Golf

U.S. Amateur golf championship steeped in history, characters

America’s oldest golf tournament is rooted in the oldest of golf traditions: The alibi.

Charles B. Macdonald, who as the founding father of the sport in the U.S. was a man who considered himself second to nobody, had in fact finished second in a pair of 1894 events unofficially touted as national championships.

At Newport, R.I., Macdonald was beaten by one stroke after he was assessed a two-stroke penalty for removing his golf ball from a stone wall. He argued that the penalty was not legitimate – 116 years before Whistling Straits, controversial rules interpretations were alive and well – and refused to acknowledge W.G. Lawrence as any kind of national champion.

Furthermore, Macdonald contended, medal play was no way to decide a winner.

A month later, in Yonkers, N.Y., Macdonald finished second in a match-play championship more to his liking. But he hadn’t felt well before the final round, and following the advice of a friend, he lunched on a large steak and a bottle of champagne. Macdonald decided it was the lunch – and, OK, possibly the champagne – that caused him to slice his drive on the 19th hole and lose his match to Lawrence B. Stoddard.

Although his excuses were flimsy, Macdonald raised a fair point: There was no officially acknowledged American golf championship because there was no national governing body entrusted to oversee such a tournament. So he pushed for the creation of the American Golf Association of the U.S., soon renamed the United States Golf Association.

Thus the U.S. Amateur was born at the Newport Golf Club in 1895 – a day before the debut of its more illustrious sibling, the U.S. Open, on the same course. Both tournaments came to be recognized as the preeminent American championships, forming a major foursome with the British Amateur and the British Open.

Although both the U.S. and British amateur championships have been phased out of the majors cycle – replaced by the Masters and PGA Championship – no less an authority than Jack Nicklaus has insisted the two Havemeyer trophies he won as an amateur represented his first major victories.

Nicklaus’ perspective is steeped in admiration for his childhood hero, Bobby Jones, whose unprecedented, unduplicated 1930 sweep of the British Amateur, British Open, U.S. Open and U.S. Amateur represented an early version of the Grand Slam.

Jones’ five U.S. Amateur titles remain a record, and place him atop the pantheon of icons whose names are associated with a tournament whose first winner was, yep, Charles Macdonald.

The list of former U.S. Amateur champs reads like a Who’s Who of golf: Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Craig Stadler, Mark O’Meara, Phil Mickelson and, of course, Tiger Woods, whose 1996 final-round comeback at Pumpkin Ridge, outside Portland, gave him his third straight U.S. Amateur championship – another record.

But the history of the tournament also has been enriched by names unfamilar to casual fans. There’s H.J. Whigham, the 1896 and 1897 champion for whom golf was a recreation. (His full-time job was drama critic for the Chicago Tribune.)

There’s Willie Turnesa, another two-time champ (1938, 1948) who was the youngest of seven brothers – and the only one who didn’t turn pro. There’s 1981 winner Nathaniel Crosby, whose dad was a Tacoma-born singer of note.

Dominated for more than a century by Americans, the U.S. Amateur’s honor roll of champions has gone global in recent years. Nick Flanagan (2003) is from Australia. Edoardo Molinari (2005) is from Italy. Richie Ramsay (2006) is from Scotland. Danny Lee (2008) is from New Zealand, and An Beeong-hun (2009) is from South Korea.

That international trend was temporarily bucked, in 2004, by UNLV golfer Ryan Moore, from Puyallup.

Moore has yet to join the select company of winners of professional majors. While he’s waiting, he might want to remember that seven years lapsed between Lanny Wadkins’ 1970 U.S. Amateur victory over Tom Kite and his 1977 PGA Championship victory over Gene Littler. Asked by a reporter to describe the elation of winning his first major, Wadkins corrected the score.

“This,” he said, “is my second.”

Five memorable U.S. Amateur tournaments

1930

On Merion’s East Course, Bobby Jones’ attempt to make golf history with his sweep of that era’s four majors concludes with a match-play finale against Eugene Homans.

