WEST CALDWELL, N.J. – It wasn’t so long ago that spectators wondered out loud when the first reinstated amateur would win the USGA Senior Amateur.
In the 1980s, reinstated amateurs already were flexing their muscles in national competition. When reinstated amateur Stewart “Buddy” Alexander won the U.S. Amateur in 1986, it didn’t really surprise anyone.
But the Senior Amateur seemed different. These were retired laborers and businessmen, right? Senior amateur competition seemed to be a mulligan for these golf lovers, who were ready to play after a lifetime of work.
In 1999, former pro Gary Menzel of Milwaukee lost to Bill Ploeger in the final of the USGA Senior Amateur. Menzel was a thoughtful, articulate man who worked as a police officer and wanted to supplement his income as a teaching pro.
Finally, in 2007, a reinstated amateur won the USGA Senior Amateur. Stan Lee of Heber Springs, Ark., was the polar opposite of Menzel. He was a touring pro who 30 years earlier, back in 1977, finished second to Jim Simons in the PGA Tour’s New Orleans Open.
As a competitor, Lee was an amateur-turned-pro-turned-amateur. Many fellow senior amateur players expressed their distaste for a former PGA Tour player in their midst.
If Paul Revere had been at Flint Hills National Golf Club in Andover, Kan., for Lee’s coronation in 2007, he would have charged through the streets spreading the word: “The pros are coming! The pros are coming!”
But it was too late. Little did most people know that Lee symbolized the future. Three former pros have captured the USGA Senior Amateur: Lee, his brother Louis and Paul Simson. Vinny Giles, who once had his amateur status revoked for six months because he gave away free golf balls that had been left in his locker at the Masters, was a Senior Amateur winner but is not included on this list of ex-pros.
Of 156 players who qualified for this year’s USGA Senior Amateur here at Mountain Ridge Country Club, 41 were reinstated amateurs. Even more revealing was this figure: Among 32 players who qualified for match play and then won a first-round match, 15 were one-time pros.
That’s 17 career amateurs and 15 former pros in the Round of 32. The qualifying medalist, Walker Cup captain Jim Holtgrieve, is a reinstated amateur. It would surprise no one if a former pro once again were to win this championship, which once was the province of famous lifelong amateurs such as Bill Campbell, Bill Hyndman, Dale Morey, Lew Oehmig and Ed Updegraff.
Holtgrieve left the amateur ranks to play on the Champions Tour. Today he expresses regret for his decision. “I ended up going out there (on tour) for one reason and one reason only: the money. That was a big mistake. Golf is supposed to be enjoyed. You’re supposed to have fun. I got out there and was only focused on the money.
“After five years and having received 36 sponsor exemptions, I said, ‘You know what? I’m not going to ask for a handout any more.’ If I couldn’t play golf and have fun, I was going to get out. And I did.
“I was worried about getting my amateur status back. The (USGA) Executive Committee said, ‘You’ve got to go through the process like anybody else.” So I did. I was reinstated in 2007.”
As Walker Cup captain, Holtgrieve attempts to help educate his players. “It’s the biggest honor of my golfing life,” he said. “It’s a good chance to represent your country again and try to take 10 young men and give them some insights into life and tell them what’s really important in life.
“I feel compelled to talk to them about the money side of the game, and what the game is really all about. I think that’s why the good Lord got me off the senior tour and into this position.”
The reality, though, is that professional golf will tantalize many gifted young golfers. They will turn pro, seeking birdies and big bank accounts. A large number will return to the amateur community as their pro dreams blow up in their faces. It is inevitable that senior amateur golf will be dominated by reinstated amateurs.
Welcome to the USGA Senior Amateur in the 21st century. The past is a sweet memory. The future is a battle of former pros.