Thirty-five years ago, when golf's melting pot, the Amateur Public Links championship, first started simmering under balmy and cloudless skies at the Ottawa Park Golf Club in Toledo, one despondent spectator, apparently unnerved by what he saw of the ingredients, shot himself through the head, and play had to be temporarily halted while they carted his lifeless body from the course. Since that day in 1922 nothing has happened to call for such drastic measures. From a field of 140 eager entrants, half of whom played wearing suspenders while another half played without benefit of golf shoes, the tournament has grown to the point where this year it had close to 2,000 well-equipped competitors and an astonishing high of 3,586 in 1946. One hundred and forty-eight have qualified (last year's finalists are automatically eligible) for the event which starts July 29 at the Hershey Park Golf Course in Hershey, Pa.
The idea for a national tournament, open solely to public linksers not connected with any private club, originated in 1922 with James Standish Jr. of Detroit, a noted tournament golfer and squash player then in his first year with the USGA, and he donated a trophy in his name to go to the individual winner.
By 1927 the tournament had its first "big man." He was a quiet, mild-mannered Pittsburgh steel mill clerk named Carl F. Kauffmann, who had lost in the final round the year before. He stepped firmly into the winner's circle and stayed there for three years, a record for occupancy which has not even been approached since. Forced to play 37 holes in the final round over Cleveland's Ridgewood Golf Links to win his first trophy from New Yorker William Serrick, Kauffmann had it a bit easier in 1928 when he routed Phil Ogden of Cleveland, 8 and 7.
Kauffmann won again the following year, but in 1930 his bid for four straight titles was quickly nipped. He was disqualified for a scoring error in the medal play.
In the years following 1930, the championship trophy was won by several schoolboys, a riveter, a Hollywood actor, a WPA worker, a steelworker, a truck driver and a bartender, just to list a few of the many who have been playing golf for nothing but the very special enjoyment of the game. In fact, one of the chief virtues of the Public Links tournament each year is the color and rousing love of golf shown by its performers. Their affection for the game makes the pampered, big-time amateur golfers of today seem like cynical touring professionals.
The steelworker, who won in 1939 at Baltimore, is a husky 6-footer who, like Kauffmann, comes from Pittsburgh. Right now he probably ranks as the grand old man of the public links. Baptized back in 1909 as Anthony Szwedko, he insists on calling himself Andrew in stubborn deference to an early golfing friend who didn't care for Anthony as a given name. Andy (his wife Mary still calls him Tony), now a steel pipe inspector at the U.S. Steel plant in Sharpsburg, Pa., still plays golf with the same fervor. This year he qualified for the 19th time to play in the Public Links championship. In his 35 years as a golfer, Szwedko has won more Public Links tournaments and set more records in the Pittsburgh area than even his illustrious predecessor Kauffmann. "I had a lot of chances to join private clubs," Andy says, "but I'd rather play public links. They're more in my class—all regular guys. I guess the private club players are, too, but you've got to have more money to play with them."
Amiable Andy likes to "have a few beers with the gang" after he finishes his day's work at the mill, and on his weekends he may take his three sons out hunting. He nevertheless manages to wade out on the course three or four times a week where he will play a round or just practice a bit. In his backyard is a driving net where he tries to hit a few shots every day, but putting is his chief complaint. "After all these years, I don't know why, but I am not a brave putter," he grieves. "I like to play those four corners. They say the hole is round, but as far as my putting goes, there are four corners—the front, back and two sides."
Though he'll be 48 on August 1, he plans to stay in competitive golf. "I'd really like to come back and go all the way again," he says. Most of Pittsburgh hopes he can.
A 44-year-old Yonkers, N.Y. truck driver named Stanley Bielat, who won the title in 1950, is also back again for another try. Bielat grew into golf during what he refers to as the caddie days of the 1920s. He is single, and his job with United Parcel Service has proved an ideal one. The summer work load is so light that he is usually unemployed during July and August and is free to concentrate on golf.
"I'm playing fairly well now," says the man who led all qualifiers from the New York City area this year, "but I don't have the confidence I used to have. When you win a championship like the Public Links you figure that you can win again, but somehow or other you never do." But Bielat will be as ready as he can.
Two more typical qualifiers are a Mutt and Jeff combination from the San Francisco area. Five-foot 5-inch, 116-pound Bob Daniel is a commercial artist and will be competing in his seventh Public Links championship. He has been golfing since he was 16 a quarter-century ago and has won San Francisco's Lincoln Park championship eight times despite his short drives which average little more than 200 yards. Walt Gilliam, a 6-foot 6-inch, 240-pound Goliath, is another of seven qualifiers from San Francisco. Thirty-six-year-old Walt has been known to drive a golf ball 371 yards and averages 260 yards off the tee. Gilliam is a manager for a men's clothing store next to Stanford University and will be playing in his third championship.
Last year's two finalists, Defending Champion James H. (Junie) Buxbaum of Memphis and Runner-up William Scarbrough of Jacksonville, Fla., will both be at Hershey for another swing at the title. The 41-year-old Buxbaum, a salesman for General Electric, is something of an exception in public links circles in that he served time as a touring pro for a number of years before regaining his amateur status in 1953. His job with GE keeps him on the road a great deal and so he normally plays golf only once a week. But even at 5-foot-7 and 136 pounds he can hit a golf ball a good, long way. He plays a lot with his 31-year-old brother Bobby, who proudly boasts: "When we play partners we take on all comers. They call me One Percent. Junie is the 99% member of the partnership."
Bill Scarbrough, a chief aviation ordnance man stationed in Jacksonville, has an excellent Public Links championship record, the finalist last year, quarter-finalist in 1955 and semifinalist in 1954. He is a big, dark-haired man of 33, 6 feet 3 inches, 195 pounds, and figures that he has a good chance finally to make it all the way this year.
Those familiar with the short (6,055 yards) but tricky layout at Hershey Park will have a distinct advantage. The feature hazard of this course is muddy, snaking Spring Creek. This 20-foot-wide stream winds back and forth across the fairways like a loathsome, murky reptile and presents perhaps 11 opportunities for the hard-pressed golfer to hit into really serious trouble.
The two finishing holes are about the toughest on the course. No. 17 is a narrow, 440-yard par 4 which puts a terrible premium on accuracy, and No. 18 is no more encouraging. The last hole is the only par 5 at Hershey, a 465-yard narrow dogleg over which Spring Creekveers back and forth, once 210 yards from the tee and again just in front of the green.
Down through the years the Public Links has produced golfers who went on to fame as professionals, such as Ed Furgol, 1954 Open champion; Walter Burkemo, 1953 PGA winner and 1957 PGA semifinalist; and Ken Venturi. But mostly these are just damn fine weekend golfers who can be seen on any municipal course the country over.