Backspin: Workingman's championship has evolved

Brandt Snedeker during Round 3 of the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.

Editor's Note: This story first appeared in the May 2, 2009 issue of Golfweek

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When Trevor Immelman and Brandt Snedeker played in the final pairing at the 2008 Masters, it was cause for celebration as well as alarm. The former U.S. Amateur Public Links champions had reached the pinnacle of the professional game. Yet to some, the pairing symbolized how far the APL had strayed.

In the last 30 years, the APL and its sister event, the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links, have been dominated by youngsters bound for the professional level.

“I struggle to find the last champion older than 25,” U.S. Golf Association executive director David Fay said.

No one older than 22 has won the APL since Tim Hogarth, 30, in 1996. Hogarth refers to himself as the last “working stiff” to have won it. Beginning with Jodie Mudd in 1980, nearly every champion has turned pro (even Hogarth, before regaining his amateur status). APL winners’ calloused hands are from hitting balls, not hard labor.

“The days of a bus driver or guy who works at the grocery story winning the Publinx are gone,” said Hogarth, a vitamin salesman. “It’s become another summer tournament for the college kids and superstars of tomorrow.”

Critics say the APL is little more than a “B” flight of the more prestigious U.S. Amateur. The harshest call it an anachronism that ought to be abolished, and it’s not farfetched to think that it could be.

Late last year, the USGA quietly eliminated the U.S. Amateur Public Links Team Championship. Fay confirmed the APL’s future has been discussed but for now it remains viable.

“You don’t just jettison the fourth-oldest championship in the country,” Fay said. “Maybe it’s a quixotic notion, but there still are enough players, measured in the thousands, for whom this is their opportunity.”

Though it seems unlikely that a working-class player still can win the APL, Fay and others aren’t convinced that’s necessarily a problem. APL tournament director Bill McCarthy points out that college players always have done well in the event.

“Has it lost its edge as a true blue-collar championship?” McCarthy said. “Well, you have to go back real far to even say it was at any time.”

Humble beginnings

The APL was formed amid the spread of public-course golf after World War I.

James Standish Jr., a former USGA president, championed the idea that there should be a national championship for golfers who could afford neither private-club membership nor travel expenses to the U.S. Amateur.

Half the field of 140 in the first “Publinx,” in 1922, didn’t own golf shoes.

At one time, the field was comprised mainly by people such as milkmen, longshoremen and riveters who worked for a living and played their golf on weekends. The Publinx long has been romanticized as America’s blue-collar championship. In its history, the APL has been won by a Yonkers, N.Y., truck driver, a Sacramento bartender and a Pittsburgh steelworker. It also provided the setting for the USGA’s first black champion.

As recently as 1977, the ratio of workers to students at the Publinx was 3 to 1, according to a Sports Illustrated report. Today, those numbers have more than reversed and could be closer to 5 to 1 in favor of students.

Through the years, college winners have typified public-course golfers. Don Essig III, the 1957 champion, remembers his parents giving him $1 for all-day green fees, two hot dogs and a soda. Prices have inflated, but the stories remain the same. Jeff Overton’s dad bought him a junior pass for $100 to play the municipal courses in Evansville, Ind.

“He dropped me off on the weekend at Fendrich Golf Club with $10 for golf, a sandwich and a coke,” said Overton, the 2003 APL medalist who plays the PGA Tour.

Growing up in South Africa, the only private course that 1997 champion Tim Clark had access to was a makeshift course he designed in his yard. Then there’s Brandt Snedeker, who paid homage to Shelby Park – his childhood course in Nashville, Tenn. – by displaying his 2003 trophy in the pro shop for a year.

“My parents dropped me off at 8 and picked me up at 5,” Snedeker said. “That’s how I got by in the summertime.”

‘Incidental’ privilege

Today’s students have a leg up on the 9-to-5 crowd. Many college players and juniors training at golf academies have a private club at their disposal. USC golfers, for instance, have access to Riviera and Wilshire in Los Angeles. This doesn’t affect their eligibility. The USGA considers such a privilege to be “incidental” if provided by a school. The USGA also allows for access provided by “an industry by which (the player) is employed or retired and a federal armed service of which the contestant is a member.”

