ROLAND — With five full years of professional golf experience under his belt, Wes McNulty of White Hall is having more fun playing the sport as an amateur.
It probably shows in his estimated 40 to 50 amateur victories, including six Arkansas State Golf Association Stroke Play championships.
“Since I’ve been an amateur in ’04, I’ve enjoyed it so much, I’ve probably played better than I did then (on the PGA Tour’s developmental circuit),” the 44-year-old said.
A former University of Arkansas golfer, McNulty won twice on what is now known as the Web.com Tour in the mid-1990s. But the grind of playing as a pro wasn’t fun for him after a few years.
“(My oldest son) Jake was born in ’97, and my golf game was in shambles, to say the least,” he said. “I didn’t have very much fun. I just gave it up after ’97, and I got my amateur status back in ’04 and started playing again.”
McNulty teed off Tuesday in the prestigious Western Amateur Championship as one of the most experienced and oldest amateurs in the field, taking on many of the world’s top-ranked amateurs at The Alotian Club. He, along with Joey Nichols of Little Rock, received exemptions to play in this six-day major amateur tournament.
McNulty said after his practice round on Monday that his first goal was to make the cut. He said he expected a younger golfer to win it.
Nichols, 40, said he was just honored to get to play in the Western Amateur.
“While I have expectations — I certainly want to play well — I’m going to try to come out here and relax and enjoy it,” he said.
This year’s Western Amateur features 54 of the world’s top-100 amateur players, including top-ranked Cory Whitsett of NCAA champion Alabama, California junior and 2013 U.S. Open low amateur Michael Kim, and this year’s British and Scottish Amateur champ Garrick Porteous, from the country of England. Centerton resident Patrick Lee won the Western Amateur in 1995 and is one of nine Arkansans in the event.
Lane Hulse of Fordyce, along with McNulty, will represent Southeast Arkansas in the tournament. Hulse, a rising senior at South Alabama, was the medalist in the Sun Belt Conference tournament in April.
Golf greats such as Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Jack Nicklaus and Ben Crenshaw have Western Amateur victories on their resumes. A good showing at this year’s edition will be another highlight to McNulty’s season, which includes a record sixth ASGA Stroke Play title won in June.
He’s trying to bounce back from a disastrous final round Sunday in the Maumelle Classic — which he considers Arkansas’ third amateur major behind the ASGA Stroke and Match plays — that took him out of contention. He followed up rounds of 72 and 71 with an 80 on Sunday, tying for 16th place.
“It does (give me worries),” said McNulty, whose practice session Monday was only his second round ever at The Alotian. “It definitely gives me question marks I wish I didn’t have right now. I had a great practice round (Monday), but I hit some good shots (Monday), so I feel OK. It’s a matter of whether my old legs are going to hold up on this course.”
The steep inclines of The Alotian themselves will test the athleticism of the golfers, who already face a test of endurance with the Western Amateur’s format. One 18-hole round will be played each day, Tuesday through Friday, with the field cut from 156 to 44 after Wednesday and to 16 after Friday. The 16 survivors will compete in match play — 36 holes Saturday and 36 on Sunday — to determine the champion.
“The greens are going to be the biggest challenge besides walking this place,” McNulty said. “Besides being able to walk 18 holes, being able to read the greens correctly and gauge the speed of the greens correctly — that’s going to be the biggest challenge.”
Nichols and McNulty say The Alotian is the hilliest course they’ve ever played.
“The challenge of walking the golf course and trying to stay physically in the shape where you can play it well is a big key, especially for older guys like Wes, myself and Stan (Payne of Little Rock),” Nichols said. “We’re all 40 and up, and it’s a big challenge.”
Said McNulty: “You wouldn’t believe something like this would be in Arkansas. The changes in elevation are drastic and dramatic, both. They’re just gorgeous views.”