Ben Geyer wins first ever NCGA Player of the Year
by Spencer Sorensen
Ben Geyer’s ascension to the 2012 NCGA Player of the Year can certainly be described as unique. For one thing, the 20-year-old’s name was nowhere to be found on the points list more than six months into the NCGA Player of the Year race. That changed rather quickly though, when Geyer put together one of the best summer performances in recent history.
Geyer accrued all of his 1,631 points within a four-month period by playing just 10 NCGA-sanctioned point events, leap-frogging to the top with wins at the NCGA Amateur Stroke Play Championship, Contra Costa County Amateur and Antioch City Amateur.
“With the small number of events he played, and the amount of points he racked up, it’s quite the accomplishment,” said Scott Hardy, a multiple NCGA major winner, and Geyer’s head coach at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, Calif.
“I didn’t play in every single [NCGA point] tournament, so I had to play better than decent to win [Player of the Year], and I felt like I did that,” said Geyer.
Within a 25-day period during late June and early July, Geyer earned 1,155 points, and quickly rose to the top spot, which had been perpetually held by six-time NCGA Player of the Year, Randy Haag, over the better part of three years. During that stretch, Geyer came ever-so-close to winning the 101st California State Amateur Championship, falling to Kevin Marsh in the 36-hole final, 4 and 3. A little more than two weeks later, coming off a Round of 64 performance at the U.S. Public Links Championship, Geyer claimed the NCGA Stroke Play Championship at Poppy Hills GC by four shots.
“I was playing a lot of good golf during that stretch,” said Geyer, who also had a runner-up performance at the Sahalee Players Championship, losing in a sudden-death playoff.
For the next two and a half months, he primarily held that top spot on the NCGA points list, only relinquishing it for a week, when Michael Weaver’s U.S. Amateur runner-up finish vaulted him narrowly ahead. However, Geyer responded by winning the Antioch City Championship, which was enough to pass Weaver and fend off a late-surging Danny Paniccia, whose NCGA Valley Amateur title put him a mere 27 points shy of Geyer’s point total. The 46 points between first and third place proved to be one of the more memorable NCGA Player of the Year races.
Not a bad performance from a guy who considered giving up on competitive golf to focus primarily on academics.
During his senior year at Pierce High School in Arbuckle, Calif., where he would graduate valedictorian of his class, Geyer had his sights set on going to the University of North Carolina. A fan of their basketball program from a young age, Geyer imagined an idyllic college experience, far away from home where he could get a great education and possibly walk-on the golf team — with minimal expectations. However, a few months before his high school graduation, he heard back from the school 2,800 miles away and those dreams were quashed: He wasn’t admitted.
So with that, Plan B was put into effect. Geyer looked for an opportunity elsewhere, preferably one where he could play collegiate golf. Despite having a fairly successful high school golf career, becoming an all-Sacramento Valley League (SVL) selection all four years, Geyer was lightly recruited. Usually coaches contact recruits, not the other way around, but for Geyer, that’s what he faced. One of the coaches that he ended up getting in contact with was Hardy at St. Mary’s.
“I got in contact with Scott, did a campus visit, and loved the school; it was a beautiful,” recalls Geyer. “I had heard good things about Scott as a coach making his players better, so I knew [at that point] that’s where I wanted to go.”
What impressed Hardy about Geyer, enough to give him a guaranteed walk-on spot — but only the chance to eventually earn a scholarship — wasn’t necessarily his prowess on the golf course. It was that Geyer was also a two-time all-SVL selection in basketball at Pierce HS.
“I’ve done well with kids that have played basketball and other high school sports, so when I met Ben and his family, I really liked him and just thought he would be a good fit,” said Hardy. “Obviously it turned out well.”
It did indeed, as Geyer has become one of the best amateur golfers in the country. In the most recent R&A world amateur golf rankings, Geyer is ranked the No. 88 amateur in the world, and was as high as No. 56 early this summer.
One of two seniors on the St. Mary’s squad this year, Geyer has helped the Gaels to a national ranking and earned personal accolades as well, being named the WCC Golfer of the Month in September.
Hardy couldn’t be more pleased with how Geyer has developed over the past three years, as the former walk-on leads the team in scoring average (72.27).
“More than anything, the biggest difference from when Ben first got here is his confidence,” Hardy said. “Getting the confidence that he can play with top Division-I players and other top amateurs.”
