Not the usual sort of champion

Aug. 29, 1983
Aug. 29, 1983

Table of Contents
Aug. 29, 1983

Pan Am Games
Dallas Cowboys
Berlin Track
Australia II
Kevin Saucier
Harness Racing
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

Not the usual sort of champion

An amateur to the core, Jay Sigel is taking aim at another U.S. title

It was a warm, slightly muggy June day in Winston-Salem, N.C. The spring semester at Wake Forest was over and the summer session had not yet begun. Jay Sigel (rhymes with wiggle), the best player on the Wake Forest golf team, was on his way out of the Kappa Alpha fraternity house to play nine holes with Jesse Haddock, the golf coach.

This is an article from the Aug. 29, 1983 issue Original Layout

As Sigel approached the swinging glass-paneled door separating the second-floor stairwell landing from the interior corridor, a fraternity brother, going through the door ahead of him, slammed it shut. Sigel reached out to stop it; suddenly his left hand was through the glass and blood from a severed artery was hitting the ceiling.

That was 19 years ago. Until that day Sigel had been headed for the pro tour. He had reached the finals of the USGA junior championship; he had received the first Arnold Palmer scholarship at Wake Forest; he had made All-America twice. His prospects were bright and his confidence high. Then, for the first time in his young life, Sigel found himself unable to play golf.

After 10 days Sigel emerged from the hospital with his hand pieced together—tendons tied, nerves spliced, skin grafted, with 72 stitches and a cast holding all the parts in place. When he next played golf, a year later, he had only 50% of the feeling in the hand, and the cushion of muscle that ordinarily absorbs the shock of the club head striking the ground was gone.

By all odds, Sigel should be a disappointed man. Instead, at 39, he is on top of the world, the world in which golfers play for fun, not to pay the bills. He is a solid citizen of Philadelphia's Main Line, a successful businessman, family man and, for the past year, the reigning U.S. Amateur champion. On a sideboard in the dining room of his comfortable suburban home in Berwyn, Pa. was an ornate silver loving cup that declared Sigel the best part-time golfer in America, the champion of all club champions. At one time or another the trophy has decorated the homes of Bobby Jones, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. Sigel won it last Labor Day weekend at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass. over a field whose median age was 22, and he will try to win it back next week at North Shore Country Club in Glenview, Ill. Sigel is the oldest Amateur champion since Bill Campbell, who was 41 when he won in 1964, and one of only three non-collegians to win since then, the others being Canada's Gary Cowan in 1966 and 1971 and Vinnie Giles in 1972.

The typical Amateur champion of the last two decades is a Jay Sigel, circa 1962. He is a golf-team hotshot who attends a Sunbelt college and plays the game the year around. His education is subsidized by his golf, and his golf by a full-ride athletic scholarship. His major is business, the better to handle the wads of money he expects to win on the pro tour. In other words, since colleges replaced caddie yards as the spawning grounds of touring professionals, the Amateur champion has tended to be amateur in name only. For the last 20 years true amateurs, like Campbell and Sigel, have been the exceptions. Pros-in-training, such as Jerry Pate, Lanny Wadkins, Craig Stadler, John Cook and Hal Sutton, have been the rule.

Sigel's home course is Aronimink, seven minutes from his home and five minutes from his insurance-agency office in Wayne. Aronimink's stone clubhouse is turn-of-the-century English Tudor, and the towering oaks and pines that line its winding drive have a grandeur that only time can buy. Its membership is comfortable and conservative too—but when Sigel won the Amateur, Aronimink was as proud as a small-town Lions Club chapter. The members even hung a big white banner between two trees that read CONGRATULATIONS JAY SIGEL, U.S. AMATEUR CHAMPION 1982.

Sigel plays at Aronimink about twice a week. His companions are an informal group of 10 or 12 low-to-middle-handicap members whom Sigel calls The Usuals. For some of The Usuals, Sigel has his own handicapping system. Whenever he beats one of them he adjusts the loser's handicap up a stroke. Two years ago Bill Burns, 47, started at six and went all the way to 13 before he broke out of his slump. "It's a fair way of handicapping," says Sigel, "and at least it keeps your friends coming back."

