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Orthodontist qualifies for two national golf championships, sets sights on third

January 16, 2012

By Karen Fox, ADA News staff

Bethlehem, Pa.—Orthodontist Joe Viechnicki enjoyed the experiences of a lifetime in 2011, playing in not one but two United States Golf Association championships: the U.S. Senior Open and the U.S. Senior Amateur. As 2012 rolls around, he's poised for a run at the British Seniors Open Amateur Championship Aug. 8-10 in Wales.

Big time: Dr. Joe Viechnicki reacts after nearly holing out his chip shot on the ninth hole during a practice round at the U.S. Senior Open in July 2011. Photos copyright USGA/John Mumemrt

The U.S. Senior Open Championship is golf's premier over 50 event, and Dr. Viechnicki was one of only 25 amateurs to qualify. Entries were open to any professional or amateur with a USGA Handicap Index not exceeding 3.4 and who turns 50 on or before the tournament's date. Dr. Viechnicki, 58, came into the open with a Handicap Index of 1.7. The event was a 156-player field with 78 golfers fully exempt, including 13 past champions.

Dr. Viechnicki played in the Senior Open July 28-31 at Toledo, Ohio's Inverness Club, experiencing the highs and lows of an amateur playing alongside the likes of Mark Calcavecchia and Tom Lehman. At Inverness, he struggled with the course and conditions and missed the cut.

"Joe had some good shots, which were eclipsed by too many that weren't quite good enough. While he had a lot of chances, a few putts fell short and his short game was not up to snuff," his wife Dr. Margaret Viechnicki wrote to the ADA News. "You can lose five or more shots with circumstances like that. Playing that much golf—18 holes each of the five days and practice on the driving range—at the highest intensity put a lot of pressure on the golf swing and especially the short game."

Even so, it was a wonderful experience. Added Dr. Joe Viechnicki: "I was one of seven senior amateurs to qualify for the U.S. Senior Open and the Senior Amateur. This was a standout year."

Olin Browne, 52, a pro who shot 15-under-par in an unbelievable finish ultimately won the tournament. Mark O'Meara shared the lead with him down the stretch but finished runner-up with Mr. Calcavecchia in third, and Hale Irwin tied for fourth with Ohio State University's Joey Sindelar.

"At the Senior Open, you have pros and amateurs, so it's a little more difficult," said Dr. Viechnicki. "The quality of play is much higher. We still had to qualify for the Senior Amateur but there were no pros involved."

"Playing for five days straight like that [in the Senior Open], what happens is that you get mentally exhausted because every shot means something," said Dr. Viechnicki. "Physically I was OK because I work out and am in good shape. But mentally every shot has to be perfect."

Adding to the pressure was a challenging course at Inverness. "If you missed a shot, you paid for it," he said. "The greens were severe and there were lots of undulations. If you hit the ball on the wrong side of the green, you couldn't chip and putt close to the hole. It would scurry off 3-4 feet from the pin. It was difficult to get up and down from the rough, too. The rough was very high."

Among the pros: Dr. Viechnicki plays his tee shot in a practice round at the Senior Open. Photos copyright USGA/John Mumemrt

Playing in the Senior Open gave him added confidence to make the most of the opportunity at the USGA's Senior Amateur, held Sept. 10-15, 2011, at Kinloch Golf Club in Manakin-Sabot, Va., where the field included 156 qualifiers out of 2,287 entries.

"It was a 36-hole qualifier to get into the match play portion of the tournament. I shot 2-over-par and seeded 12th out of the 64 that qualified." In match play, Dr. Viechnicki won the first but lost the second. Louis Lee, 55, of Heber Springs, Ark., took home the championship trophy in the Senior Amateur.

The USGA championships capped off a year of amazing feats for Dr. Viechnicki, who won back-to-back club championships at the Saucon Valley Country Club of Bethlehem, Pa., in 1995-96. He has tried to qualify for the U.S. Senior Open four times since turning 50 but fell short until 2011.

Dr. Viechnicki earned his spot in the Senior Open in June 2011 at the Country Club at Woodmore in Mitchellville, Md., where he made crucial plays down the stretch, including sinking a 4-foot birdie putt on the first sudden-death playoff hole to win a six-man playoff for the final spot.

When he found out he was going to the Senior Open, his first thought was "my staff is going to kill me," he told a reporter for the U.S. Golf Association, "because we're going to have to cancel and reschedule patients for the whole week."

He wouldn't have had it any other way. "I had a great summer," he said. "It was an incredible experience to be able to play in front of thousands of people like that. It's different from anything I've known."

Next up is the Aug. 8-10 British Seniors Open Amateur Championship at Machynys Peninsula in South Wales while he competes for another shot at the U.S. Senior Open. Having an opportunity to rub elbows with golf greats may have been a once-in-a-lifetime experience but it's one he hopes to replicate.

"I'm trying my darndest to do it again. My wife tells me this is the year," Dr. Viechnicki said.

The Viechnickis were surrounded by family and friends on the 2011 tournament circuit. His brother Dr. Bill Viechnicki, an orthodontist, caddied for him in the practice round at the Senior Open, as did friend Dr. Ed Magann, a dentist. Large group dinners were scheduled with friends every night. His "Individual Player Notes " in the USGA guide made mention of the fact that Dr. Joe Viechnicki "is an orthodontist, and his wife, son, brother, niece and her husband are also dentists. Even his caddie in the 2011 U.S. Senior Open was a dentist."

During the Open, pros and amateurs shared meals and practice time. "The pros were so nice, very congenial," said Dr. Viechnicki. "There were only 26 of us amateurs there. We'd yuck it up a little, but by Thursday and Friday when their play started, they were all business."

Dr. Viechnicki has orthodontic practices in Bethlehem and Kutztown, Pa. He graduated from Temple University School of Dental Medicine in 1979 and completed his orthodontic residency in 1981. He is a past president of Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley Orthodontic Society.