Those who fancy battered tin cups and musty tradition hold the U.S. Amateur Golf Championship in special esteem. It is a paragon of decorous golf. Bobby Jones helped make it famous. Jack Nicklaus won it back when he had a burr haircut. This is the tournament of cabbages and kings, having been won by both greenkeepers' sons and those with Roman numerals after their names. It is also the oldest of the nation's major championships. No wonder the USGA treats it deferentially, as if it were a venerable elder to be loved and pampered.
Last week in the 79th U.S. Amateur, Mark O'Meara and John Cook epitomized what the event is about. Cook is a transplanted Californian and a senior at Ohio State, the latest in golf's assembly line of golden boys. He came to the Canterbury Golf Club in Cleveland as the defending champion and the tournament favorite. O'Meara arrived as a cipher, virtually unknown outside of California, where he is the state champion. But in the 36-hole final on Sunday, Cook dissolved in the rain and O'Meara swamped him 8 and 7.
O'Meara stopped Cook just as Cook was preparing to step into the history books. No champion has repeated in the Amateur since E. Harvie Ward did it in 1956. But then, it always has been one of the hardest of tournaments to win. Tom Watson never won it. Doug Sanders and Frank Stranahan had pro-tournament victories as amateurs, but they never prevailed in the Amateur.
To win, O'Meara survived a devilish course, a field of the top amateurs and a rigorous format that included 36 holes of medal qualifying on Tuesday and Wednesday, followed by double rounds of match play on Thursday and Friday, 18-hole semifinals Saturday and a 36-hole final on Sunday. O'Meara won because he had a sense of timing, of when to turn it on. In his early matches he played only as well as he needed to, shooting five-over-par golf while Cook was blitzing his opponents with birdies. Then, in the finals O'Meara got hot while Cook became jittery. O'Meara took five straight holes over one stretch Sunday morning and finished the first 18 with a 4-up lead, having shot a one-under-par 70, while Cook had a 74. In the afternoon O'Meara reeled off three consecutive birdies and took an insurmountable 8-up lead after 26 holes.
September 9, 1979
Going into Sunday, Cook was clearly the favorite, having defeated tough earlier-round opponents by margins big and small. On Friday he battled his way through what he called "the hardest day of my life." In the morning he needed eight extra holes to eliminate Lennie Clements of Poway, Calif. one-up. Following a quick shower and a sandwich, Cook spent the afternoon defeating NCAA champion Gary Hallberg of Wake Forest, 4 and 3. Cook finished the day with bags underneath his eyes, but he felt the elation of one who had survived the test. The rest of the way looked easy. "Whoever wins my bracket will just walk through the finals," said Cook. He was wrong.
Ironically, O'Meara was playing in the Amateur partly at Cook's behest. O'Meara, 22, lives in Mission Viejo, Calif., and played his intercollegiate golf at Long Beach State, but Cook persuaded him to enter sectional qualifying for the U.S. Amateur at the Muirfield Village Golf Club near Columbus, Ohio. There O'Meara wound up leading the field and spent three days as a guest in Cook's condominium at the course.
The two are good friends, and except for the color of their hair—Cook has blond locks as straight as straw, while O'Meara has a mop of dark, wavy hair—they are alike in several respects. Both of their families own condominiums in Palm Springs, both have won the California amateur title and both are three-time All-Americas. Now both have won the U.S. Amateur.
The final result wasn't the only unexpected turn at the Amateur. Bobby Clampett, the reigning amateur eccentric and often Cook's chief rival, performed in a completely mannerly fashion, allaying any USGA worries over what he might do next. And 42-year-old Dick Siderowf, a two-time British Amateur champ, the Walker Cup's non-playing captain and one of the few in the Canterbury field who actually works for a living—he's a stockbroker—won three matches. And then there were the prodigious tee shots and combative spirit of Wayne Player, Gary's 17-year-old son. Wayne's doting dad kept phoning Canterbury from South Africa to check with caddie Rabbit Dyer as to how his "laddie" was doing. The answer was, quite well. Player opened with a 41 and then shot three straight 34s in qualifying. In a second-round match with Cook, he hit a 230-yard two-iron shot out of the rough, made an eagle and took the defending champ to the 18th hole and the brink of agitation before Cook beat him one-up. "He has to be the best 17-year-old in the world," said Cook.