The Usuals spend almost as much time needling as they do playing golf. They kid Sigel about his weight, which, at 200 pounds, borders on being a problem; his size-13 feet ("His father told him to take care of those feet," says a Usual. "They'd carry him farther than his head would"); his tightfistedness ("He shakes, he sweats, he stammers, he blacks out"); and his business ("If you lose, you get to buy an insurance policy. If Burnsie goes down, it's all over for Jay's company"). But The Usuals are also very competitive. "The Usual game is critical to keeping my game in shape," says Sigel.

Insurance supports his amateur status, buying him the luxury of playing golf when he wants to and the even greater luxury of not playing when he doesn't. He chose insurance when he looked out the window one day and noticed that the only people playing were salesmen. "It wasn't the doctors. They play Wednesday afternoon, if they're lucky. It wasn't the attorneys or the stockbrokers. It was the salesmen. My direction was clear."

But first Sigel had to get through college, and that wasn't easy. He had a wonderful time at Wake Forest but he was a lousy student. "I was in college so long," he says, grinning in his modest, good-salesman's way. It was Betty Wingo, Sigel's wife-to-be, who was primarily responsible for his graduating. "She thought it was very important, much more so than I did," he says. After their graduation in 1967, Betty taught school and Jay joined the John Hancock Insurance Company in Westchester, Pa.

"I certainly didn't set the world on fire," he says. "I didn't understand the game. I thought people would buy insurance from me because I was a good golfer. I found out that doesn't happen. It was a rude awakening. Also, I'm not a born salesman. I had to learn."

Today Sigel is a very good insurance salesman. He writes $15 million worth of business each year, but he has never collared a prospect on the golf course. "I never have and I never will," he says. "I figure I'll be around a long time. In the short run I may lose some business, but in the long term it will return in various ways."

Understatement is Sigel's style in golf as well as business. His dress, his manner, even his words are unobtrusive. His sentences frequently begin with preambles such as "I have been fortunate enough..." and "I have had the privilege to..." and "If I may be so presumptuous..." as if he were apologizing in advance for talking about himself at all. Similarly, his golf swing is slow he says and his demeanor as he walks between shots or waits his turn on tees and greens is totally unrevealing. It is impossible to tell whether things are going well or badly for Sigel by watching his face. Forced to choose, one would probably guess badly, and be wrong much of the time. "I like to get myself into a position, on the last day or the last nine holes, where I can say to myself, 'O.K., it's up to you now, bring it home, win it.' I thoroughly enjoy that challenge. That is what golf is all about."

Since 1975 Sigel has been ranked among the country's top 10 amateurs every year. He has won most of the major amateur titles at least once, including the British in 1979. In May he was named playing captain of the U.S. Walker Cup squad, which beat the British 13½-10½ at Hoylake, England. He was the first playing captain chosen since Charlie Coe in 1959.

But the '82 U.S. Amateur was Sigel's finest victory. Most observers at Brook-line felt he was too old to win. Even Sigel may have thought so. But match play works strange magic sometimes. "If you're tired and you're not playing very well, you can freewheel it a little bit," he says. "You can take more chances than you would normally, because you have two ways to win—your good shots and your opponent's misfortunes."

Sigel's good shots kept coming at the right times. He sank a 40-foot putt on the 17th hole of his semifinal victory over 19-year-old Rick Fehr. He was so nervous going into the 36-hole final match against 22-year-old David Tolley that he shanked his second shot, but he settled down after a birdie on the 10th and played like a genius for the rest of the day, closing out Tolley 8 and 7.

At North Shore the competition will come from fuzzy-cheeked 22-year-olds like Willie Wood, an Oklahoma State graduate who is headed for the PGA Tour, as Sigel once was. But Sigel has no complaints. "I want to continue playing," he says, "but I'm also looking forward to not playing. I'm going to put my clubs down this fall and take my kids to a football game. Maybe I'm just lazy, but I won't hit a practice ball from mid-October until mid-March. But watch me in March. I'll be ready."

PHOTODon't let Sigel's look fool you. He finished second in last week's Canadian Amateur.PHOTOSigel's victory in the '82 U.S. Amateur uplifted spirits at old Aronimink, where the members celebrated in a highly un-Usual way.