Gracious, photogenic, modest and brilliant – he earned a mechanical engineering degree from Georgia Tech, a B.A. degree in English Literature at Harvard, and passed the Georgia bar exam after a year of law school at Emory University – Jones’ popularity in 1930 was comparable to that of Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey and Red Grange. A gallery estimated at 9,000 follows Jones from the first hole. As he closes in on his 8-and-7 victory in his final round of official competition, the crowd swells to 18,000.

Jones’ sweep of the majors is called, in the words of the New York Sun’s George Trevor, “the impregnable quadrilateral.” Later, in a retrospective, the Atlanta Journal’s O.B. Keeler – originator of the term “Grand Slam” as it applies to the golf majors – writes of the achievement:

“This victory, the fourth major title in the same season and in the space of four months, had now and for all time entrenched Bobby Jones safely with the ‘Impregnable Quadrilateral of Golf,’ that granite fortress that he alone could take by escalade and that others may attack in vain, forever.”

1952

Two Washington golfers, born a generation apart, are the stars of a final-day showdown at the Seattle Country Club. Everett’s Jack Westland, a 47-year-old with political aspirations – he’s a Republican running for Congress – is paired against Spokane’s Al Mengert, 23, fresh out of the Air Force. Golf can be an endurance test, especially when a 47-year-old is grinding it out, over 36 holes, against an opponent whose military service has rendered him in fighting shape.

Except Mengert is in no shape for the 36 holes. He’s been weakened by the flu, a disclosure he won’t elaborate upon until contacted by the Seattle Times on the eve of the 2010 U.S. Amateur at Chambers Bay.

The 1952 tournament, in any case, turns on the 16th hole of the afternoon round, when Westland, who is 2-up, puts his approach shot from the light rough within a few feet of the pin. He wins. 3-and-2, distinguishing himself as the oldest champion in U.S. Amateur history.

A few months later, Westland wins his race for the Congressional seat.

1954

The turning point of Arnold Palmer’s career – and, by extension, the turning point of golf’s appeal on television – is realized at the Country Club of Detroit, where the Cleveland paint salesman survives his seventh tough match of the tournament. Palmer’s final opponent is Bob Sweeny, a larger-than-life character seemingly taken from a movie script: A decorated World War II bomber pilot turned investment banker, with homes in Palm Beach, Long Island and Europe.

(“We hailed,” Palmer would recall, “from different galaxies.”)

The tense match isn’t decided until the final hole, when Sweeny’s drive is lost in tall grass before Palmer delivers a 250-yard shot down the right side of the fairway. Deciding there’s no sense in searching for the ball, Sweeny turns to Palmer and says:

“Congratulations, Arnold, you win.”

Palmer’s world changes in a hurry. Instead of returning to his sales job in Cleveland, he accepts an invitation to play in bandleader Fred Waring’s annual celebrity tournament, where he meets Winifred Walzer, the woman who becomes his wife.

1959

The teenaged Jack Nicklaus nails down his first national title at the Broadmoor Golf Club in Colorado Springs, Colo. The kid from Ohio has reason to be intimidated – his opponent in the final is Charlie Coe, the defending champion who also won in 1949, about the time Nicklaus was learning how to carry the decimal point in grade school – but the challenger finds a sense of serenity in the Rocky Mountains.

On the final hole, Coe’s approach shot runs off the green, while Nicklaus punches a 9-iron to 8 feet from the cup.

“As I addressed that 8-foot putt, I just knew I could and would make it,” Nicklaus would write in his 1997 autobiography. “I struck the ball firmly, playing about a 2-inch left-to-right break. From the moment it left the blade it was never in doubt.

“It took me quite a few days to wind down from that monumental match. … And it was only after many years I truly began to realize what a milestone in my life I had accomplished up there in the Rockies on Sunday, Sept. 19, 1959. If there is ever really a moment when a man can say a dream began and he began to try to give it substance, this for me was that moment.”

1996

A two-time defending champion who finds himself needing to make up five holes over the final 18, Tiger Woods storms back to overtake Steve Scott on the Witch Hollow course at Pumpkin Ridge. Scott, from the University of Florida, is steady and composed, to the point he’s unflappable. But how do you stop an unstoppable force?

Woods wins the third hole of the afternoon round, then the fourth hole, the fifth hole, and the ninth hole. Scott answers with a spectacular birdie chip on par-3 10th hole, and follows it with another birdie on 11. Against anybody else, the back-to-back birdies are rally-killers. Against Tiger, they’re stall tactics. He trumps Scott’s birdie at No. 11 with an eagle.

