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Pro Ams - Great Amateur Performances of the Modern Major Championship Age

By: Jay Flemma


[Author's Note: By popular request, it seems I'm back on retrospective duty one more time this week. Since the feedback on the U.S. Open Memories and Great Open Stretches piece was remarkable, you my dear readers have inspired my editor to ask me for this look back at great amateur golf performances of the modern major championship age.]

The fresh-faced kid with the braces looked back at the room full of journalists with the poise of a veteran. To him, they were no different than Mrs. Synokowski's AP math class.

"I would probably tell them they're nuts," Beau Hossler said when asked what he would think about someone who told him he'd be leading the U.S. Open at age 17.

Once again Olympic was doing what Olympic does, weirding us out. Sometimes it's frenetic comebacks from seven down, sometimes it's fluke winners, sometimes it's hamburgers on hot dog buns, it's always something at Olympic Club. This time it's a field so bunched the USGA bagged the 10-shot rule (otherwise the whole dadgum tarnation field would get in), and a kid who can't even legally order a Sierra Nevada and who probably has to hustle to get his homework done on time led the 112th U.S. Open, his country's national championship, even if it was for only 15 minutes.

Guess what he's thinking about? "The free dry-cleaning is pretty sweet," he drawled.

Two weeks ago Hossler was playing in his high school state championship. Then he's on top of the golf world. Whoa! Street cred overload!

"I was pretty excited about it, but then again I had another 40 holes at least to be playing in the tournament," he shrugged. "You've got a long way to go, and you can't get too wrapped up on where you're at. You got to keep focused and try to go out there and salvage some pars on the first six holes, which is pretty difficult to do."

Yeah, well that's nothing compared with ascending to the top of the U.S. Open leaderboard shortly after your voice lowers and they take your wisdom teeth out. Amateurs aren't supposed to lead an august, ivy-crusted tournament like this; it's against the law, there are signs everywhere, notice was posted.

But once in a while, when it happens, it sure is fun.

Remember Justin Rose's T-2 at the 1998 British Open at Royal Birkdale? A completely unknown amateur, Rose came of age in Southport that week, hanging in contention until the bitter end, and giving the crowd a thrill that still echoes through the years.

Rose was about 50 yards short of the last green and in a thick, clingy patch of marram grass to the left of the green. From the deck of that sinking ship, he pitched into the hole and all England rejoiced. "The whole place shook when he holed that shot" recalled sportscaster Joel Blumberg. "It was an incredible moment. You felt the whole place just lift off the ground and then come back down."

"It was amazing," echoed David Clarke, editor-in-chief of Golf Magazine. "Everyone one jumped in the air at once when the ball disappeared. The entire grandstand reverberated and the place rang with the cheering. I've never seen the like to match it in golf; football, perhaps. The stands just shook and shook with the joy of it all."

Rose finished two shots behind winner Mark McCumber after posting rounds of 72-66-75-69=282.

Then there was Jack Nicklaus in 1960 at Cherry Hills. "Fat Jack," he was called back then: the bull-necked, chain smoking amateur who knocked the golf ball into next week with a resounding thud. He was part of a past, present and future triumvirate that battled through the final nine holes.

"Suddenly the 21-year-old fat kid was 5-under and the whole world was 4-under," wrote Dan Jenkins.

Jack faltered, leaving the tournament on the greens after three-putts at 13 and 14, but he still finished second alone, deeply impressing Hogan, who played the final two rounds with Jack. "Let me tell you something. Nicklaus could have won this thing by 10 shots if he'd known what he was doing," Hogan admitted.

Then there was the time Ken Venturi absolutely, positively should have won the Masters in 1956. He opened 66-69, was five shots clear of the field and didn't even seemed fazed when he turned in a pedestrian 75 in the third round.

But the wind erupted into a maelstrom for the fourth round, blowing scores to perdition. Venturi ballooned to an 80, but amazingly he was still in the lead as he played the 71st hole. "I took the paint off that 9-iron," Venturi groused after the round, "but it just didn't do what it was supposed to."

What it did was jump over the green, leaving him a dicey chip that he played bravely to the pin. But he missed his sixth putt of the day of less than five feet. It horse-shoed on him; it may have even smirked at him impudently as it lay on the lip. He lost to Jackie Burke by one. Sadly, Venturi was forever a star-crossed bridesmaid at the Masters

Finally, there was Billy Joe Patton, who almost won two majors as an amateur. He led the first two rounds of the 1954 Masters but surrendered the lead to - who else? - Ben Hogan. But Patton seized the lead back with a stunning hole-in-one at the par-3 sixth.

But Patton broke the Hogan Rule: don't go for the par-5s in two if you're in the lead. Of course, Jenkins swears by this too, and - as sure as Buffalo gets snow - when Patton went for 13 and greens in two and rinsed his ball in Rae's Creek both times, it was down to Hogan and Snead instead. Patton also should have won the U.S. Open at Baltusrol, where he finished tied for sixth, behind Ed Furgol.

Last Amateur to Win a Major

Johnny Goodman in 1933 at North Shore in Chicago

Amateur Winners on the PGA Tour (Modern Era)

Phil Mickelson, 1991 Northern Telecom Open
Scott Verplank, 1985 Western Open
Doug Sanders, 1956 Canadian Open
Gene Littler, 1954 San Diego Open

Amateur Winners on the LPGA Tour

JoAnne Carner, 1969 Burdine's Invitational
Catherine Lacoste, 1967 U.S. Women's Open
Pat O'Sullivan, 1951 Titleholders Championship

Amateur Winners on the European Tour

Shane Lowry, 2009 Irish Open
Danny Lee, 2009 Johnnie Walker Classic
Pablo Martin, 2007 Estoril Portuguese Open

History Repeating Itself

Matt Kuchar finished the first two rounds tied for fourth the last time the Open was at Olympic Club in 1998.

Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma 's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 420 nationally ranked public golf courses in 40 different states, and covered seven U.S. Opens and six PGA Championships, along with one trip to the Masters. A four-time award-winning sportswriter, Jay was called the best sports poet alive by both Sports Illustrated and NBC Sports writers and broadcasters. Jay has played about 3 million yards of golf - or close to 2,000 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf, PGA.com, Golf Magazine and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.