Public Links ends this week, but it has left its mark

Michelle Wie watches her shot during match play at the men's Amateur Public Links at the Shaker Run Country Club in Lebanon, Ohio, on July 13, 2005.
Michelle Wie watches her shot during match play at the men's Amateur Public Links at the Shaker Run Country Club in Lebanon, Ohio, on July 13, 2005. ( Associated Press )

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Don Essig III’s voice bursts with pride when he says he was “a real muni golfer.” Growing up two miles from Willow Brook Golf Course in Indianapolis, Essig took to the fairways when he was 7 and before long he began tying a pull cart to the back of his bicycle and hauling his clubs there, a dollar bill wedged in his hip pocket. He could play all day for 65 cents and with the change purchase two hot dogs and a soda. By the time he was 13, Essig worked in the pro shop and snack bar and could play for free.

“Any day I played less than 36 holes a day, I felt I was being punished,” he said.

In 1957, Essig, a sophomore at LSU, won the U.S. Amateur Public Links, billed as America’s blue-collar championship. At 75, he is the second-oldest living winner of an event whose roll call of champions includes a waiter, a stenographer, a riveter, a steel worker and a truck driver. Their triumph was a victory for all golfers who hit balls off AstroTurf mats, shabby tee boxes and shaggier greens. This once was the major for the weekend warriors placing balls in a long white pipe, hitting from footprints of unraked bunkers and dragging a pull cart, only to wait at the 10th-tee logjam.

But this championship for the working stiffs had transformed into another glorified college event, what critics termed the U.S. Amateur B Flight. No one older than 22 has won the APL since Tim Hogarth, a 30-year-old vitamin salesman, in 1996.

In February 2013, the U.S. Golf Association announced it was discontinuing its fourth-oldest championship and its sister event, the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links, which debuted in 1977, citing the tournaments “no longer serve their original mission because of the widespread accessibility public-course golfers today enjoy in USGA championships.”

After nearly a century of existence, the events will be played for the final time this week in Dupont, Wash., (women) and Newton, Kan., (men) as the USGA transitions to a newly-created national four-ball event.

“If you can get past the troubling part that they were two great championships and the history of it, there just wasn’t a need,” USGA executive director Mike Davis said. “That’s what it boils down to, sadly.”

No one disputes that the spirit and tenor of the event had changed. James Standish Jr., a former USGA president who was hailed as the man who took golf out of white tie and tails and put it into T-shirts, was the visionary behind a championship for amateurs who could afford neither private-club membership nor travel. The first Publinx, as it was dubbed, was played in Toledo, Ohio, in 1922. Of the 140 contestants paying an entry fee of $5, fewer than half wore golf shoes.

The question of whether the Public Links had lost its blue-collar flavor and become redundant has been debated in USGA committee meetings for years. White papers arguing for the APL’s elimination have been drafted dating to 1979, when the USGA allowed public-course players to compete in the U.S. Amateur. That, combined with the relaxation of the procedures for obtaining a handicap and the liberalization of USGA membership requirements, made the U.S. Amateur and U.S. Mid-Amateur more accessible to public-course golfers. In the era when college golf exploded, there also has been sniping about whether competitors fit the definition of a Public Links golfer, concern about too many loopholes and a perception that some were bending the rules. The administrative headaches had forced the USGA to police eligibility with the vigilance (and some would say ineffectiveness) of the NCAA.

The Publinx used to be the only championship in which the USGA helped players pay expenses, which is one reason why it always attracted such a large field, the vast majority of whom weren’t collegians. Another was that a handicap wasn’t required until 2000. With the exception of a one-year blip in 1971, it wasn’t until 1997, one year after Tiger Woods captured his third consecutive U.S. Amateur, that entries for the U.S. Amateur surpassed those of the Public Links.

(In 2013, Amateur entries cracked 7,000 for the first time since 2008; in 2011, APL entries fell below 3,000 for the first time since 1967.)

Over the course of 88 renditions, the APL made its share of history. In 1959, it produced the first black champion in a USGA event in William A. Wright, who later became a golf instructor. In 1988, Ralph Howe III, became the first left-hander to win a USGA title. With no gender restriction, 15-year-old Michelle Wie advanced to match play in 2005 before losing in the quarterfinals to Clay Odgen, the eventual champion. Wie was 10 when she made her first appearance in the WAPL, in 2000, and won it in 2003. The list of female champs is dominated by future pros, too (Jill McGill, ’94; Candie Kung, ’01; Yani Tseng, ’04; Tiffany Joh, ’06, ’08).

Major winners George Archer, Tommy Bolt, Walter Burkemo, Ed Furgol, Bobby Nichols and Ken Venturi got their starts here. It was a springboard for major winners of today such as Trevor Immelman, Jason Dufner and two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson, who was bounced, 6 and 5, in the first round by Byron Schlagenhauf in 1998.

Beginning with Howe, the 1988 champion, the winner has received an invitation to the Masters, making the APL one of the most coveted amateur titles.

“It was my dream to play in the Masters as an amateur,” said Immelman, the 1998 champion.

To Clark Standish, a member of the APL committee for nine years until 2013 as well as the grandson of the event’s founder, the Public Links was reduced to a ticket to Augusta.

“That’s what everyone let it become,” he said. “That wasn’t really what the championship was about. It was a tremendous accomplishment to hoist that trophy.”

The winners, who have held one-year custody of the Standish Cup, haven’t forgotten what it meant to them. Immelman treasures a painting in his home office of himself cradling the sterling-silver trophy. Wie said she planned to order a replica of the WAPL’s Robert F. Dwyer Trophy. Essig turned the winner’s gold medal into a necklace for his wife. Howe purchased a replacement medal after his was stolen in a robbery, and he displayed it in China to inspire young golfers there.

“You couldn’t walk into my house without seeing that giant trophy,” Hogarth said.

Jordan Niebrugge, the APL’s reigning champion, has paid his $50 and filed his entry for Sand Creek Station Golf Course in Newton, Kan., becoming the first male to mount a defense since Jack Newman, the 2008 winner, competed in 2009. There’s no denying that to the men and women who have lifted their respective trophies, not even the competition’s demise can diminish their achievement. Just listen.

Ryan Moore, the 2002 and ’04 champ: “It was my first big win.”

Brandt Snedeker, the ’03 champion: “It’s one of those things that I’ll probably be able to look back on 40 years from now and I’ll get goose bumps every time I think about it.”

Wie: “I hope it doesn’t get forgotten. That’s definitely a worry of mine. It’s such a prestigious event. Things happen, tournaments come and go, but it has enough history that I think it will be remembered.”

– Beth Ann Nichols contributed