AUGUSTA, Ga. -- You thought you never would be lucky enough to attend the Masters, right? You figured that big-screen TV you spent months saving up for would be the closest you ever got to that greener-than-green grass and whiter-than-white sand at Augusta National, didn't you?
So guess what, Mr. Average American Public Course Golfer with a working wife and two young kids. If you've got too many bills to pay to consider buying one of the most exclusive tickets in sports, Sammy Schmitz is here to swing open those forbidding gates for you. In fact, he's going to do you one better. Slammin' Sammy is going to put you in the same locker room with Rory McIroy, on the same tee boxes with Jordan Spieth, and on the same back nine that turned Tiger into Tiger, Arnie into Arnie, Jack into Jack.
A 35-year-old amateur raised in Minnesota and living in River Falls, Wisconsin, Schmitz is going to play the Masters for you, Joe Six-putt, because he sure understands this journey is way too big to be all about him.
The responsibility of playing the Masters for the common man, Schmitz said, "is one I feel every day." He hears it in phone calls and emails from fellow anonymous golfers across the heartland, and in the messages sent from strangers around the country who contributed to the GoFundMe campaign to help cover his travel expenses on trips to Augusta to practice and compete.
Schmitz earned his invitation to the Masters by winning the U.S. Mid-Amateur on one of the most improbable shots in USGA history. (We'll get to that in a bit.) He is a regional sales director for a health care company, and his wife Natalie is a nurse; they were facing considerable medical bills after their two young daughters were hospitalized with RSV, the respiratory virus that impacts many children before they turn 2. The donating strangers chipped in $25,000 in two and a half days before the Schmitzes stopped the fundraising effort for fear of ending up with far more money than they needed.
"We're from a small town," Natalie said. "We thought we were going to get five dollars, 10 dollars from people. We followed USGA rules with it, and we set a goal of $30,000, but it took off so fast we had to stop it because I didn't want people to think we were greedy."
Greedy? No. Lucky? Charmed? Touched by stardust?
Well, consider Sammy Schmitz's humble beginnings. His old man, Steven, was a carpenter and truck driver who later became a senior operations and maintenance technician for Northern Natural Gas. In 1987, Steven himself built the family's rambler house right across the street from the Fountain Valley Golf Club in Farmington, Minnesota.
"Built it the first year the Twins won the World Series," he said. "That's how I remember it."
Steven remembers one of his four children, Sammy, starting his relationship with the game of golf by swiping Fountain Valley's range balls as a fifth or sixth grader. The man who still runs the course, Bryce Olson, knocked on the front door looking to retrieve his stolen property. Steven called up Sammy from the basement, and the kid arrived at the door with two five-gallon pales full of hard evidence.
"I'd gone over to the course with a friend of mine," Sammy recalled, "and we thought we'd hit the jackpot at the driving range. We'd found these red-striped balls in the weeds, and we had this bright idea that we'd sell them back to the golfers. We tried to clean the red paint off the balls and sell them back for a quarter or a dime apiece."
If only to persuade Sammy to stop taking the balls, Olson offered the boy a membership and a job washing carts. Sammy was a hockey player; his father was a youth hockey coach and softball umpire. The kid had no use for golf. "I didn't get it," he said.
Until he started washing those carts, and knocking the ball around, and taking some lessons with the local pro. Soon enough he fell hard for the game. Sammy was all of 5-foot-8, 130 pounds when he entered high school, and it was already clear if he wanted to play a college sport, it would not be in skates.
"Sammy had great speed and good moves on the ice," his father said. "In warmups he could skate, but when the game started, sometimes he looked a bit lost. He just couldn't figure out hockey like he could golf."
No major colleges recruited Sammy, so he signed up to play golf for Saint John's of Collegeville, Minnesota, where he grew into a Division III All-American before turning pro and competing in what was then known as the Hooters Tour. Sammy made his share of cuts, and his younger brother Simon kept encouraging him to chase his zillion-to-one dream of landing a spot on the PGA Tour. "But he lost his motivation," Simon said. "He told me that playing golf for money takes the fun out of the game."
The way Sammy explained it, a year and change on the mini-tour circuit felt too much like a joyless grind. He looked around and concluded he wasn't cut out for the pros. He regained his amateur status, remained relatively dormant for four or five years while working in the health care industry, and suddenly decided in 2011 he wanted to try to become Minnesota's player of the year. He won that state title once, twice, three, then four times in five years, and he carried his rekindled passion into last October's U.S. Mid-Amateur at John's Island Club in Vero Beach, Florida.
Natalie had flown in for the start of the tournament, but missed her husband's semifinal match after she returned home to work her shift at the hospital. When she got word that Sammy had advanced to the 36-hole final, she left her daughters Aubree and Allie with her mother, found a late flight to Atlanta from Minneapolis-St. Paul (no flights to Florida were available), and flew there with a couple of Sammy's friends. They rented a car, made the eight-hour overnight drive, and pulled into the John's Island Club parking lot just as Sammy was walking to the first tee.
Natalie had been home for all of 16 hours between trips, but there was no way she was missing this. Before he got serious again about golf, her husband had spent most of his winters as a recreational hockey player, a youth league hockey ref and fan of the Minnesota Wild, his woods and irons kept in storage. Now he had a chance to win a national title and, of course, an invitation to the most prestigious major championship on the planet.
The previous April, Sammy had gathered with his father and a family friend, Tom Ladendorf, at their favorite Farmington place, the Longbranch Saloon & Eatery, where you can still get a chopped sirloin dish for 10 bucks. They were watching the final round of the Masters on TV when Steven Schmitz turned to his son and said, "Sammy, that place is so incredibly beautiful that I'm going to take off from umping softball one year and we're going to go. Getting to Augusta is on my bucket list.''