“I thought I could build a little momentum,” Scott will say later, “and he just killed it with that eagle. Just killed it. I thought I was going to keep going and he killed the momentum.”

Two extra playoff holes are required to finally seal the deal, but nobody among the 8,000 fans at Witch Hollow doubts Woods’ destiny once he drains the 30-foot putt that squares the match after 36 holes.

Watching his foe’s magic show, powerless to intercede, Scott is left to talk to himself.

“Unbelievable,” he says.

Five intriguing champions

CHANDLER EGAN

Chicago born, Harvard educated, Egan’s back-to-back victories in 1904-05 set a precedent that has more or less continued for 105 years: The collegiate golfer as amateur champion.

In 1911, during the prime of his career but at a personal crossroads – his first marriage had failed – Egan relocated to Oregon, where he converted an orchard he bought in Medford into a golf course. Egan ended up achieving wider acclaim as a designer than he did as a player, supervising the construction of 11 courses in Oregon as well as Indian Canyon in Spokane and the West Seattle Golf Club. It was during his supervision of Everett’s Legion Memorial golf course that Egan contracted a fatal case of pneumonia in 1936.

JERRY TRAVERS

A four-time tournament winner between 1907 and 1913, the slightly built Travers was a match-play terror but indifferent at stroke play. Gruff and calculating – “totally lacking in what today is called charisma,” as 1922 Amateur champion Jess Sweetser put it – Travers went on to win the 1915 U.S. Open, then pretty much dropped out of sight at the age of 28. While theories range from burnout to lifestyle choices, Travers reemerged as a pro, without success, after the 1929 collapse of the stock market.

LAWSON LITTLE

A few years after Jones’ retirement in 1930, Little, a Stanford graduate, began a match-play run that might’ve been as impressive as Jones’ “impregnable quadrilateral.” Between 1934 and ’35, Little became the first golfer to sweep the U.S. and British amateurs in consecutive years. In other words, he won 32 consecutive matches on both sides of the Atlantic.

Nicknamed “Cannonball,” the 5-foot-9, 200-pound Little was known not only for his explosive drives but his savvy short game. He carried as many as seven different wedges in his bag, and is cited as the reason the USGA put a 14-club limit on golfers in 1938.

“The man who doesn’t plan out every shot to the very top of his capacity for thought can’t attain championship form,” Little once said. “Winners hit their bad shots best.”

BUD WARD

Although he golfed out of Spokane, Ward – U.S. Amateur champion in 1939 and ’41 – learned his craft on a nine-hole course in his home town of Elma. After his ’39 victory, Time Magazine described him as “icy-veined … a golfer’s golfer.”

The magazine continued: “Three years ago, nobody had ever heard of him. Two years ago, he lost to Johnny Goodman, one down, in the national amateur semifinals, made the 1938 Walker Cup team on the strength of that. The U.S. lost the Walker Cup, but it was not Bud’s fault. He won his match, against England champ Frank Pennink, by the unheard-of margin of 12-up.

“This spring he lambasted most of the pros in the business in the national Open, got upset when one of his iron shots cold-cocked a spectator, missed the big triple tie for first place by one stroke.

“Before last week’s play started, 15 of 17 New York aspirants thought he would win. So did Bobby Jones.”

VINNIE GILES

The University of Georgia graduate was a runner-up three straight times during the late 1960s before beating Ben Crenshaw in 1972.

Despite his obvious talent, Giles resisted the chance to turn pro for the typical reasons (newly married, he and his wife didn’t want to live in hotel rooms) and one you might find surprising: Giles determined the money on the PGA Tour wasn’t all that lucrative. (Its total purse in 1966 was $3.7 million; the year’s leading money winner was lucky to finish with $100,000.)

Giles went to law school and turned his focus to the burgeoning sports-agent industry. He founded Pros, Inc. in 1973, which he sold to Octogan in 1999. Among the golfers Giles represented are Tom Kite, Lanny Wadkins, Justin Leonard, Davis Love III, Beth Daniel and Crenshaw.

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.com

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