2001: Perspective - Earnhardt epitomizes Amateur respite

Atlanta

Greg Earnhardt once tried his hand at pro golf, but the money he needed to fuel his dream ran out – as did his desire to keep asking sponsors for more cash.

Last week at East Lake Golf Club, Earnhardt’s professional odyssey seemed as if it happened in somebody else’s lifetime, not his. A reinstated amateur, Earnhardt plays for pleasure nowadays, and to say he gets his money’s worth from golf is a major understatement.

“Am I the underdog here?” he asked last week, standing in front of the stately clubhouse at East Lake Golf Club, site of the 101st U.S. Amateur. “Sure I am. I’m 32 years old, and I hit it shorter and more crooked than any of these younger guys who are here. But I love this. I love amateur golf.”

Of course, hitting it short and crooked didn’t keep Earnhardt from dispatching the top-seeded player in the 64-player draw, Chris Mundorf. One day earlier, Mundorf had established a new scoring record in relation to par for all U.S. Golf Association championships, shooting 9-under 63 at Druid Hills Golf Club during qualifying. And all of a sudden, boom, 18 holes of match play against the feisty Earnhardt – who, incidentally, believes he must be some distant relation to the racing Earnhardts of Carolina roots – and it was Mundorf hitting the road.

“I hate it for Chris, because he lives five minutes from me and he’s a good friend of mine, but I’d still trade places with him,” said Earnhardt, a former basketball standout who discovered golf at age 19. “He’s 23 and he’s going to be a pro soon; I’m 32 and getting ready for the Senior Tour.”

Night was about to fall upon Atlanta, but Earnhardt’s smile was bright enough to illuminate Peachtree Street. The next morning, when Earnhardt got off to a slow start in the Round of 32 against eventual finalist Robert Hamilton, he was gone, too.

Good thing, probably. Earnhardt said he couldn’t imagine how his nerves would have handled the prospect of getting to the championship match and earning one of two available starting spots in the Masters next April.

“The Masters, I’ve thought about that,” he said, pausing, “and all I could think about was how many people (spectators) I’d hit off that first tee.”

The U.S. Amateur is a tournament for Everyman, where players seemingly emerge from thin air each summer, rising to prominence in the most fickle format of a very fickle game. Anything can happen in match play. And usually, at the Amateur, just about everything does.

One minute, defending champion Jeff Quinney is 2 up with three holes to play against his former Arizona State teammate, Brian Nosler, who confessed that over the past few years at ASU, he can’t remember ever beating Quinney. A few minutes later, the two Oregonians are standing on the 18th green, with Quinney extending his hand to Nosler to congratulate him on winning the match.

James Driscoll, the Walker Cup player who a year ago lost an epic 39-hole battle against Quinney in the championship at Baltusrol, was extended to extra holes in the first round by a virtual unknown named Jay Childs, a 43-year-old golf club sales rep from Kennesaw, Ga. The last time Childs made it to match play in the Amateur, his first-round opponent had a kid on the bag by the name of Paul Azinger.

And so it goes at the U.S. Amateur, where the unexpected comes to be expected. Fifteen players from the recent Walker Cup competed at East Lake, not one making it past the quarterfinals. Wayne Raath, the 2000 U.S. Mid-Amateur runner-up from South Africa, lost his first-round match to a youngster named Ryan Blaum, a high school senior from Miami who stands 5 feet 7 and weighs 132 pounds. What his stat sheet doesn’t show is that Blaum’s heart weighs about 130.

The U.S. Amateur is a refreshing respite from the pay-for-play ranks of the PGA Tour. Amateur golf represents the truest sense of the game, just the way Bobby Jones once lived it on the very fairways of East Lake, where he learned to play. Even amid the palpable buzz of 17-year-olds on the threshold of pro careers, the amateur spirit emanated from every conceivable corner at East Lake.

Never was it more evident than it was in watching Quinney and local favorite Kris Mikkelson of Georgia Tech in an early-week match. Locked in a heated duel through 15 holes, they walked to the 16th tee joking and laughing out loud with one another.

Just a hunch, but you probably won’t see a lot of that at the Ryder Cup.

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