"I will definitely take you there," Sammy assured his old man.
Everyone assumed the golfer would be showing up at the Masters as a fan, just like his dad. In fact, until a local coach informed him the night before Sammy's 36-hole final at the U.S. Mid-Amateur, Steven had no idea the winner would end up in the Augusta National field. So he watched the results come in on his computer the next day, hole by agonizing hole.
Down in Vero Beach, Sammy arrived at the 33rd hole -- No. 15 on the course, which was a short, uphill par-4 -- with a two-hole lead on Marc Dull of Lakeland, Florida. Sammy pulled out his driver, measured the target 270 to 275 yards away, and hit a cut into the right-to-left wind. Sammy used his left arm to shield his eyes from the sun as he watched his ball land on what was a sloping, wildly unpredictable green.
"Sit," commanded his caddie, John Hanner. "The ball rolled slowly up to the top of the hill," Sammy recalled, "but it didn't get up to the crest. It came back down toward the hole, and we knew it was good."
Sammy leaned over to pick up his tee and began marching toward the fairway when he was stopped cold by a roar that could only mean one thing.
"It went in!" shouted an official with the group. "A hole-in-one!"
Sammy jumped into Hanner's arms and shrieked, "No way." He grabbed his head with both hands, pulled off his visor, and accepted congratulations from Dull and his caddie. "An out-of-body experience," Sammy called it. The plaque that would be installed on that tee box three months later described the hole-in-one as "only the second such feat on a par-four in 120 years of USGA competition."
Glued to his computer, Sammy's father was trying to figure out how it was possible his son had won the hole when Dull's score was listed as a 2; he figured it was a simple scoring mistake. Sammy's brother Simon was also following the tournament online when Sammy's score came up as a 1. "I almost fell out of my chair," Simon said. "I clicked out of it by accident, reopened it, and I was all over the place. It said a 1 on a par-4. I sat there for two minutes and couldn't believe it."
Natalie was standing with Sammy's friends, Jesse Polk and Jordan Hawkinson, near the 15th green as the ball trickled down to the pin. When it vanished, "We started freaking out and running up and high-fiving each other. Sammy's buddies started crying, and one of them is talking about the Masters, and I'm like, 'Are you kidding me guys?' Pull your s--- together. We're not done yet," she said.
Sammy pulled the ball out of the cup, pumped it with his right fist, and started thinking some strange thoughts on his walk to the 16th tee, his lead up to three with three to play. He asked himself if he would go down as the first player in USGA history to make a hole in one on the 33rd hole, go dormie, and then lose. He answered his own question firmly with a striped 3-iron at the par-3 that nearly hit the stick. A two-putt par set off an emotional celebration with his wife and friends.
Sammy got the official Masters invitation in the mail on New Year's Eve, but he'd already made one of his practice trips to Augusta in early December. The club's elders allowed Sammy to bring his old man, to let him ride along in a cart, and father and son stayed out there as long as Sammy could see. A veteran club caddie showed him every trick of the Augusta National trade, and Steven Schmitz loved every minute of this bucket list item come to life. His son landed two tee shots on the 12th green and they celebrated with a beer right there on the Hogan Bridge and said Amen Corner to that.
"It was incredible," Steven said, "because I'm not used to being treated like a king."
Sammy? He couldn't get over how much the place blew away his own imagination, and the televised images that so moved his father at the Longbranch Saloon & Eatery the previous spring.
"I looked around in awe," Sammy said, "and I kept thinking about all the shots I'd seen the greats hit over the years on that golf course."
He tried Tiger Woods' forever chip shot on 16. He tried Phil Mickelson's shot from out of the pine straw on 13. He tried Bubba Watson's hook shot out of the woods on 10. He tried playing the course a couple of weeks ago with the scoreboards, bleachers and towers in place, just to simulate game-day conditions as much as possible.
This week, when he attempts to become the first Mid-Amateur champ to make a Masters cut, Sammy Schmitz gets to try everything for real. He will tee it up Thursday as the 2,535th-ranked amateur in the world, and as a banged-up former hockey player with a bad back and a shoulder that comes unhinged here and there.
His mother Barb, a buyer for an intermediate school district, will join her husband among the many family members in attendance. Steven considered driving to Augusta in his 1996 Toyota Camry, the one with 346,000 miles on it (he's not a big fan of flying), but couldn't get a refund on his already purchased plane ticket.
Simon will join his parents, too, and he said a weekend appearance in Rounds 3 and 4 for his brother would mean the world to him. He said Sammy helped him quit drinking in 2011, took him into his home. He said that Sunday would mark the fifth-year anniversary of the day he took his last drink.
"I caddied for him every tournament in 2011," Simon said, "and it was the first year he got state player of the year. That was a big season for me and him. Sammy gave me that spark again, got me going in the right direction. I don't want to take any credit for his success, but I think maybe him helping his brother made him feel like a better person and helped him play better."
This much is certain: Sammy Schmitz played good enough to earn his place in the Masters, where some Vegas oddsmakers list him at 2,500-1 to win. Truth be told, he has already beaten those odds. H has already won. Sammy has found a place for blue collars among the green jackets and, with a little help from a GoFundMe page, he's put you, Mr. Ordinary, inside one of the most extraordinary arenas in sports.
So go ahead and enjoy your two to four days inside the Augusta National ropes with Sammy Schmitz. And remember, don't change your shoes in the parking lot.