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Summer Champions: Shawn Koch
By Jim Heil

Playing mind games has its advantages for Howell's Shawn Koch. Koch used prodigious drives and deft putting in winning both the 87th Michigan Amateur Golf Championship at Boyne Highlands and the 77th GAM Championship at the CC of Detroit this summer.

In winning both amateur titles, Koch became only the sixth player to win those prestigious events in the same year. In accepting the GAM trophy, Koch said: "It has been a remarkable month -- one I will never forget."

But Koch, a psychology major at East Tennessee State University, took a mental approach into the Amateur that would have rivaled anything in his bag. It worked wonders for the 21-year-old Koch, who came seemingly equipped by sports shrink Bob Rotella in outwitting the challenges of The Heather and the CC of Detroit. "I'm very relaxed," Koch said prior to the championship match. "A lot of it has to do with my girlfriend (Megan Edwards of Atlanta, Ga., a tennis player at ETSU) being here. We've just decided that the other player has to be playing his best to beat me."

The medalist in stroke play in the 1997 Michigan Amateur, Koch cruised through match play this year teeming with confidence - an unlikely disposition considering he had yet to earn a collegiate victory in his three years at ETSU. "I really forgot how it felt to win a tournament," he said.

Koch beat Livonia's Stephen Polanski 2-and-1 in the title match. But his most pivotal match came in the Sweet 16 against this year's medalist, Lansing's Kevin Miller. Miller led 1-up with one hole remaining: No. 18, a par-4 that proved the toughest hole on The Heather to par in stroke play. As he had all week, Koch used a 3-wood to avoid the menacing pond fronting the green. His 7-iron approach shot drew a bead on the flagstick from 168 yards, stopping just a foot away.

His birdie putt forced a 19th hole against Miller. There, Koch drained a 12-foot downhill putt for birdie, ending what he called his toughest match ever. "I told myself before I played the medalist, `This guy has got to play his ultimate best to beat me,'" Koch said. "Ever since I said that, man, I started making bridies and doing things that were wonderful. It's kind of a little reverse psychology for me. "I put the pressure on him. Sure, there was pressure on me, but I didn't feel it."

The birdies sometimes came in streaks for Koch. Against West Bloomfield's Robert Sauer in the semifinals, Koch birdied Nos. 3, 4, 5 and 6 en route to winning in just 13 holes. And against Polanski in the final, he birdied Nos. 6, 7, 8 and 9 toward a front-nine 32 and a lead that would hold up the rest of the way.

Edwards, who caddied for Koch, helped keep his mind off the final match in between shots. The couple tried to come up with the words to the Dave Matthews tune "Ants Marching," easing any tension Koch may have felt. "She just kept my mind off the golf course in between shots, and that's exactly how you want to be," Koch said. "I was completely out of it, I wasn't there."

Koch, who led as much as 3-up, could smile confidently along the way. "I had a little nervousness on the first tee, but I was so at ease and so happy to be out there. You enjoy the moments, you enjoy being in the finals. I think that's why I persevered and ended up winning the tournament."

The combined ages of the Koch and Polanski made it the youngest Amateur final ever. But Koch was playing in his sixth Amateur -- he's still the youngest sectional qualifier in the tournament's history, at age 15 -- bringing more experience to the table.

Among those watching Koch in the gallery was his father, John, the golf pro at Oak Pointe Country Club in Brighton. John Koch started teaching his son the game when he was about 7, and remains the only person the younger Koch trusts with his swing. Shawn Koch likens their teacher-student relationship to the one between Nick Faldo and David Leadbetter.

"If my dad says something, I can cue it in my brain and I can try really hard to do what his says," he said. "I get to learn more about my swing and the golf swing itself, and then I can work on it myself. He's a very good teacher and I'm probably his best student.

"He was always there to help me. And I really wanted him to be there Sunday, whether win or lose. I went on to win, and it was a great moment for both of us."

His Amateur victory may have marked Koch's greatest personal triumph since winning the 1994 Class A state championship as a senior at Howell High School. Koch spurned offers to play golf at a number of Big Ten schools in opting for ETSU, figuring the South was where he could best refine his game. Perhaps his best shot at a college win came at the start of last fall, when Koch, a junior, fired a first-round 69 in the Palmetto Golf Classic. But Koch would finish 10th, setting the tone for another season without a victory.

"I just wanted to win a golf tournament," he said. "I just kept saying, 'When am I going to win?' I was just having the hardest time and I couldn't break through. I was hitting the ball just about as good as anyone. It killed me, because I felt I had the game to do things."

With a final year of eligibility at ETSU ahead of him, Koch figures he will turn pro no later than the start of the year 2000. He draws inspiration from former teammate Keith Nolan, who earned his PGA card in the final stage of qualifying, fresh out of college.

Koch knows the college ranks today are what he could see a few years down the road on the professional circuit. But again, he isn't getting ahead of himself. Right now, he's content being the 1998 Michigan Amateur champion.

In Koch's bag:
DRIVER: Callaway Biggest Big Bertha
THREE WOOD: Callaway Warbird
IRONS (3-IRON TO WEDGE): Ping ISI stainless steel
TWO IRON: Ping Zing
PUTTER: Scotty Cameron Titleist

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