Alex Smalley held the lead through all four rounds of last year’s Sunnehanna Amateur Tournament for Champions.
The record-breaking Duke University golfer from Wake Forest, North Carolina, blistered the par-70 Sunnehanna Country Club course with a 6-under 64 in the second round in 2018.
Smalley knows those impressive facts won’t matter much once the first round of the 66th annual Sunnehanna Amateur opens on Wednesday.
“At the end of the day, it’s just golf. It’s just a game,” Smalley said during a break in Tuesday’s Sponsor/Amateur event. “It’s nice to be recognized as the defending champion but that doesn’t help me at all this year.
“I just have to do what I did last year and see where that will get me.”
What Smalley did last year in his first appearance at Sunnehanna was quite impressive.
He shared the lead with Sahith Theegala after the first round, then used his 64 to move atop the leaderboard and remain there. He shot a 1-under 69 in the third round and was a steady even-par 70 on the final day. His 11-under-par 269 was two strokes better than runner-up Quade Cummins, who also returns this year.
“It’s obviously a course I’m comfortable on,” said Smalley, who previously had announced his plans to turn professional later this year.
“It’s nice to be back and see the course again and be here again. I’ll probably take a very similar approach to it and just kind of go out there and try to copy what I did last year, manage my misses and see where that will get me.”
Groups from a record field of 101 will tee off at 8 a.m. on Wednesday. Smalley, Cummins and Theegala will play together and tee off at 11:30 a.m.
“We have a very good field. I think the tournament’s reputation among the players is overwhelmingly positive,” said John Yerger, who is the Sunnehanna Amateur co-chairman with Brian Chirillo. “We’re housing more players, caddies and parents than we’ve ever had. It’s close to 100.
“We appreciate the support of the membership and there are 11 families who are not members who are housing players. Without their support and generosity we could not have the level of tournament we have.”
The Amateur has produced some of the game’s top players for nearly 70 years, with Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Rickie Fowler, Jordan Spieth and Phil Mickelson just a few of the marquee names of former Sunnehanna participants.
Thirty-eight former contestants have won a total of 89 majors, with 28 major wins coming since 2000. A total of 167 former contestants have won a combined 1,271 tournaments on the PGA Tour, according to Sunnehanna organizers.
Nineteen of those have been named PGA Player of the Year since 1990.
Smalley said his earning the coveted green jacket at Sunnehanna last June propelled him to a strong summer and fall, which was followed by what probably will be deemed a NCAA All-American performance with the Blue Devils this spring.
“It helped a lot because the field last year was really, really strong,” said Smalley, one of the top players in Duke history.
“It gave me a little confidence knowing I can compete with some of the best in amateur golf when I’m playing well. It spring-boarded me off to a really good summer.
“I didn’t play that well at the U.S. Am or the Western Am at the end of the summer, but I had a really good college season.”
Smalley earned his third all-Atlantic Coast Conference selection as a senior with the Blue Devils. He held Duke records for rounds in the 60s, par-or-better rounds, top-5, top-10 and top-20 finishes, among other marks.
Last weekend, he went 3-1 in Palmer Cup matches, though Team USA fell to Team International, 33.5-26.5.
“It’s great to be back,” Smalley added. “It did wonders for the last year for me. It definitely will be a point I’ll remember for a long time.
“This place will always have a special place in my heart.”