2005: Masters - Their finest hour

It would be easy to dismiss amateurs at the Masters in the same fashion as those 15th- or 16th-seeded teams in the NCAA Basketball Tournament.

They show up every year and they make for some interesting stories, but when you get to the heart of the matter, the longest of the long shots don’t give you much on which to hang your hat. But America loves the Bucknells and Valparaisos of the world, and it’s no different when it comes to amateurs at Augusta National. Lindy Miller can attest to that.

When Miller earned an invitation to his first Masters, his credentials were fairly similar to those of Phil Mickelson or Ben Crenshaw – minus the U.S. Amateur title. There was a solid college career – he was a first-team All-American three consecutive years, and in four seasons his Oklahoma State teams won two NCAA titles and finished second twice. That helped earn him a spot on the 1977 U.S. Walker Cup team, which is how he secured his invitation to the ’78 Masters. Miller parlayed his trip to Augusta National into a tie for 16th, the best performance by an amateur in 15 years.

“It was a huge thrill,” said Miller, now the vice president of operations at Mira Vista Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas. “Or even bigger than huge. It’s so exciting because of what the Masters and Augusta National are all about, and in my case, maybe the anticipation made it even more so. I was picked for the Walker Cup, I guess, in July or about that time of the year, so you’re talking about nine months of anticipation for that one week (at Augusta).”

Miller didn’t make an immediate splash, opening with 74. But he broke par in each of the last three rounds, finishing 71-70-71 and beating 16 players who had won professional majors. More importantly, he finished in the top 24, which then qualified for a return trip the next year. (That qualification has since been reduced to the top 16.) Miller finished at 2 under par, making him, to this day, the only amateur to break par for 72 holes in his first Masters.

“I’m very proud of that, naturally,” Miller said. “To be able to go there for the first time in that tournament, with all the history and all the tradition, it’ll always be a highlight.”

The details of that week more than a quarter of a century ago, the moments between getting up-and-down for par at No. 1 on Thursday afternoon and making a slick 5-footer for par at the last on Sunday, are mostly forgotten.

“I didn’t do anything spectacular,” Miller said. “It was just consistency. I just managed it around.”

In those years, the Masters was a different tournament than today. But it remains constant in its generosity to the amateur player. Though the U.S. Golf Association is this country’s backbone of amateur golf, it has long exempted from qualifying just one amateur – the U.S. Amateur champion – into the U.S. Open.

In the 1960s and ’70s, it was commonplace for the Masters field to include a dozen or more amateurs; in fact, 26 amateurs teed it up in 1966, constituting more than one-quarter of the 103-player field.

At one time or another during the event’s history, the invitation list has included each member of the 10-man U.S. Walker Cup team and the top eight U.S. Amateur finishers (during the years when it was a stroke-play event). In one of the more benevolent categories of Masters invitations, there was a time when U.S. Amateur champions could vote to add an amateur not already in the field.

That has provided once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for players who often are off the radar screens of even the most-knowledgeable followers of the game.

In 1962, when Charles Coe recorded the last top-10 Masters finish (T-9) by an amateur, only two other amateurs made the 36-hole cut: Don Cherry was 42nd, and Juan Estrada tied for 48th.

Juan who?

Estrada was a three-time winner of the Mexican Youthful National. He honed his game by playing at North Texas State University and would later win three Mexican Amateurs. Although his small piece of Masters history has long been relegated to the archives – along with other lesser-known amateurs who made one Masters cut, such as William Booe, Angelo Santilli, John De Bendern and James Frisina – Estrada can rest comfortably knowing he played on the weekend at Augusta when Dave Marr, Tommy Bolt, Bruce Devlin, Al Geiberger and Denny Shute did not.

In 2004, Casey Wittenberg, a 19-year-old from Oklahoma State, was the latest amateur to shine in Augusta’s spotlight by tying for 13th Wittenberg returns this year as a professional.

Drastic reductions to the list of amateur qualifications started with the 1989 tournament, which followed an especially lean three-year period when only one amateur survived the cut each year (1986-88). Since then, no more than six amateurs have played in any one Masters.

“I understand what they’re trying to do,” said Miller, “and I understand that it’s a different game today. But the Masters has always been about the amateur player, all the way back to the days of Bobby Jones, and I think they’ve done a great job giving them such a wonderful opportunity.”

A few amateurs have turned that opportunity into legend and a legitimate chance to win. During the past 60 years, five amateurs have finished in the top 5: Coe, E. Harvie Ward Jr., Ken Venturi, Billy Joe Patton and Frank Stranahan. (As an interesting aside, Bobby Jones never broke par in any Masters round and finished in the top 15 only once, in the inaugural event in 1934.)

Venturi and Patton actually could have won. Venturi led the 1956 Masters after each of the first three rounds, then took 42 putts and shot 80 during a brutally gusty final round, in which only two golfers shot below par and the average score was 78.3. Two years earlier, Patton led with six holes to play before hitting it into the creek at the par-5 13th en route to a third-place finish.

“I played about as good as I could,” Venturi said in an interview with The Augusta Chronicle many years later. “I felt like I was very much in control. I was aggressive for 63 holes, but I got protective on the back nine on Sunday instead of staying aggressive.”

For most amateurs, nothing compares to their first trip to Augusta. Miller said that when he returned as a professional the year following his Masters debut, he had higher expectations.

After three rounds, he was in the running to finish in the top 24 and get that much-coveted invitation for the next year, but things spiraled out of control on the last nine. He went for the 13th green in two, hit it into the water, then didn’t get it out. He went for the green in two at 15 and made double-bogey 7.

Despite his back-nine collapse, Miller talks about Augusta National and the Masters in a voice that still contains a touch of gratitude, reverence and sincerity.

“Oh, I loved going back there. It’s an experience you will always remember.”

Especially if you’re an amateur.

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