APL remains premier everyman’s tournament

J.J. Spaun during Wednesday stroke play at the 2011 NCAA Division I Men's Golf Championship.

J.J. Spaun during Wednesday stroke play at the 2011 NCAA Division I Men's Golf Championship.

BANDON, Ore. – Look no further than J.J. Spaun for an explanation of why the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship is such a wonderful golf tournament.

Playing the Old MacDonald course at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, the 20-year-old San Diego State University junior won two matches Thursday to advance to the quarterfinal round of the APL.

Joining him among the final eight was his SDSU teammate, Todd Baek.

The APL is the premier everyman’s tournament. It is open to amateurs who do not belong to private golf clubs, and this leads to some down-to-earth, heartwarming stories.

Spaun is not alone in this excellent adventure. His father, John, is his caddie. His mother, Dollie, has been here every step of the way. His grandfather, Jack Spaun, is another interested observer.

“All our vacations seem to revolve around golf tournaments, and we like it that way,” John Spaun said.

Golf is the glue that binds this family together, and it is a refreshing story. John and Dollie Spaun are not aggressive Little League parents, pushing their child toward success at all costs.

Rather, golf is viewed as an activity that mirrors everyday life, and J.J. is quick to credit his recent golf resurgence on a new maturity and the guidance of his parents.

“It was a lot more than just golf,” he said. “I guess I’m growing up.”

After a period in which he “just couldn’t hit the ball at all,” there might have been a temptation to see an instructor and rebuild his swing from the ground up.

“No, no,” said his father, who is a nursing home administrator. “The important thing was not to panic. J.J. has never had a lesson in his life. He is entirely self-taught. He has a gift. That’s not going away. His swing is so natural. We don’t ever want to do anything to ruin that gift.”

Suddenly, almost inexplicably, J.J. began to play better. This was clear to everyone when he tied for third in the individual standings at the 2011 NCAA Division I Golf Championships. He earned third-team All-American honors.

Sure, the family could celebrate these achievements, but they would rather play golf instead.

It’s always been that way. Dollie, pregnant with J.J., played golf into her eighth month of pregnancy. She put a suction cup on the butt end of her putter so she could retrieve her ball from the hole.

“People looked at her,” her husband related, “and said, ‘That kid is gonna be a golfer.’ And that’s exactly how it worked out.”

When John went to the range to hit balls, he would take his son in a stroller. When J.J. was 4, he stood in front of the television and announced, “I want to watch golf.”

At 9, J.J. would leave his school every afternoon and ride a Razor scooter on a three-mile downhill route. This daily routine ended at the golf course, where he would hit balls and play until dark.

“I was driving my car one day,” John said, “and there he was, flying down the hill. I said to myself, ‘That’s my boy,’ and I was thankful we had golf.”

Added Dollie, “We never, ever had to hire a baby sitter. The golf course was our baby sitter. We always knew where he was.”

J.J. grew up hitting a big draw on most of his shots. One day he decided to change this flight pattern to a baby fade. He did it all my himself.

“I couldn’t believe it,” said his father, “but he has great instincts about his swing.”

According to J.J., he went from “a 15-yard draw to a 5-yard cut.”

He also became a cross-handed, or left hand low, putter. Changes apparently are nothing to the golfer who serves as his own instructor.

The APL is the perfect stage for such a performer. In the third round of match play, J.J. scored a 3-and-2 victory over 29-year-old Herb Aikens of Pembroke, Mass.

“What college did you go to?” a USGA volunteer asked the 6-foot-6-inch Aikens.

“Ma’am, I didn’t go to college,” Aikens said. “I became an electrician right after high school, and I started my own business (Lighthouse Electrical Contracting in Rockland, Mass.).”

A golf melting pot, that’s what the APL has become in its 86-year history.

So John and J.J. were quick to forgive themselves for their amateurish excitement on the 15th hole of their match with Aikens. The hole is a par-5, and J.J. hit his second shot near the front edge of the green.

After addressing his third shot and backing off, J.J. called referee Ron Harper for a ruling. Was the ball on the putting surface or the fringe? It was difficult to tell on the closely mowed slopes.

Harper ruled it was on the green. Eventually J.J. hit his 50-foot putt, leaving the flagstick in the hole. Neither he nor his father considered the two-stroke penalty that would occur if the ball hit the flagstick. Luckily, it didn’t.

“I saw what was happening, but I couldn’t tell them,” Harper said, “because that would be considered advice. After the match, I called it to their attention.”

Only at the APL, this exceptional real-life golf tournament.

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