Lifelong amateur Campbell left vast legacy

Lifelong amateur Bill Campbell served the U.S. Golf Association and the R&A during his lifetime.

Lifelong amateur Bill Campbell served the U.S. Golf Association and the R&A during his lifetime.

Amateur golf lost one of its last remaining giants Aug. 30 with the passing of Bill Campbell. Indeed, at an interview at his home just a few years ago, Campbell remarked to me, “I see myself as the last man standing.”

Campbell was kind enough over the last several years to converse with me in person, over the phone and through letters written in his illegible handwriting. A proud West Virginian, Campbell was a master storyteller who had played with Gene Sarazen and Ben Hogan, learned to fly an airplane (thanks to the GI Bill) and personified the gentleman golfer. Here are some of my favorite Campbell stories from a life well lived.

Golf Journal once wrote that Campbell was a professional at being an amateur. He also was a symbol of golf’s integrity, and he enjoyed every minute of it. Campbell met Sam Snead, who adopted him as a protege, when he was 14 years old. A year later, the U.S. Golf Association’s Joe Dey told Campbell to “play away” at the 1938 U.S. Amateur, his first of 37 appearances spanning six decades.

“I remember I topped the ball from the first tee, but I birdied the first hole,” he said.

It was downhill from there.

“There was a big rain storm and I didn’t have a towel, umbrella or an extra golf glove,” Campbell said.

When he didn’t qualify for match play, Snead picked him up and drove him to Cedar Rocks Club in Wheeling, W. Va., to play in a Pro-Am.

“We roomed together,” Campbell said, “and the next morning – I always mention this because it’s reflective of the type of man that Sam was and also of his influence on me in a way – he said, ‘Billy, how many push-ups can you do?’ And I wasn’t sure I could do any, but I suffered through about 10. Sam banged out a quick 100 without breaking a sweat. On the golf course that day, in the Pro-Am, I didn’t help Sam with one shot, not one. He took me down to the old B&O Railroad station and sent me back to Huntington (W.Va.) that night, and he said, ‘Billy, go home and grow up.’ And I’ve been trying to grow up ever since. ”

Campbell blossomed into a standout on the amateur circuit, and even beat Snead to earn one of his three West Virginia Open titles. Campbell won the West Virginia Amateur 15 times and the North & South Amateur four times, but the U.S. Amateur continued to elude him.

“It had become a quest after the Holy Grail for me,” Campbell said, but it was one that Campbell admittedly felt was out of reach.

In 1957, Campbell was invited to join the USGA executive committee. He was asked if he was ready to wind down his competitive golf.

“The assumption being you couldn’t do both,” he explained. “I said, ‘No, no, thanks. I’m not ready for that.’ But then in the next five years, my game did fall off … so by ’62, when they invited me again, I said OK. I didn’t think I had a conflict of interest any longer being a potential player as a competitor.”

Campbell credited his revival in 1964 to a new set of Wilson golf clubs. He had sent a driver off to the company’s factory and asked them to make a set of clubs to match it.

“They said, ‘We won’t do it. It’s too heavy,’ ” Campbell recalled. “I said, ‘Well, I’m paying for it. So please make it!’ And they did. And it came in and suddenly my game was reborn.”

The irons weighed E5 on the swingweight scale and were 1 inch longer with stiff shafts. With his heavier clubs, Campbell reached the final of the 1964 U.S. Amateur at Canterbury Country Club in Ohio. He was 41 years old, and it was his 21st attempt. He played archrival Ed Tutwiler, a fellow West Virginian. They had met seven times in the West Virginia Amateur final, and Tutwiler had hosted the winner’s trophy six times.

“How would you feel if you finally got to the final and had to play the guy who made a living out of beating you?” Campbell said.

Campbell grabbed the lead for the first and only time by winning the 35th hole, and halved the last for a 1-up victory.

“I can’t call it a noble victory,” he said, “but it did make up for a lot.”

The next day Campbell, an insurance man, was back in his office. Since his victory, only two other U.S. Amateur champions have spurned the pro ranks: Marvin “Vinny” Giles (1972) and Fred Ridley (1975). Campbell accepted that the world had changed and the money on the PGA Tour too tempting, but he still believed in the amateur spirit.

“I take the position that people are missing out on a beautiful thing,” he said.

Campbell recognized that the era of the career amateur was coming to an end. Indeed, he counseled Jack Nicklaus to turn pro. At the Losantiville Pro-Am played outside Cincinnati in late October 1961, Nicklaus paired with his Ohio State coach Bob Kepler while Campbell teamed with his home pro from West Virginia. After the match, they all went to dinner.

“I made a little talk with him, the essence of it was, ‘Jack, you’re going to be a great golfer, you are already, you’re going to be better, and you have a chance to be an all-timer. But how do you want to do it? Do you want to be exploited?’” Campbell recalled. “I said, ‘You’re going to be nickel-and-dimed to death, all of which will depend upon your golf, indirectly at least. And wouldn’t you want to do something because of its own sake? And in your case, that would best be done if you went professional.’

“Jack was of a different breed. He was a singular talent. I was just speaking my mind.”

There was a patch of silence between them. Finally, Kepler said, “Bill’s right.” And, of course, professional golf would never be the same.

Campbell competed in eight Walker Cups between 1951 and ’75, and compiled a 7-0-1 record in singles. Later, he added two U.S. Senior Amateur titles. Campbell also played in 14 U.S. Opens and 17 Masters, and owns the distinction of being among the distinguished few to turn down an invitation to Augusta. The reason: he was running for Congress.

“I couldn’t do both at the same time, so I declined the invitation,” Campbell explained. “The following year when the invitations went out I got a phone call from Cliff Roberts. At the time, the past champions selected one player for the field. He said ‘Bill, you declined last year. The vote of the past champions is a tie between you and another person. Bob Jones has a vote. He will vote for you if you come.’ I never declined another one.”

Campbell never wavered in his devotion to the amateur game.

“(The pro life) was too concentric a life,” he said. Campbell spent three years in the West Virginia Legislature. As one of golf’s most distinguished statesmen, Campbell served as USGA president in 1982-83 and was the third American nominated to be captain of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews.

On Dec. 6, 1986, Campbell was at a client’s office when he was interrupted by a call from his office.

“They told me it was quite important and patched in a call,” Campbell recalled. “It was the R&A and I was asked if I would serve as captain. I said, ‘I will not see this conversation terminated without accepting.’ ”

Campbell delayed telling his wife until he got home that evening. He found her sitting by the fireplace and broke the news.

“She said, ‘Let’s do it,’ ” Campbell recalled. “She didn’t say, ‘You do it.’ She said, ‘Let’s do it.’ That meant the world to me.”

Only the most fortunate men can appreciate their own success and enjoy it fully.

“In golf,” Campbell said, “there are no strangers, only friends you have never met.’’

As proof, Campbell once told the story of his first trip to the British Amateur, in 1949 at Portmarnock Golf Club in Ireland. While exchanging money at Shannon Airport, he struck up a conversation about golf with the banker, who asked Campbell how long a layover he had between flights. When told three hours, the banker pulled down the blind, closed the bank and phoned the Ennis Golf Club to say they were on their way. The fast friends played nine holes. Thirty-nine years later, when Campbell returned to Ireland for Cork Golf Club’s centenary, that same banker, now retired in Galway, came out to watch.

“This could only happen in golf,” Campbell said.

True, and Campbell was truly one of a kind.

• • •

Read Jim Achenbach's commentary on Campbell's legacy.

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