Last amateur standing: Conversation with Bill Campbell

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.

“Better bring a couple of pens and lots of paper,” Bill Campbell told me, “because I have a lot of Harvie stories that can be told and a few that can’t.”

That’s how Bill Campbell responded to my request for an interview. I’ve been researching articles and talking with people who knew Harvie Ward in order to write about some of our greatest golfing amateurs. Ken Venturi and Bill Campbell probably knew Harvie best, so I wanted to hear what Mr. Campbell had to say. The interview was scheduled for 1 p.m. on July 15th at Mr. Campbell’s home in Lewisburg, W.Va.

I arrived at the Campbell residence, high atop a hill that commanded a stunning view overlooking the southeastern end of the Greenbrier Valley. Warmly greeted by Bill’s wife, Joan, I was informed that Bill was having a number of medical tests performed in the local hospital and wouldn’t be home until late in the afternoon. Joan expressed apologies that I was unable to meet with Bill at that moment and regretfully doubted that Bill would be up to granting the interview after returning home. She suggested I check into the General Lewis Hotel and await her call at which time she would let me know when, or even if, I would be able to meet with him.

As I was registering at the hotel shortly thereafter, Bill was calling from the hospital apologizing for missing our scheduled appointment and suggesting we could meet at his house at 4 p.m. I’d be there, I told him. I had never met Bill Campbell but had seen many pictures of him. His 6-foot-plus and lanky, but sturdy, frame was obviously built for golf. So I was somewhat, though privately, taken back when introduced to a frail, unsteady man who still presented a confident presence. He briefly mentioned that he was now well aware that his health was suffering and that he would do his best to address my queries. He also made it clear that Joan might keep popping in and out with some iced tea, but she really wanted to make sure he wasn’t overdoing it. That’s when I knew that this would be a brief conversation rather than a time-consuming interview.

Discernible was the fact that his mind was still alert, chocked full of memories, and willing to force feed my notebook with specific incidents, personalities, competitions and anything else that might randomly spring forth. Confirmation came when I asked if he could recall losing his match to Ward Wettlaufer at the 1966 North & South, and he was able to recall, shot by shot, how he lost it on the 17th and 18th holes. “It’s not the winning that is so much fun . . . it’s the trying.”

I had intended to use this time spent with Mr. Campbell to talk in depth about Harvie Ward, but it was readily apparent that my time was limited so it would be best to cover a variety of subjects and not get too detailed on any of them. But the one subject so dear to Bill Campbell was the subject of amateur golf. And because Campbell was the consummate amateur, that’s where I delved. “I am a relic of a time,” Campbell said, “when amateur golf was a goal in itself to be pursued and savored all of one’s life, rather than as a step to something else. And I still believe it. Golf is both a builder of character and a revealer of character. By watching someone play golf, you can see how that person responds to pressure and disappointment, as well as how his or her manners and personality hold up when things don't go well."

I questioned whether the amateur events of today held the same prestige of Campbell's era. “The North/South, Tam O’Shanter (Old Chicago Open), Sunnehanna, and Porter Cup don’t get the national exposure as they did years ago. Do you think amateur golf is on the ropes?” I asked. “I think not,” he said, “but the print media isn’t as influential or complete as it once was. I think the golfing magazines and the Golf Channels do a pretty good job covering today’s events, and you can bet that the better amateur players are well aware of where they need to compete.”

I asked Campbell who might make up his favorite amateur foursome. He mentioned Bobby Jones, for his character and personality; Billy Joe Patton, because he was so excitable and interesting to watch; and Charlie Coe, who was a great golfer but didn’t enjoy tournament golf.

About that time, Joan made her second visit into the room and politely suggested that we should finish our conversation very soon. So I rushed to get three pressing questions answered. Who, in his opinion, were the best ball strikers of his era? He named Moe Norman, Sam Snead and Harvie Ward. Second, was it true that he asked for the location of the ball washer when he made his first appearance at the Masters? “Yes, that’s true,” Campbell said, “but it has been blown way out of proportion. I was always frugal when it came to using new golf balls, and Billy Joe would sometimes say, 'You know, Bill, there’s no ball washer on the first tee at Augusta National.' And there’s not!" And finally, I wanted to know what would be the last course he would want to play. Coincidentally, he picked Muirfield, the site of the 2013 Open Championship, which was being played that week.

All in all, I got to spend about 75 minutes talking with "The Last Amateur Standing," a man who had just learned of his mortality yet felt compelled to honor the interview commitment made two weeks earlier. Then, he slowly ushered me out to his 1955 Chrysler Imperial, opened the trunk and showed me the Bulls Eye putter that he had painted white, some 50 years before white putters became the rage. “The game was never purer than Bill Campbell,” Jack Nicklaus once said. “He absolutely did it the right way."

John S. Mooshie, a freelance writer in Crawfordville, Fla., interviewed Campbell in mid-July. Campbell, 90, died Aug. 30.

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