Sam Jackson stood on the 18th tee at U.S. Mid-Amateur golf championship Sept. 14 with the possibility of a springtime date in Augusta looming. Win one hole and one more match, and a Masters dream would come true.
Alas, less than 24 hours later and far removed from Sleepy Hollow Country Club in Scarborough, New York, Jackson was making sales calls in the Columbia area for Pella Windows and Doors — his day job.
Little wonder, then, that golf officials call mid-amateur competition for golfers 25 and older “a working man’s tournament.”
In the spotlight one day, on the job the next. But that juxtaposition does not detract from Jackson’s march to the threshold of a national championship.
The experience “has whetted my appetite for more,” said Jackson, a West Columbia resident who grew up in the Pelion area. “Getting to the semifinals makes me exempt (into the U.S. Mid-Amateur) for the next two years. I want to get better and continue to compete at a high level.”
Jackson, who played his college golf at Presbyterian, burst into the Carolinas spotlight last year, earning the 2022 South Carolina Player of the Year honors. The trend continued in 2023 with a victory in the Carolinas Mid-Amateur, a third in the John Lupton Memorial, a 10th in the S.C. Amateur and an 11th in the Palmetto Amateur.
His performance on the biggest stage put a bow on his yet-to-be-completed season.
Down to the wire at US Mid-Amateur
The national U.S. Mid-Amateur event called for two rounds of stroke play with the top 64 advancing to match play. He started in a forgettable way — a double-bogey on the second hole.
“I hit a bad shot, then made a bad situation worse,” he recalled. “But I stayed patient. I knew there was a lot of golf to be played.”
His 1-under-par 139 tied for 16th and he went to match play seeded 18th. And he sparkled.
“My first match really was the best all week,” Jackson said. “I was 5- or 6-under par for the round (in a 1-up win) and my opponent (Jonathan Fricke) was 4- or 5-under. I birdied on par-5 and lost the hole to his eagle. He’s a good guy. We talked throughout, had a good time.”
His strong play continued with 4 and 2, then 3 and 1 victories. “When I was doing that, (the opponent) had to make birdies to win holes, and that’s tough to do consistently,” Jackson said. “Match play is a whole different mindset than stroke play.”
The luck of the draw pitted him against fellow South Carolinian Stephen Behr Jr., who grew up in Florence, starred at Clemson and now lives in Atlanta. The pair finished high school the same year, competed against each other in junior golf and now face off in the big amateur tournaments.
“I knew his game, and he knew mine,” Jackson said. “He won the first hole, then I got even. After I took the lead, I had an edge the rest of the way. But it’s hard to play a friend.”
With a 1-up lead on 18, Jackson “hit an absolutely terrible second shot and I thought it was plugged in the green-side rough,” he said. “Fortunately, it was just buried, a really good break.
“I told my caddie (best friend Cole Thornton), ‘Let’s just pop it up on the green and make the putt.’ That’s what I did. Made about a 7-footer. Not the easiest putt, but I wanted to be aggressive. If I missed, there would be more golf (extra holes).”
The win put Jackson in the semis against two-time champion Stewart Hagestad, one of the most accomplished mid-amateurs in the world.
“All he has done in his career is great and maybe that would have bothered some other players,” Jackson said. “Everybody admires what he has done, but I just wanted to play freely and let it go.”
The pair battled back and forth with neither leading by more than one hole. They went to the 18th even with a berth in the final and a Masters invitation that goes to the champion hanging in the balance.
“I hit my second shot in the same bunker and didn’t have a lot I could do with it,” Jackson said. He blasted to 20 feet, saw his par putt slip by the hole and lost to Hagestad’s par.
“I didn’t get ahead of myself and dream about what winning would mean,” Jackson said. “I didn’t even think about it until a Golf Channel reporter asked me about the Masters after my quarterfinal match. I just wanted to keep playing my game, and I did.”
Jackson grew up in a golfing hotbed that included the Proveaux brothers, and he said his game improved by competing against better players. Qualifying for the 2009 U.S. Junior Amateur provide a spur to work hard at the game.
Now, he has a couple more tournaments, including the South Carolina Mid-Amateur, on his 2023 calendar, and he looks to close the year with a flourish — between sales calls, of course.