Let's hear it for Croatia

The Publinx champion was doing more than just winning the title, said his father
July 24, 1977

The USGA Amateur Public Links Championship is a tournament for anyone who ever hit a golf ball off a rubber mat, bundled up against the blasts of February to get a Sunday golfing fix, or kicked off his shoes to luxuriate in the cool, lush summer fairway grass. It is a quintessential people's championship, the one major event each year when golf drops its middle-class pretensions and opens its arms to all the duffers across the land unfortunate enough to be lacking country club connections. If you can imagine, say, a Forest Hills where, for a mere $10 entry fee, any tennis hacker in America can try to win a national championship—in cut-offs—you are beginning to understand the Public Links.

This is not to imply that the golf played last week at the 52nd championship, at Milwaukee's Brown Deer Park Golf Course, was not serious. It was, from Monday—when Frank Sanchez of Honolulu walked to the first tee, handed a $20 bill to his caddie, bit the cover off a golf ball and said, "That's what I do to caddies who don't do their jobs right"—through Saturday, when Joe Cannestra, the course superintendent, disclosed the secret ingredient that keeps Brown Deer's turf so resplendent: elephant droppings, trucked in from the Milwaukee zoo.

By then, two rounds of medal play and five rounds of match play in temperatures that sometimes reached 100° had boiled down the field from 159 to just two, a pair of hardy 20-year-olds named Jerry Vidovic of Blue Island, Ill. and Jeff Kern of Tucson, and they were ready to go at the 6,608-yard course head to head in a final 36-hole marathon.

Before that last ultraserious bit of golf, the APL had richly displayed its kaleidoscopic nature—equal parts summer camp, sociology lab and Shriners' convention. In what other athletic forum would a kindly 55-year-old college professor count a 14-year-old boy as a dire enemy? Where else could an air traffic controller settle a score with a commercial pilot and not endanger innocent people? Or a rotund bartender square off with a body-weight analyst? It is entirely appropriate that the highest jump in consecutive 18-hole scores in the tournament—from a respectable 79 to a sky-high 93—belonged to Jerry Owensby, an Indianapolis elevator installer; and that Peter Jacobi of Dayton, who sells military aircraft to foreign nations for the Federal Government, should, after one of his matches, ask the USGA's Frank Hannigan whether a player would be penalized for punching his opponent in the mouth. And where else could someone like Archie Dadian, a 43-year-old insurance-claims supervisor, become a kind of Arnold Palmer for a day, drawing a gallery 300 strong as he tried for the 11th time to win the APL and this time right in his own hometown?

The majority of the players in Milwaukee were ordinary working people—bricklayers, policemen, waiters—and about a third of them were students. But even at the Publinx level, golf is not an inexpensive sport. The USGA allows tournament players to accept plane fare and $15 per diem from the kitty of $10 entry fees at their home qualifying sites, but few players receive the maximum. Two 20-year-olds from Spokane, for instance, received $50 each toward their $270 plane fare and their $32-a-night room at the Holiday Inn. One of them, saying goodby to a golfing-buddy priest before leaving Spokane, found his hand greased with a twenty, which he duly returned lest Big Brother USGA strip him of his amateur status.

"You get your better black players in this tournament, since they don't have the money to join private clubs," said Howard Pierson, a black assistant professor at Rockland Community College in Suffern, N.Y., who missed the cut. Indeed there were many good black players, although none made it past the round of 16. Probably the best was a 39-year-old registered nurse from Oakland named Ashley Smith—"I know 100 ways to take a person's temperature"—who won the predominantly black United Golfers Association championship last year and has won amateur tournaments all over the Bay Area. He works the midnight-to-eight shift at the Menlo Park Veterans Administration Hospital, practices for a while after work, goes to sleep and then often plays nine holes in the afternoon. Smith caddied as a boy at the West Palm Beach (Fla.) Country Club. "The man I caddied for would let me play 2 through 17 with him, out of his bag," he says. "I won my first set of clubs in a caddie tournament. Been playing ever since."

On Saturday morning the Milwaukee air was as thick as bock beer. Vidovic, a 6'2", long-armed senior at Illinois State, was breakfasting solemnly in the Brown Deer clubhouse with his family and girl friend, while his father, Miro, an insurance salesman with a permanent smile, kept up a steady stream of chatter: "Hey, what a beautiful day. Isn't this going to be a great match? If we win, it will be good P.R. for the Croatians. Nobody ever heard of us before those crazy bombers in New York." The elder Vidovic, himself a Publinx golfer of some repute, had played in the APL twice in the previous three years, but this year failed to qualify. "I never won the big one," he said, "but I've known that Jerry would, ever since he was a little guy. He's got all the God-given talents."

His opponent—sandy-haired, blue-eyed and taciturn—ate alone. Jeff Kern spent two spring semesters at Azusa Pacific College in Azusa, Calif. but now works full time for his father, building houses in Tucson. He took up golf just five years ago, thinking it might be a nice way to earn a living. He had only one lesson, did not like it and subsequently learned the game "from magazines, TV, stuff like that." His grandparents, up from Carmel, Ind., had walked his five previous matches—90 holes in three days. "We went through a whole jar of Ben Gay last night," said his grandfather, on his way down fairway No. 91 at 8:30 in the morning.

Vidovic won two of the first three holes with a par and a birdie, but Kern got one back when Vidovic bogeyed the par-3 5th. By the 12th, Vidovic had won three more but given two back with three-putt bogeys. Kern was two down, yet barely sweating in the sweltering heat. Miro Vidovic put an arm around his son. "You're giving him a false sense of security," he said, smiling. "Wait till he sees you putt."

A couple of holes later, Vidovic made his father a prophet. The 15th is a 510-yard, par-5 dogleg to the left with a tight fairway and dense trees on both sides. Kern ripped his drive into the trees on the left and it fell beside a small stream. Vidovic's drive found similar tree trouble on the right. Kern played out onto the adjacent 16th fairway and had a clear shot to the green, but Vidovic's second shot from deep rough only advanced him to more rough closer to the hole. From 135 yards, Kern hit a nine-iron stiff to the pin for a sure birdie, while Vidovic's four-iron under the trees to the green stopped well past the flag. He conceded a birdie to Kern and then proceeded to knock his 35-foot putt dead in to save the hole. As the ball fell, he bounded across the green and his father looked skyward. Vidovic won 17 with a 25-foot birdie putt, and was three-up at lunch-time.

Vidovic started the afternoon by winning the first hole when Kern bogeyed and was never worse than three-up for the rest of the match, finally nailing down the championship 4 and 2 when Kern went one over on 16, the 34th hole of their grueling day.

Miro Vidovic rushed the green to greet his son, clasped his right hand, then offered up his left, in which he had been holding a 3 Musketeers bar for the last five holes. The candy was long since a molten mess and Jerry Vidovic declined it. Someone asked him if he would turn pro. His father beat him to the answer. "No way," he said. "He'll finish college first. Then he'll turn pro. You can't waste talents like his."

PHOTOA 35-foot birdie putt sent Vidovic bounding across the green.