Siderowf's advance to the quarterfinals was doubly sweet because he had not played much tournament golf this summer and because the majority of his rivals in the Amateur were young enough to be his kids. A dozen of the first 15 qualifiers were college students, and Siderowf was the only quarterfinalist over the age of 22. One of his victims was Scott Hoch, last year's Amateur runner-up, whom he whipped 6 and 5. Siderowf finally ran out of legs Friday afternoon against 21-year-old Joe Rassett.
Meanwhile Clampett of Carmel, Calif., looked unbeatable in the qualifying rounds. He set a course record at Canterbury on Tuesday with a 66, then had a 68 on Wednesday to break by two shots the 36-hole record set by Skee Riegel in 1946. On Thursday he began well by finding a $20 bill as he walked down the first fairway. But aside from a good showing at the Masters, where he was the low amateur and tied for 23rd overall, this has been a lackluster year for Clampett while Cook has won four tournaments. Against Gary Hallberg Friday morning Clampett was behind most of the time and only a spectacular shot at the 18th green, where he holed a 50-foot wedge pitch, enabled him to send the match into extra holes. Clampett lost when he three-putted from 50 feet three holes later. The loss continued a U.S. Amateur tradition—no medalist since 1940 has won the title.
Clampett has made a habit of attracting attention in the U.S. Open. As an 18-year-old in 1978 he was tied for fifth after two rounds at Cherry Hills. And this year at Inverness, having missed the cut but having been asked to fill out a twosome, he chose to tee off several times from his knees and hit a couple of chip shots between his legs. The USGA viewed this with disdain. Last week Clampett didn't resort to any such foolishness.
In contrast, Cook is methodical and cautious. To prepare for Canterbury, he spent almost two weeks hitting balls and playing solitary practice rounds, working on his concentration as much as his game. On the course Cook is almost phlegmatic, but off the course he can be fairly daring. For instance, he admits having driven a Porsche he owned at 155 mph in Palm Springs. "But that was when I was young," he says, almost apologetically.
The three players who made it into the semifinals with Cook were all relatively obscure. Along with O'Meara, they were Rassett, who plays for Oral Roberts, and Cecil Ingram of the University of Alabama. Ingram played his way into the semis—and an exemption for the 1980 Masters—through such heroics as hitting a putt from 45 feet 35 feet past the cup and then making the 35-footer coming back.
Though he seemed intimidated by the attention he got by attaining the semis, Ingram nonetheless brought a refreshing down-home quality to a tournament where the top players all had Nicklaus' attitude, Ben Crenshaw's haircut and Arnold Palmer's gift for P.R. Ingram's father, Hootie, is associate commissioner of the SEC and a former football coach. When reporters asked Ingram what his father was doing now, he took the question literally, glanced at his watch and replied, "He's either at the office or on the way home."
Against Cook on Saturday, Ingram fell back to earth by shooting a 41 on the front nine and losing six of the first 10 holes of what turned out to be a 5-and-3 defeat. He said he would play in the Masters—if it didn't conflict with a college tournament.
O'Meara's semifinal victim, Rassett, had dominated his early opponents. Against Siderowf, for instance, he was an easy 6-and-5 winner. In the four rounds leading to the semis he had lost only seven holes. He is from Turlock, Calif., a small town in the San Joaquin Valley, and claims his abiding affection for golf derives from the summer of his 16th year, when he spent three months doing construction work, pushing around wheelbarrows filled with cement. Since then Rassett has rarely done anything more strenuous than putting. "You'll never hear me complaining," he said.
O'Meara played with confidence after he saw that Rassett was pressing and that for the first time in the tournament Rassett's driver' was misbehaving. At the fifth hole one of his scattershot drives hit a woman spectator. It was that kind of day for Rassett. When he drove the ball well, he usually played a good hole. When he didn't, O'Meara picked up easy wins. During the match they halved only two holes, and after O'Meara birdied the fifth through seventh, he was able to play safe much of the rest of the way. He wound up winning 3 and 1.
For everyone else on Sunday, Canterbury was all leaden clouds, mist and drizzle. For O'Meara, the underdog, all things were bright and beautiful. At the U.S. Amateur, a sense of the moment is important. O'Meara was at the right place at the right time. Cabbage or king, he was, above all, the champion.