Blake Hartford wins the 2020 Greater Houston City Amateur Championship

By Richard Dean

Before Blake Hartford could lay claim as winner of the 2020 Houston city amateur, he had a good golf foundation to build from. 

At age 14, Hartford began playing in junior tournaments conducted by the Houston Golf Association. The same volunteer-based group that annually runs the Greater Houston City Amateur Golf Championships.

Playing the city amateur for the first time, Hartford navigated the short, but difficult, Gus Wortham Golf Course better than anyone, winning the 2020 championship by a whopping 6 shots, shooting a 7-under 273.

From starting as a junior golfer to city champion in eight years speaks volumes about Hartford’s game.

“I played HGA junior golf and junior golf my whole life through them,” said the 22-year-old Hartford, a Conroe resident who graduated from Klein Collins High School and Texas A&M-Commerce. “And I played the junior match play which is pretty big here.

“So it’s pretty cool to come back and win the actual (city) amateur championship.”

And win the championship he did. Hartford overcame a shaky opening nine holes, which included two double bogeys, in Friday’s opening-round 1-over 71. But Hartford came out firing on Saturday, shooting a 5-under-65 and positioning himself into contention heading into Sunday’s 36 holes.

On the final day, Hartford shot a 3-under 67 in the morning and a respectable even-par 70 in the afternoon. Justin Kaplan of Houston and Kyle Maxwell of The Woodlands shared second at 1-under 279. But Kaplan, who plays out of The Club at Carlton Woods, was awarded second place based on the tiebreaker as his final-round 66 was better than Maxwell’s closing 68.

For Kaplan, it’s his fourth runner-up finish in this tournament. He finished fourth last year here.

“I’m kind of the Phil Mickelson of the city am,” said Kaplan, referencing Mickelson’s six runner-up finishes without a win in the U.S. Open. “I’m going to keep trying, I hope this second-place finish doesn’t keep going on. I’m going to give it a run again next year, but it’s always fun to play here and play well.”

Kaplan’s 66 in Sunday’s afternoon round, which included eight birdies, was low score of the round, an impressive showing with the wind picking up. Kaplan, winner of the 2017 Carlton Woods Invitational, switched putters following his morning-round 71 and that move proved beneficial.

“I hit it really well all day,” said the 32-year-old Kaplan, who began the final round 10 shots back of Hartford. “I just putted awful in the morning. And this afternoon I started making putts. 

“I was so far back, I was 3 over going into the final round and I knew I had to put up as low of a score I could shoot. I think I did. I played pretty well, he just played great.”

Helping Hartford achieve success was that he made changes as well throughout the three-day tournament.

“First day, I didn’t really have it, not playing great,” said Hartford, who put together rounds of 71-65-67-70. “Second day, I came about an hour-and-a-half before my second round and putted, hit a lot of balls, and something clicked.

“Then a great round (Saturday), 65. One of my lowest rounds in a tournament. And today just kept it going, very consistent. Probably one of the better putting weeks of my life, so it was really fun.”

Normally a par-71 for recreational golfers, for the city amateur the course played as a par 70 totaling around 6,400 yards.

“The greens were in unbelievable shape,” Hartford said. “The greens got really fast this afternoon and they did a great job taking care of it. It plays pretty tough for a short course. I was surprised at how hard it actually ended up playing.”

Shaheen Momin of Sugar Land finished fourth at even-par 280. Patrick Burke of Houston was fifth at 2-over 282 followed by Nick Marlow at 3-over 283.

Not only was Hartford playing in this event for the first time, he had never played Gus Wortham until three weeks ago, a Saturday before he qualified at Hearthstone Country Club.

Hartford was beaming with delight as he held up the winner’s trophy following what he called his biggest individual accomplishment in golf. But his victory wasn’t without a few bumps. 

After making birdie on the No. 1 hole in Friday’s opening round, things got a little dicey. He made double bogey on the second hole. He three-putted No. 7 hole as well and found himself at 3 over before making the turn.

“I birdied the first hole and jokingly told my dad, ‘Hey, I’ve been birding the first hole a lot lately, maybe that jinx is over.’ I proceeded to double (bogey) the next hole,” Hartford said.

“I don’t know if I thought I had a chance to win, the cut was almost in my mind at that point. Am I going to make the cut?”

Making the cut proved to be no problem based on his second-day 65. From there it was pretty much smooth sailing for Hartford, as long as he didn’t do anything foolish.

“I knew I was in control at that point,” said Hartford, who is working towards his master’s degree at Texas A&M-Commerce and works for a defense contractor. “So I, not coasted, but I was able to hit fairways and greens and try to shoot somewhere around even (par), which I did. 

“I kind of knew no one was going to make a run. I tried to shoot as well as I could without trying to get too aggressive and do something dumb.”

He didn’t, and as a result Hartford has his name on a trophy that hundreds of golfers around the Houston area go after every year.