News & Opinion

Amateur summer: Last chance to be a kid

Pinehurst Resort [No. 5]
Ellis Maples' No. 5 design may not garner the attention or accolades of its Pinehurst Resort brethren, but it remains a solid and firm test of golf. The 15th hole's green is tightly guarded by water in front and bunkers on either side.

Enjoy your summers while you can

Memo to high-profile college golfers: Enjoy your summers while you can. Everything changes when you start playing for pay.

Golf’s roots are in the amateur game, in which competitors play for self, not money. The summer tournament circuit for accomplished amateurs, which begins in earnest this week with the men’s Dogwood Invitational at Druid Hills in Atlanta and the Women’s Southern Amateur at Lockwood Folly in Supply, N.C., still retains much of that quaintness.

That backdrop makes amateur golf a gold mine for media. Anyone can walk along within earshot of contestants. The players are accessible and forthright, qualities that tend to be suppressed once they turn professional and engage the services of management teams. Tournament organizers appreciate media attention, unlike the professional tours, which increasingly regard journalists as a nuisance.

Roughly 25 men’s tournaments compose the nationwide amateur circuit. Women enjoy fewer opportunities during the summer months, with nine U.S. tournaments listed as significant events on AmateurGolf.com. The season ends in August with the U.S. Amateurs: the men at Pinehurst in North Carolina and the women at Old Waverly in Mississippi.

Long histories and exceptional golf courses distinguish many events on the amateur circuit. The men’s and women’s U.S. Amateurs debuted in 1895. The North & South Amateur at Pinehurst boasts of being the longest continuously run tournament in American golf, with the inaugural for men in 1901 and for women two years later. (The national amateur championships were suspended during the two world wars, but the North & South played on.)

The Northeast Amateur is contested over Wannamoisett Country Club, a diabolical 1914 Donald Ross design in Rumford, R.I. The Sunnehanna Amateur in Johnstown, Pa., challenges its field with a 1923 A.W. Tillinghast gem. The Women’s Western Amateur also has been played uninterrupted since 1901, but the Women’s Western Golf Association rotates venues throughout its region. The men’s Western Amateur, which began in 1899, visits different courses in the Midwest (this year Point O’ Woods in Michigan, one of Robert Trent Jones’ best), and subjects its contestants to the most grueling format in golf: 72 holes of stroke play in three days, with the top 16 advancing to two days of match play. That means the champion plays a minimum of 112 holes in five days, but more likely 135-140, and conceivably more than 150 if he’s in a playoff after regulation medal play, and is extended to extra holes in each round of match play.

Almost every player on the PGA Tour holds fond memories of summers on the amateur circuit. No academic tests to worry about. Archrivals become friends. Any pressure to perform comes from within. In many ways, it’s the last chance to be a kid.

I witnessed the camaraderie first-hand many times, reporting from dozens of amateur tournaments in the late 1990s-early 2000s. My favorite always will be the Sunnehanna, because I grew up not far away. Johnstown is blue collar, and the Sunnehanna Country Club membership is devoid of pretension and intensely proud of its course and the tournament. The Sunnehanna began in 1954 and counts Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler among its participants.

Plus, there’s The Haven Lounge. That’s where much of the field congregates every evening – a terrific opportunity to get to know players and size them up off the course.

One night, I spotted a prominent college player, whom I knew to be underage, playing shuffleboard and pounding beers. I wasn’t there to bust anyone, but I sidled over to him and casually asked, “You aren’t 21, are you?” He answered by pulling out his wallet and extracting a driver’s license, which he held up for inspection. Proudly, he announced: “It’s fake. Pretty good, isn’t it?”

The player in question had a stellar college career, made two Walker Cup teams and has won twice on the PGA Tour. Guess away. I’ll say no more except that his self-confidence is undiminished.

College-age Australians often cross the Pacific and spend our summer/their winter testing themselves against American counterparts. They tend to travel as a pack, essentially unsupervised. Players usually stay with host families, typically club members of the venue.

One year at the Western Amateur, a carload of Aussies eager for some nightlife decided to sample a nearby strip club. In the wee hours of the next morning, one reveler – who had been overserved and whose name I promised, in exchange for details, not to reveal – was shoved out of the car in front of what he'd foggily recognized as his residence for the week. Finding the front door unlocked, he stumbled into the living room but made it no farther than the sofa, onto which he collapsed and fell into a deep sleep.

Unfortunately, he had entered the wrong house. He was rudely awakened by the homeowner, who was calling the police. The player was terrified, fearful of losing his visa and spending the rest of the summer in jail. Much to his relief, the matter was sorted out when the cops arrived, and the embarrassed intruder suffered only the grief dished out by his mates. (He went on to play one year on the PGA Tour, followed by several journeyman seasons in Asia and Australia.)

While the amateur circuit is heavy with college players, the fields also include a fair share of mid-amateurs who can afford to travel and take time off work. Their occupations range from fireman to financial adviser. Occasionally, there’s an interloper such as Danny Green.

Green was a standout tennis player at the University of Tennessee-Martin, and it was only after graduation in 1981 that he took up golf. To call Green’s self-taught swing unconventional doesn’t do it justice. He addressed the ball with pronounced squat and arms fully extended. But Green’s flat, whiplash action got the job done. He reached the final of the 1989 U.S. Amateur; won the 1997 Western Amateur; and won the 1999 U.S. Mid-Amateur.

Green listed his occupation as “investor,” which is to say he was a professional gambler (without the polish of James Holzhauer, the recent “Jeopardy!” phenom). The USGA, with unspoken reservations about his character, named Green to the 2001 Walker Cup team.

At 47, Green reached the quarterfinals of the 2004 U.S. Amateur at Winged Foot. His round-of-16 opponent was Spencer Levin, 26 years Green’s junior and known for his cockiness and temper. Levin was aiming for a showdown with Ryan Moore, whom he’d been battling all season for the No. 1 amateur ranking. The wily Green took Levin to school, as evidenced at the 18th hole, with Green leading, 1 up.

Both players drove to the middle of the fairway, with Green’s ball ending up a couple of paces closer to the hole. When Levin’s approach shot flew the green, leaving a downhill lie in thick rough, he was dismayed. Levin dropped his club and turned away, bemoaning his fate. Green, meanwhile, casually walked back to where Levin’s club laid, noted that it was a 5-iron, and switched his club selection to a 6, which he promptly drilled to the center of the green, sealing a 2-up victory.

A half hour later, I caught up with Levin in the clubhouse bar, where he was drowning his sorrows. Levin shook his head and asked rhetorically, “How did I lose to that fat f***?”

When players turn pro, you can kiss that kind of candor goodbye.

Dave Seanor has been a sports journalist since 1975, including a 13-year stint as editor of Golfweek magazine. He has covered golf in 25 countries, including the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. Email: daveseanor@gmail.com