Rudolph staging his amateur comeback

Welcome back, Harry – as in Harry Rudolph III.

For some, the name might not be familiar. For others, it might be one that takes some digging into the memory banks.

I, for one, remember him well – back when he was one of the best juniors, amateurs and collegiate players in the country. That was way back when.

Rudolph, now 40, is a family man, businessman and reinstated amateur who is again trying to make his mark as one of the nation’s leading non-professional competitors.

So, when I ran into Rudolph last month at the Porter Cup at Niagara Falls Country Club in Lewiston, N.Y., it was a great opportunity to sit down and catch up on his life and his golf, especially about what he’s been doing for the past 10 years (he admits he’s been pretty much hiding in “the golf closest”).

What I remember the most about Rudolph is that back in his day he had plenty of game. He could compete with anyone, including his longtime rival from the San Diego area, Phil Mickelson.

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Phil Mickelson

The two began dueling on the golf course as 6-year-olds, with Rudolph beating Mickelson about as many times as he lost to him.

Rudolph recalls Mickelson and his wife Amy years ago stopping in Harry’s Coffee Shop in La Jolla, Calif., a restaurant that was started by his father, the late Harry, Jr., and has been in the family since it opened in 1960.

As they were telling stories and remembering old times, Rudolph went over to his “Wall of Fame” and took a picture off the wall to show Mickelson. It was the two of them, both holding trophies from a Balboa Park Golf Club tournament when they were 13.

“I made it a point to let him know he was holding the smaller trophy,” Rudolph said.

He remembers Mickelson’s reaction well.

“He just laughed. He got a big kick out of it,” Rudolph said. “We really enjoyed that little bit of time together.”

Rudolph regained his amateur status in April 2009, and tries to squeeze in as much competitive golf as he takes care of his family – wife Danielle, and two daughters, Rhys, 6, and Shay, 4 – and keeps things going at Harry’s Coffee Shop. He and his brother John and sister Liz bought the shop from their parents some five years ago.

Soon after regaining amateur status, Rudolph made it through U.S. Open local qualifying. However, in May of 2009, his father and his biggest fan and supporter passed away. Rudolph was just getting back into golf at the time, and with that still fresh on his mind, failed to advance out of the U.S. Open section qualifier.

“The thing I realized is life is short,” he said. “As my dad would have wanted, it was time to take advantage of the ability I have. I feel fortunate I still have some game and can go out and compete.”

That summer he placed in the top 15 at the Stocker Cup and won the San Diego City Amateur.

He’s been rolling ever since. This year he’s placed in the top 20 at the Southwestern Amateur and Trans-Miss Amateur. In June, he was runner-up at the California State Amateur, losing to Scott Travers, 4 and 3, at La Jolla Country Club in Rancho Santa Fe. He had not played in the state amateur since 1992, a year after he won the title.

Rudolph was qualifying medalist at a U.S. Amateur qualifier at Glendora (Calif.) Country Club, but Porter Cup week truly showed his game is back and getting better.

Amid a field that consisted largely of college and high school players, Rudolph was tied for the lead after two rounds (67-65) and was in the final threesome to start the third round. His playing partners were Russell Henley, a senior at Georgia who was two years old the last time Rudolph played in the Porter Cup (1991) and Nate McCoy, a junior at Iowa State, who was born in ’91.

“It is a little odd at times, but it’s great to be out here competing with these young guys who have so much talent,” said Rudolph, who finished T-6. “Of course, I’m sure most of them have no idea who I am.”

That certainly wasn’t the case 20 years ago, when Rudolph and Mickelson – separated in age by six months – were two of the most sought-after college recruits in the country.

Mickelson would go on to Arizona State, where he won three NCAA individual titles, garnered first-team All-America honors four times, and led the Sun Devils to the NCAA team championship in 1990.

Rudolph headed for Oklahoma State. It wasn’t his cup of tea, however, and after two years, he decided to transfer. Cowboy coach Mike Holder gave him his release and he headed to the University of Arizona, where he was immediately eligible to play.

By his senior season, he moved into the No. 1 spot on coach Rick LaRose’s lineup – ahead of the likes of Jim Furyk, Manny Zerman and David Berganio. He was a first-team All-American his senior season as he led the Wildcats to the 1992 NCAA title, besting Arizona State and his long-time friend and rival Mickelson.

Shortly thereafter, Rudolph and Mickelson were ready to take professional golf by storm. Unfortunately for Rudolph, the storm never amounted to anything more than a slight rain shower.

Rudolph bounced around a variety of pro tours, but never could get through the full qualifying stages and earn his PGA Tour card.

“I played the Asian Tour, Canadian Tour, Nike (now Nationwide) Tour, some mini-tours, back to the Asian Tour and the every-state-open-in-the-country tour,” he said. “I did more Monday qualifiers than I care to remember.”

In 1999 he missed out on the second stage of the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament, and wasn’t happy with his golf or the way his life was going.

“I think I had the talent to make it,” he said, “but I’m not sure I knew how to make it out there, how to live my life. I wasn’t happy which is not going to measure into success.

So in early 2000, Rudolph was out of pro golf and working for his parents at Harry’s Coffee Shop. He played a round here and there with his friends, and hardly even watched golf on TV.

“I just had to get away from it and I felt the best way to do that was to do it completely,” he said.

Rudolph got interested again a few years ago, and after giving up his membership at La Jolla Country Club in 2008, he started playing and practicing at Torrey Pines. He started to enjoy the game again and more importantly, he realized he still had the game and the drive to compete.

“It was really about having fun again in the game,” Rudolph said. “Take the professional side out of it, I love golf. I guess I always have. And I missed the competition. It was a void in my life.”

Expect to see Rudolph playing more and competing at the highest amateur level. And if you miss him on the golf course, you still can catch him slinging burgers at Harry’s Coffee Shop. He’ be more than happy to talk golf with you – no extra charge.

“I feel I’m more prepared now for competitive golf,” he said. “I’m very comfortable in my life, as a competitor, as a husband and father, as a man.”

 After his Porter Cup performance, all I can say is welcome back, Harry Rudolph. Oh, and to all you young guns out there, a word of warning: Watch out for the old guy.

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