Every time I am accused of living in the past, I say, “Thank you.” Golf’s past was captivating. It was full of bigger-than-life characters. Their personalities were as different as their golf swings.
Many of these characters were amateurs. Last summer, when I attended the 100th playing of the Trans-Mississippi Amateur at Flint Hills National Golf Club in Wichita, Kan., I was reminded once again of golf’s glorious amateur past.
Do I want to live in the past? Absolutely. I would sell my soul to see Bobby Jones play golf. Following the Jones era, the Big Three amateur events in the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s, ’60s and ’70s were the U.S. Amateur, Western Amateur and Trans-Miss. All three were decided by match play.
The first Trans-Miss was played in 1901 at Kansas City Country Club and was won by John Stuart of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Johnny Goodman, the last amateur to win the U.S. Open, was a Trans-Miss champion.
Charlie Coe, a lifelong amateur who lost the 1961 Masters by one stroke, tying for second, engineered the first of his four Trans-Miss victories in 1947.
Jack Nicklaus claimed Trans titles in 1958 and 1959, and Deane Beman followed as the winner in 1960. Ben Crenshaw, Gary Koch, John Fought, Bob Tway, Mark Brooks, Robert Wrenn, Bob Estes and Brian Watts all were Trans-Miss champions.
Think about it: This marvelous event has been contested 100 times. No. 101 will occur June 14-20 at LaJolla (Calif.) Country Club.
By comparison, the Masters has been played 68 times and the PGA Championship 85 times.
Jim Vickers has been an instrumental figure in the Trans-Mississippi Golf Association, sponsor of the tournament. He is the brother of Jack Vickers, founder of Castle Pines Golf Club.
I asked Vickers about the greatest match he ever saw, and he didn’t even have to think about it: Coe against Earl Stewart Jr. in the quarterfinals of the 1948 Trans-Miss at Denver Country Club.
Coe and Stewart were even after 11 holes. Both two-putted for birdie at the par-5 12th. (The course later was renovated, so today’s layout is different.) Coe birdied 13, Stewart birdied 14, Coe eagled 15, both birdied 16 and 17.
So Coe was 1 up playing the 18th. Stewart sank a 30-foot birdie putt to extend the match, then made a 35-foot eagle putt on the first extra hole. Coe, who was 7 under par for the last eight holes, lost to the dogged Stewart.
Skee Reigel, the U.S. Amateur champion, eventually won the ’48 Trans-Miss, but Stewart’s son, Chip, would capture the Trans-Miss crown in 2001.
Since the heyday of the Trans-Miss, the relationship between amateur golf and professional golf has changed dramatically. At the top levels of the game today, there hardly is such a thing as a lifelong amateur. Trip Kuehne is one of the few to resist the temptation to play for pay.
When Fred Ridley assumed the presidency of the U.S. Golf Association in February, his biography reminded everyone that he was the last U.S. Amateur champion to remain an amateur. And Ridley won the U.S. Amateur in 1975.
Trans-Miss officials, watching their tournament being dominated by college players who soon would turn pro, changed to a mid-amateur format in 1987. The event was played at Prairie Dunes in Hutchinson, Kan., and won by Ron Richard of Fort Smith, Ark.
The switch to a 25-and-older format was controversial, but has allowed the Trans-Miss to focus on the promotion of amateur golf. It’s all about amateurs, and I applaud Trans-Miss officials for sticking to their convictions.
Today’s professional golfers are a different breed. Their swings and their personalities have lost the individuality of times past. Professional golf is big business, and the top players earn millions each year in prize money and endorsements.
Amateur golf, though, has changed little.
Amateurs play the game for the joy of it. For the camaraderie. There is a kinship among amateur golfers, no matter what their professions might be.
Rewards for amateurs are personal, not financial, although the merchandise prize limit has been raised this year from $500 to $750.
The Trans-Miss and other venerable amateur championships endure as a tribute to the amateur game. Watching professional golf is terrific, but playing the game is what links us so inextricably with golf.
There should be a button that we can wear: “Lifelong amateur and proud of it.”
The Trans-Miss continues to be played on some of America’s great courses.
After La Jolla CC this year, the lineup from 2005 through 2009 includes Prairie Dunes, Brook Hollow in Dallas, Minikahda in Minneapolis, Wakonda Club in Des Moines and Oklahoma City Country Club.
The 2003 event at Flint Hills in Wichita was special. It was won by Bob Kearney of Houston, who defeated Eric Sexton of Wichita in the final.
Flint Hills, a Tom Fazio design, is owned by Tom Devlin. He was introduced to the game by his mother, Gertrude, who played at a public course that cost $25 for a season pass.
Even though Flint Hills is private, Devlin opens it each year for the Gertrude Devlin Invitational. There is one criterion: Women who play cannot belong to a private club. Devlin provides golf, food and prizes.
Devlin founded Rent-A-Center in 1973. His mother mortgaged her home to help him get started. The number of Rent-A-Center stores grew rapidly, and Devlin sold the business in 1987 for $600 million.
He and touring pro Jim Colbert were partners in several golf courses, but he had one big goal in the back of his mind: Flint Hills. Devlin did more than play host to the Trans-Miss. He played in it, losing in a playoff for the final match-play spot.
In the Trans-Miss, two rounds of medal play determine the 64 players who enter match play. There also is a senior division for golfers 55 and older.
I loved being at the Trans-Miss. The scene could have been right out of the 1940s. It reminded me of golf’s marvelous past.
And there’s something else about the Trans-Mississippi Golf Association. For more than 50 years, it has administered a turf scholarship fund. When the fund started in 1953, two scholarships were awarded. Now there are three dozen. These students often serve as agronomy interns at clubs that are members of the association.
All this reflects the essence of amateur golf: Celebrating the game, creating friendships, helping to ensure golf’s future.
It’s no mystery that so many friendships among amateur golfers last forever. Said Jim Vickers: “You try to beat somebody’s brains out on the golf course, then the moment you finish he’s your best friend.”
Amateur golf has been, still is and will continue to be a loyal friend for many of us.