MANAKIN-SABOT, Va. – The final of the USGA Senior Amateur, won by Louis Lee of Heber Springs, Ark., with a 1-up victory over Phil Pleat of Nashua, N.H., was a tribute to match play.
It was a testimonial to the emotion of golf. It was high praise for the human element of the game we love.
Golf needs more championships such as this. It needs different types of competition. It needs more tournaments with dramatic highs and lows. The Senior Amateur, because of its match-play format, provided six days of heart-pounding action for both players and fans.
Louis Lee faced off against brother Stan Lee during the quarterfinals. As James Achenbach writes, the two Lee brothers were very generous with conceded putts. LEE BROTHERS FEATURE
“I am absolutely exhausted,” Lee said Thursday after winning. “The tournament’s been over for half an hour, and my hand is still shaking.”
That hand didn’t shake, though, when it mattered most. Facing a downhill, sidehill 4-foot par putt on the 18th green, it was do or die for Lee – make the putt and win the match, miss the putt and go to extra holes.
Lee sank the putt, the ball just catching the left side of the cup.
“It was digging for the left tip,” Lee said. “I really wanted that putt to go in. I did not want to play any more holes.”
Lee and Pleat are both 55, the minimum age for the USGA Senior Amateur. The USGA Women’s Senior Amateur, won Thursday by Terri Frohnmayer of Salem, Ore., has a minimum age of 50.
Heading into the men’s final, Pleat probably was the favorite. In successive matches in the quarterfinals and semifinals, he had knocked off Paul Simson and Chip Lutz, the two most successful senior amateurs in 2010 and 2011.
Lutz, in fact, had not lost a senior amateur tournament this year. In the elite world of major senior amateur titles, he was trying to add the USGA crown to the British and Canadian titles he had won earlier this summer.
Pleat beat Lutz by making a birdie on the 18th hole, sinking a 12-foot putt.
Against Lee, though, he missed birdie putts shorter than 12 feet on the final three holes. His putt from 8 feet on the 18th green broke more than he anticipated, grazing the cup but refusing to fall.
If just one of those three putts had been successful, Pleat, a Merrill Lynch/Bank of America financial advisor, would have pushed the match to extra holes. Pleat, who shot 66 in his semifinal match against Lutz, had 73 in the final against Lee.
Lee, meanwhile, shot even par 72. “I didn’t have my best stuff today,” Lee said. “I kind of lost my timing. I started swinging too fast.”
How does a golfer go from the jubilation of 4-up lead to the desperation of losing three holes in a row?
Just ask Lee. With birdies on the 5th, 6th, 10th and 11th holes, he built a 4-up lead after 11 holes. Then, just as fast, he lost the 12th, 13th and 14th holes to see his lead reduced to 1-up.
At that point, Lee summoned all his courage and determination. He parred the four remaining holes, matching Pleat on each hole.
Lee was quick to credit his older brother, Stan Lee, for the victory. The two Lee brothers had played each other in the quarterfinal round, Louis winning with a birdie on the 19th hole. Stan then caddied for Louis in the semifinal and final matches.
“Had he not been there caddying for me,” Louis said after the final match, “you would not be standing here talking with me right now. You would be talking to Phil (Pleat).
“Stan slowed me down. He kept reminding me to pick a target on every shot. He kept saying, ‘You gotta keep your focus.’ He saved me in this match.
“I was bleeding oil, but somehow I won.”
Stan, 59, won the 2007 USGA Senior Amateur, meaning the Lee brothers twice have taken the championship trophy back to Heber Springs, a town of 6,500 residents.
Both played college golf at Louisiana State University, although Louis remained an amateur and owns a State Farm insurance agency, the Louis Lee Agency. