2005: Amateurs seize fair share of Open spotlight

The main storylines for amateurs at the U.S. Open go much deeper than victories and defeats.

They are, in fact, embodied by perhaps the game’s most iconic figure and one of its most magical moments.

Had September 1913 come and gone without the unlikely accomplishment of Francis Ouimet, who knows what course the game would have taken in the United States. By pulling off the game’s first truly shocking upset, Ouimet ignited an American passion in the game that continued unabated for generations.

Ouimet topped two of the day’s best players in Harry Vardon, the 1900 U.S. Open winner, and Edward (Ted) Ray, the 1912 British Open champion. Ouimet, then 20, defeated Vardon and Ray by five and six shots, respectively, in an 18-hole playoff. Ouimet’s day in the sun 92 years ago ranks as one of the game’s defining moments.

And another amateur, Bobby Jones, remains golf’s most immortal figure. Five U.S. Amateur victories. Four U.S. Open titles. The history books that detail his exploits will not require rewriting.

When Jones retired in 1930 with his famed Grand Slam, an era came to an end. Like a change of tides, professionals were about to become the game’s focal point.

After Johnny McDermott became the last amateur to win the Open in 1933, and Bud Ward collected two top-5 finishes years later, decades passed before another amateur made a serious run at the title.

The 1960 Open at Cherry Hills in Denver will be remembered for Arnold Palmer’s legendary comeback. But the runner-up in that Open was a 20-year-old amateur, Jack Nicklaus, who finished two strokes behind. He was left to rue a missed 2-foot putt at the 13th, followed at the next hole by a three-putt.

In 1966, Johnny Miller, then 19, signed up to caddie for the Open at The Olympic Club in San Francisco, then managed to qualify for the championship. He was in the top 10 at the end of each round and finished tied for eighth.

At Baltusrol Golf Club in New Jersey the following year, Marty Fleckman held the 54-hole lead with three of that era’s greatest players (Nicklaus, Palmer and Billy Casper) right behind him, tied for second only a stroke back. Few expected Fleckman to hold up under the pressure, and when he bogeyed each of his first three holes he was on his way to a final-round 80.

But at Merion Golf Club in 1971, Jim Simons, a two-time All-American at Wake Forest who had qualified for two previous Opens, had a chance to become Open champion right down to the 72nd hole.

It was more than Simons ever expected. His preparation for the Open hardly was ideal. He had played on the U.S. Walker Cup team that traveled to St. Andrews, then played nine rounds in eight days in the wind and chill of the British Amateur at Carnoustie, where he lost to fellow Walker Cupper Steve Melnyk in the final.

When he returned home, Simons went to the 36-hole U.S. Open sectional qualifying and promptly was 7 over par after nine holes.

“It’s not like me to ever give up,” Simons remembers, “but I’m feeling bad and it looks futile. But I kept playing and son of a gun if I didn’t get on a roll and start making birdies.” He finished second in the qualifier and earned a spot in the Open.

Simons stayed within sight of the leaders at Merion with a pair of 1-over 71s. In the third round, Simons, calmed by the loose and easygoing nature of Lee Trevino, with whom he was paired, shot 65, the lowest round of the week by two strokes.

Playing with Nicklaus in the last round, Simons led as late as the last nine on Sunday afternoon. He had birdie putts at Nos. 15, 16 and 17, leaving the last one on the lip, and went to the final hole needing a birdie to tie for the lead. His drive bounded into the tall left rough – “The marshal told me it was the worst kick he’d seen there all week,” Simons recalls – and he got under the ball with a 3-wood, leaving him a 9-iron in and eventually leading to a double-bogey 6.

“I learned a lot from that,” says Simons. “I’m not one to blow smoke, but I really feel like, from a composure standpoint, I could have won that tournament, and I’m disappointed that I didn’t.

“I remember after we finished playing 18, Jack said to me, ‘Jimmy, you never made a nervous stroke all day.’ And I was very proud of that.”

But Simons remembers two events that showed the nervousness an amateur in that position is supposed to demonstrate.

While getting dressed that morning he put his crewneck on backward. He most likely would have gone to the golf course that way had it not been pointed out by Lanny Wadkins, who was a Wake Forest and Walker Cup teammate and his roommate that week.

Simons checked out of the hotel Sunday morning, then forgot where he had parked his car the night before. Carrying his golf bag and his luggage, he walked around the parking lot for 15 minutes, looking for it.

“My hands and arms were just shaking,” Simons says. “They were sore, like you feel after you work out after not doing it for a long time. That was the first time that week that I had doubt, that maybe I could not regain that composure that I had all week.”

Simons finished in a tie for 15th at the Open the next year at Pebble Beach. In the past 70 years, only Nicklaus – second in 1960 and fourth in ’61 – has had better back-to-back finishes as an amateur in an Open.

Since Simons, there have been precious few Open weekends with amateur headliners: Justin Leonard at Baltusrol in 1993 (T-13 after two rounds), Matt Kuchar at The Olympic Club in ’98 (T-4 after two rounds, T-10 after three). In the more than three decades since Simons, only two amateurs, Kuchar and Spencer Levin (last year at Shinnecock Hills), have earned their way back into the Open with top-15 finishes.

“Last year is something I will always remember. And to have that low amateur medal is very special to me,” said Levin, a junior at the University of New Mexico.

“What happened last year, though, is in the past. It was a great experience and a special time, but now it’s a new year. It’s like the saying ‘What have you done for me lately?’ I’m certainly looking forward to it and hopefully I can do as well if not better this year.”

Levin heads to Pinehurst with one U.S. Open under his belt.

“I think the thing I learned the most last year was at the Open you really have to stay patient,” he said. “You’re going to make some bogeys, but you can’t let it bother you. You’re never really out of it because a few birdies (will) get you right back.”

With few amateur highlights over the years it just shows how astounding Simons’ run at the ’71 Open really was.

During that memorable week, the wife of Jesse Haddock, Simons’ head coach at Wake Forest, was in the hospital. Her husband was visiting one day when someone came into the room and said, “Jim’s leading the Open.”

Not even Simons’ coach had expected that news.

“Jim who?” he asked.

– Ron Balickii contributed

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