Geyer himself admits that he’s somewhat of a late bloomer. He never really considered turning professional, until his onslaught of success over the past two years, which all started with a Round of 16 performance at the 2011 U.S. Amateur. His plan is like that of many top collegiate players — after he graduates this spring with a degree in business administration, he will play in several top amateur events this summer and likely turn pro after the U.S. Amateur in mid-August.
“Going into college, I wasn’t sure I’d be even playing college golf,” said Geyer. “But once I got around other players and seeing how they practice, and how much time they put into it, that made me a better golfer.
“The last couple years I have gotten a lot better and a lot stronger, so I can hit the ball further,” he continued. “Now I can see myself being a professional golfer, compared to when I hit it [shorter] … I couldn’t see myself out there with everyone else, but now that I do, I think I have a legitimate chance.”
When Geyer was presented the NCGA Player of the Year award on Oct. 22 at the NCGA-NCPGA Cup Matches dinner, he was most grateful to his parents, Carol and Andy, in his acceptance speech. Andy, a former Division-III golfer at California State University-Stanislaus in Turlock, Calif., introduced Ben to the game at the age of 5. They would often go out and play at Arbuckle GC, a nine-hole golf facility in their hometown of 3,000 people. Ben recalls going out with his dad often and zooming around the course, quickly getting 18 holes in less than 2 hours after his dad got off work at 5 p.m.
“We would just jump in a golf cart at Arbuckle [GC] and we’d be basically the only ones out there, so we could play really fast,” Andy confirms. “We played a lot of rounds just before dark, getting to the golf course around 5:30 and finishing by 7:30.”
Without his parents’ interest in golf, Geyer knows he wouldn’t have been named the 29th NCGA Player of the Year in the award’s 42nd year. It’s an honor that has recognized some perennial top amateurs like Haag and Casey Boyns, and other outstanding players who have gone onto professional careers. That list includes PGA Tour professionals of past and present: Bobby Clampett, Keith Clearwater, Matt Bettencourt and Spencer Levin.
Jim Knoll repeats for NCGA Senior Player of the Year
by Kevin Merfeld
Jim Knoll racked up the second most Senior Player of the Year points in NCGA history during the 2012 season. The only better year? The one Knoll put together in 2011.
“The last two years have been a whirlwind,” said Knoll, who credits switching to a claw putting grip for his recent success. “I’m putting a lot better than I ever did, and it’s really been a big difference in my game.”
Knoll won his second straight Senior Player of the Year title, collecting seven tournament titles and holding off Casey Boyns by 336 points. Knoll’s breakthrough win came at the NCGA Master Division Championship in June, when he became the event’s oldest champion, just six weeks shy of his 60th birthday. The win was his fifth unique NCGA major, and sixth major overall.
“I didn’t start looking at the points standings until I won the Masters,” Knoll said. “Then it looked like it was going to be between Casey and me down the stretch.”
Knoll finished the season holding off Boyns, Jeff Burda (third) and Mark Miller (fourth), but he began it by teaming up with his friendly foes to help the NCGA secure the CGA Senior Cup.
“We get along so well,” said Knoll, who finished with 2,486 points, 267 shy of his 2011 total. “You root for everybody. It’s not like I’m trying to repeat or three-peat. We just enjoy playing against each other.”
But Knoll already has a head start on becoming the first player to win three straight Senior Player of the Year awards, advancing to the semifinals of the U.S. Senior Amateur in October at Mountain Ridge Country Club in New Jersey. (The only golfer to win three Senior Player of the Year titles in his career is Miller: ’07, ’09-10.)
Knoll played the role of giant killer at the U.S. Senior Am, bouncing Chip Lutz in the first round by holing a 70-foot chip shot on No. 18. Lutz had not previously lost a senior competition in 2012, winning the British and Canadian Senior Ams. Knoll then knocked off defending U.S. Senior Am champion Louis Lee in the quarterfinals, ambushing him with a 50-foot birdie putt on No. 10 and an 18-footer on No. 14. The loss dropped Lee’s U.S. Senior Am match play record to 10-1.
“I just left two or three (shots) out there,” Lee said. “With Jim Knoll, you can’t do that. He never lets up.”
That’s a truism golfers in Northern California know all too well.