Many college players enter the APL for the invitation into the Masters that has gone to the champion since 1989.

The USGA enforces the rules, which requires a golfer must not have belonged to a private club since Jan. 1 of the year of the tournament (USGA handicap index must not exceed 4.4 for men and 18.4 for women). State and local associations administer sectional qualifying and usually weed out a few entrants every year. It’s not unusual for a qualifier to be deemed ineligible before the final stage and replaced by an alternate.

The most controversial violation was that of Carri Wood, who played the WAPL five times and finished runner-up in 1991. In 1993, she lost her quarterfinal match by technical knockout. Wood, hitting balls before her match, was asked by a USGA official whether she had playing privileges at Scituate (Mass.) Country Club. Wood was not a member at the private club but took lessons there from its head pro. She had represented the club with Hockey Hall of Famer Ray Bourque in a made-for-TV charity event. A member of the Women’s Golf Association of Massachusetts turned

her in to the association’s president, who informed the USGA. Wood was declared ineligible.

“If they investigated everyone,” Wood said all these years later, “I wouldn’t be the only one who took a lesson at a private club.”

As much as the USGA polices the field, the perception remains that it is easy to manipulate the rules.

‘Working the system’

Tripp Kuehne grew up playing Stonebridge Ranch Country Club, a private club outside Dallas. Kuehne entered the 1997 APL after renouncing his membership and listing the public course at Oklahoma State, where he had played on the golf team and was serving as an assistant coach while earning his MBA.

“I caught a lot of crap from a lot of people,” Kuehne said.

Coincidentally, Brittany Lang grew up playing the same Stonebridge course. After her family left the club in 2003, she entered the WAPL the next year.

Fay has heard the complaints, and he doesn’t dispute that gray areas exist. “That’s working the system,” Fay said, noting it’s not quite “the spirit of the law.”

Last year, the USGA prefaced the application with nine questions targeting eligibility.

“We felt this was a great way to get out in front of potential mistakenly ineligible situations as players tend to not read the entry or the specific interpretations for eligibility,” McCarthy explained.

Yet some critics say if the USGA truly wants the championship to serve the blue-collar entity again, it needs to eliminate students. Otherwise, said former USGA executive director Frank Hannigan, “It’s an invalid event. The USGA knows this, and they’d get rid of it tomorrow if they weren’t so sensitive to the criticism they undoubtedly will receive.”

Fay noted that the USGA created the Mid-Am, restricted to amateurs 25 or older, in 1981, out of concern that the U.S. Amateur was producing primarily college-age champions. But Fay dismissed the notion of modifying the field for the APL and WAPL.

“If given the choice of eliminating a group of players who’ve done well, I would just as soon get rid of it,” he said.

Fay said he was among the first at the USGA to question whether the APL still should exist. White papers have been drafted dating to 1979, when the USGA changed its policies and allowed public-course players to compete in the U.S. Amateur. Fay favored discontinuing the APL, but the decision has been made by consensus and the consensus always has been to keep it. Yet Fay said that he since has altered his view.

“It’s not a redundancy,” said Fay, a public-course player in his youth. “It’s developed its own history and is a most valid championship in its current format.”

Last year the USGA made a consensus decision to forgo the team championship, which had been conducted since 1923 at the same time as the individual competition. No formal announcement was made.

“We’re quietly eliminating something that never seemed to take hold,” Fay said.

“There has been total apathy on the part of the players regarding the team championship,” McCarthy said, “if the players were even aware of its

existence.”

Fay said the Warren G. Harding Cup awarded to the team champion likely would be donated to the White House Museum in Washington. The loss of the team championship has raised fresh concerns that the fate of the APL and WAPL still might hang in the balance.

This year’s APL will be held July 13-18 at the Jimmie Austin University of Oklahoma Golf Club in Norman, Okla. No matter that the competition has been dominated by college golfers in recent years – the others still come. In 2002, Isaac Jimison, a roofer from Orangevale, Calif., left his mark. He was the medalist and reached the quarterfinals playing in flip-flops because golf shoes gave him blisters.

“The working man is still out there,” Snedeker said. “They’re just a little harder to find.”

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