2002: Amateur - Hurdling his hardships

By John Steinbreder

A difficult day in Jim Stahl’s life came in the second round of the 1996 U.S. Senior Open at the Canterbury Golf Club outside Cleveland. That’s when his playing partner, Tom Weiskopf, gave the Cincinnati resident a public lashing, accusing him of slow play, hitting out of turn and marking his ball improperly. It was an unfortunate – and unnecessary – outburst that hurt Stahl deeply, and later induced dozens of supporters, including two-time U.S. Open winner Curtis Strange, to write him letters of consolation. And it is something the avuncular gentleman who won the 1995 U.S. Senior Amateur still has difficulty discussing.

But Stahl, now 63, had known even rougher moments, and they occurred long before that run-in.

The worst was June 28, 1961, when he was a Notre Dame senior getting ready to graduate after a few summer courses. He had spent four years on a golf scholarship and was contemplating a professional career.

Stahl knew he wouldn’t be a shoo-in for the PGA Tour, like his occasional schoolboy rival, Jack Nicklaus. But he believed he had a chance, and he looked forward to giving it a try.

“But then I got a call from my mother saying my father had died,” Stahl recalls. “He was only 52 years old, and I had six younger brothers and sisters. And I suddenly realized I would not be playing any more golf. At least not for a while.”

Stahl’s mother needed him to help fill his father’s role as provider.

“She said she was going to get re-certified so she could teach again,” he remembers. “And she told me that I would have to go right to work.”

So he finished his schooling, received a bachelor of arts in English and economics and went back to Cincinnati, where his family had moved from Pittsburgh after World War II. As Nicklaus was beginning his Hall-of-Fame playing career, Stahl began a training program at a local bank.

There were other days after his father’s death that were not so good, such as sitting up all night by his father’s casket, thinking about all they had done together and how much he already missed him. The last time they had seen each other was five weeks before, when Jim Sr. had taken his son to Purdue for the 1961 NCAA Championship. Now he was gone.

In the months that followed, Stahl struggled with the enormous responsibilities that had been thrust upon his young shoulders. He thought about the duty he felt to his siblings, the youngest of whom was 8 years old. And he lamented the fact that his days of playing competitive golf were gone.

That was a tough realization, because Stahl had been an exceptional player. He started by caddying for his father, who was an electrical engineer, and first teed it up himself when he was 11.

“I remember after a couple of years, my father said he would buy me clubs if I broke 80 by the end of the summer,” he says. “And I finally did, on Labor Day weekend. So I got a set of Walter Hagen woods and irons.”

Young Jim played a fair amount after that, mostly at the Terrace Park Country Club in Cincinnati, where he took lessons and also caddied and worked in the bag room. In 1956, at age 17, Stahl finished in the top four of the state junior championship, which was won by Nicklaus, and went on to compete in the U.S. Golf Association’s Junior Amateur at the Taconic Golf Club in Williamstown, Mass.

Stahl crossed paths with Nicklaus on many occasions. In 1957, as a member of the St. Xavier High School golf team, Stahl squared off against Nicklaus and Upper Arlington High School for the Ohio state championship.

“We were 22 shots behind Jack’s team at the end of the first day of play,” Stahl says. “But we ended up winning by four strokes. Jack and I played together for two days, and I lost the individual title to him by a stroke or two.”

Stahl didn’t play golf with Nicklaus once he started working at that Cincinnati bank, however. His major concern was making money for his family.

“I gave my mother my paycheck every week, and she gave me an allowance,” he says of an arrangement that continued until he got married in 1965.

“I didn’t have a dime to my name, and if my mother-in-law hadn’t given me $100, I would not have had a honeymoon,” he says.

His role as supporter of his birth family ended, more or less, with his marriage, and he and his wife, Patricia, soon began a family of their own. The Stahls stayed in Cincinnati until 1973, then moved to Atlanta before returning to the Queen City two years later to buy the company he now owns. Called Cincinnati Belting and Transmission, it is a distributor and manufacturer of industrial equipment and boasts annual revenues of $40 million.

Work and family commitments prevented Stahl from playing much over the years. But as business improved and his children grew up, he began heading back to the course more often.

“I really got interested in 1981 when the USGA started the Mid-Amateur championship,” he says. “Suddenly, I had an opportunity to compete with my peers. It was the mulligan we all want, and it fulfilled a dream.”

Stahl played in that first Mid-Am and returned several times, making it to the fourth round on three occasions. In addition, he entered several British Amateurs, and later played in the U.S. Senior Open, British Senior Open and U.S. Senior Amateur.

But the Ohio businessman who also has built a superlative golf art collection that he displays in his Cincinnati office, as well as his homes in Ohio and Sea Island, Ga., didn’t win anything of note until he captured his Holy Grail in 1995 at the U.S. Senior Amateur.

“Obviously, it was the greatest experience I ever had in golf,” Stahl says of the event held at Prairie Dunes Country Club in Hutchinson, Kan. “But it really didn’t hit me until it was all over.

“As I drove myself to the airport, I could not believe what had happened. Then, I missed my flight and had to spend the night by myself in a motel. But I don’t think I ever went to sleep.”

The tournament had been played in damp and windy weather, which didn’t bother Stahl because he loves playing in the British Isles. And he was helped by the surprise arrival of his good friend, Danny Yates, a past Mid-Am champion who caddied for Stahl his last two matches.

“Jim played really well, but it wasn’t always easy,” Yates says. “He was 3 down in the final (against Rennie Law) and was getting real mad at himself. So I told him to calm down because he was still in the match, and he won the next three holes. I kept working with him, telling him to hit one more club than he thought he should.”

The defining hole was 17, with Stahl 1 up and facing a 20-foot putt for birdie.

“We disagreed on how the putt would break,” Yates says. “Eventually, Jim agreed with me and knocked it in to win the match, 2 up.

“And you can imagine my surprise a few weeks later when I pick up Golf Journal and it quoted Jim as saying he did just the opposite of what I had said,” he says with a chuckle. “So I am now taking credit for that read.”

Stahl still plays a fair amount of golf, but has been slowed in recent years by back surgery and a tough business climate that has forced him to devote more time to his work.

“But Grandpa still gets out a lot,” says Frank Ford of Charleston, S.C., a longtime friend and top amateur player, employing an affectionate moniker he and Yates often hang on Stahl, who is more than 10 years their senior. “He still drives the ball straight, and the short game that once was his weakness has gotten better. Yes, he can be intense on the course, but he is a wonderful guy with a big heart who loves the game as much as anyone I know.”

Stahl never loved the game as much as he did when he won the Senior Amateur. And it would be hard to find a time when he liked it less than the day he and Weiskopf played at Canterbury.

“People ask me about that all the time, and I just don’t want to get into it,” he says. “My children were there, and so were my friends, and it was just a bad deal.”

But Jim Stahl knows it wasn’t the hardest day he ever had to endure. He also realizes that while golf has given him some very tough times, it also has provided many of his best. And those are the moments he chooses to remember.

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