a 1-up victory over Bemowski. As the weather grew hot and steamy – the championship was played at The Farm Golf Club, a mountain course about 11⁄2 hours north of Atlanta – Rice’s shoulder loosened up and he began swinging better.

In the beginning, he played more like Rice Krispies. It was snap, crackle and pop, with an emphasis on snap. Unable to use his left arm effectively, Rice continually snapped his tee shots to the left.

“I never could get the club back far enough,” said Rice, who was hitting the ball with a sawed-off followthrough. “I sure couldn’t go forward far enough.”

Rice bogeyed Nos. 2, 3 and 4 to go 2 down. He was 5-over-par at the turn, but still was only 2 down.

Therein was Bemowski’s downfall. He missed several opportunities on the front nine to surge substantially ahead. He three-putted the fifth green, missing a 4-footer, and he lipped out a 3-footer at No. 8.

“You can’t give a good player a second chance, and that’s exactly what I did,” Bemowski said. “He took advantage of it.”

On the back nine, Rice was a new man. He was 2 under par with seven pars and two birdies. Facing a 1-down deficit with two holes to play, he hit two superb iron shots that resulted in two easy two-putt pars.

Meanwhile, Bemowski was struggling. He hooked his drive on the par-4 17th and ended up in heavy rough on a steep hillside (where Rice had strained his shoulder on a swing the day before). Bemowski came up short of the green and failed to save par, resulting in a match that was all-square with one hole to play.

“I made a mistake on that drive,” Bemowski said. “I tried to hit a shot I was uncomfortable with. I don’t like to draw the ball, but I tried to do it anyway. Obviously I paid for it.”

Rice badly hooked his tee shot on the par-4 18th, but got a break. The ball hit a mound and kicked back in the fairway. Bemowski bombed his drive down the middle.

Rice hit a 7-iron shot about 25 feet past the hole. Bemowski’s 9-iron came up 30 feet short. Bemowski, trying to make the relatively flat putt, powered his first putt 41⁄2 feet past the cup. Rice, with a slick downhill putt, nudged his ball within 21⁄2 feet.

Bemowski then missed, his ball failing to touch the cup, and Rice sank the winning putt.

“The greens got me all week,” Bemowski said. “It was hard to tell what was uphill and what was downhill. I’ve never hit so many putts that finished so far from the hole.”

Rice admitted that he benefited from the weather.

“It got hot out there, and that really helped me,” he said. “My shoulder hurt all day, but I made some better swings toward the end.”

A former insurance executive, Rice retired when he was 58. He estimated that in the seven years since, he has played in 250 events. He is the current Texas Senior Amateur champion.

Becky Rice revealed that her husband came to her last year and said, “I’m going to quit playing all these tournaments.”

Her response: “I’m not ready to quit.”

A strong statement from a woman who doesn’t play golf. So Team Rice continued to follow the road show that is senior amateur golf, and the result was a national championship.

Rice became the oldest winner since 66-year-old John Richardson in 1987. The championship is open to amateurs who are 55 or older.

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