AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Randal Lewis launched his Masters week by playing a practice round with Tom Watson. The pairing made sense -- two players defying Father Time -- so Lewis wrote to Watson and requested the round, and the eight-time major champion happily obliged.Wait, you haven't heard of Randal Lewis?
He's a 54-year-old financial planner from Michigan -- yes, he has a real job, a golf-playing wife and two sons (one named Nicklaus) in college. He spent four weeks as a pro in the early 1980s. Now he squeezes in weeknight practice sessions after work and usually plays full rounds only on weekends.
Lewis also won the U.S. Mid-Amateur in September, which earned him a tee time in this week's Masters.
One of the coolest things about the tournament Bobby Jones founded is its high regard for amateurs. Lewis arrived at Augusta National as the most improbable player in the field.
"I've been thinking about it every day for six months," he said last week from Florida, where he went to prepare for the tournament. "I'm ready. It's definitely time."
Sandy Tatum, a former USGA president, was on the organization's executive committee from 1972 to 1980. Even then, college-age players were starting to commandeer elite amateur tournaments.
Tatum found it troubling to see "true amateurs" -- players with day jobs who pursued golf as an avocation -- increasingly shoved aside. So he shrewdly helped hatch the Mid-Amateur, which started in 1981 and is open to players 25 years and older.
It gave those beyond their college days a chance to compete at a high level, and, thanks to Augusta National's fondness for amateurs, chase a spot in the Masters. Still, the Mid-Amateur champions predictably tilt toward the younger end of the spectrum.
None of the previous eight winners was older than 38. Five were 32 or younger. No player in his 50s had won the Mid-Amateur in the event's history -- until Lewis defeated Kenny Cook, a 31-year-old accountant from Indiana.
And now here's a truly amateur golfer, with no aspirations or illusions of joining the PGA Tour, preparing to play on the game's most storied stage.
"This puts emphasis on the basic reason we decided to create that event," Tatum said. "It's a perfect example. The fact he's playing in the Masters gives the Mid-Amateur its ultimate dimension."
Lewis lives in Alma, a small town in the center of Michigan's Lower Peninsula. He drives three minutes to his office and even less to his home course, Pine River Country Club.
He played golf at Central Michigan, as did his wife, Melanie. This is good because she understands his passion and encourages him to spend time on the course. This is treacherous because she often shoots in the 70s and not long ago posted 71, leaving Lewis uncertain of victory until the 17th hole.
Lewis typically enters three or four state amateur events in Michigan, and also tries to qualify for the Mid-Amateur and U.S. Senior Open. He had reached the Mid-Am final in 1996 -- heartbreakingly close to landing a berth in the Masters -- but he didn't enjoy a breakthrough until September outside Houston.
Lewis won despite routinely hitting his tee shots 60 yards shorter than Cook hit his. That's nothing new for Lewis, who found solace in plopping his approach shots onto the green first and putting pressure on his opponent.
He savored the distinction of becoming the tournament's oldest winner, saying, "That meant a lot. I knew the window was almost closed."
Now he tackles Augusta National, paradise for power hitters. Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and other tour pros will swat shots into another galaxy. Lewis -- and Watson, for that matter -- will plod along, scrambling to reach greens in regulation.
"I think making the cut is attainable, but a lot of things have to go right," Lewis said. "It's not like I've been working at my game for six months."
But this is not about making the cut, really. This is about the tradition of amateur golf and its place in Masters lore. And it's about Lewis spending one memorable Monday playing Augusta National alongside Watson, whom he long has admired.
"He really inspired me at the '09 British," Lewis said, referring to Watson's spirited run at Turnberry. "He showed old guys like me what you can do."