Gary Cowan walked down the 18th fairway of the Wilmington Country Club last week like a condemned man. A few holes back the U.S. Amateur title had been his if he could finish on his feet, but now an attack of nervous putting had reduced his once comfortable lead to a single stroke. To compound his problem, Cowan had just hooked his tee shot into a sort of wildlife refuge, a cluster of trees and high grass. There seemed a good chance that his line to the green might be blocked, which would mean chip out, pitch on, two putts—maybe two putts—bogey 5 and a playoff the next day with 19-year-old Eddie Pearce, who was standing alongside the 18th green and already figuring out what color slacks he would wear.
When Cowan reached his ball he found that while it had landed in an opening between the trees, it was buried in the rough. He asked permission from USGA President Phil Strubing to check the scoreboard up by the green—Cowan did not know precisely what his situation was—but Strubing said no, get on with it. Two days earlier Cowan had been in much the same predicament, had used a wedge and had come out short, so this time he went with a nine-iron.
An instant after he swung you could tell that Eddie Pearce would not be playing golf the next day, at least not with Gary Cowan. The ball flew out of the trees and landed well on the green. Easy par. But the ball was still rolling and now it was stiff to the pin. Easy birdie. Up to the cup it came and, now looking no different from a routine putt, in it went. Easy eagle. Easy win.
All week the Amateur showed those little touches of tradition, kookiness and diversity that make it charmingly different from other tournaments. The 43 qualifying events around the country chopped the field down from 2,396 hopefuls (all with three handicaps or better) to the 150 who were admitted to Wilmington. There was a 40-year span in ages, ranging from several 17-year-old whiz kids on up to Charles Kocsis, 57, of Michigan, who first played in the Amateur in 1930, the year Bobby Jones won it to complete his Grand Slam.
September 12, 1971
Then there were William Hyndman III, 55, of Pennsylvania, and his two sons, Tom and Bill IV. Papa made the cut, but the boys failed. And Canadian Nick Weslock, who passed out pink tees on which he had imprinted "Nick the Wedge," then soon after put one of his wedge shots in the drink. And math teacher George Haines Jr. of Pennsylvania, who charted the course grass blade by grass blade on five pages of legal-sized paper. And pilots, hotel clerks, falconers, soldiers, orthodontists, even a journalist, Al Barkow, editor of Golf magazine.
There were also a bunch of incipient young pros, guys who five years from now are going to be winning a lot of Monsanto Opens. Or U.S. Opens. Jim Simons of Wake Forest almost won the U.S. Open this year, you'll remember, shooting that 65 at Merion on the third day to lead the tournament by two strokes going into the last round. Simons was in Wilmington. So were Ben Crenshaw, 19 years old, who won the NCAA championship as a University of Texas freshman and already has people talking about another Ben Hogan—with muscles—and Jim McLean of the University of Houston, the Pacific Coast amateur champion.
Gary Cowan fell into an altogether different category, that of the old pro amateur. Cowan is 32 and he had won the tournament once before, in 1966. He is a Canadian from Kitchener, Ontario, father of two, insurance man, tall, lean, wavy hair, Kirk Douglas dimple on his chin. And a little angry. He had been burning to win the Amateur again because people still referred to the 1966 tournament as the one Deane Beman lost. It was held at Merion that year and Beman had a nice lead on the last round until he bogeyed 17 and double-bogeyed 18 to fall into a tie. Cowan won the playoff the next day with a nine-foot putt on the last hole.
Last week, about 45 minutes away from Merion in the Wilmington suburb of Greenville, Cowan took the lead on the third day—with some difficulty. On the 8th green he had to twice wave his opponent's caddie out of his line of sight. Then, with his fragile concentration shattered, he three-putted. Approaching the 10th tee he was stung on the right arm by one of the bees that buzzed the course all week. Even so, he finished with a 69, three under for the tournament and one stroke ahead of Marty West of Washington, D.C.
The South Course at Wilmington, site of the Amateur, was designed by Robert Trent Jones so that the back nine is the more difficult. However, ABC television felt the final holes of the front nine were prettier and presented better birdie possibilities, so the U.S. Golf Association reversed the nines for the tournament. The toughest holes then came first, so that on the final day when Cowan finished the ninth still three underpay some spectators were ready to hand him the Havemeyer Trophy. Especially since everybody around him seemed to be collapsing.
West, the Atlantic Coast Conference champion, went into the woods on the 3rd hole, double-bogeyed and didn't contend again. Eddie Pearce, who has an Arnold Palmer-financed golf scholarship at Wake Forest, double-bogeyed the 6th and went to two over par. Vinny Giles, three times runner-up in the Amateur and one of the great fidgeters and wagglers in the sport (somebody counted 21 club waggles on one fairway shot), was hot but had a big gap to close.
However, instead of breezing over the supposedly easier back nine, Cowan stumbled. Giles birdied 14, Cowan bogeyed 12 and 13, McLean of Houston dropped below par again and all of a sudden it was a three-way tie and people were checking the leader boards and racing every which way trying to catch the decisive moments.
Cowan birdied 14 to retake the lead, and birdied 15 to make his margin two. At the 16th, a par-5, he was on in two and ready to wrap up the tournament, but three putts cost him his birdie and three more putts on 17 reduced his lead to a stroke. But Cowan never had to touch his putter again. Minutes later he was standing in the thicket, his arms raised in triumph. Without question, the 1971 Amateur would be remembered as the one Gary Cowan won.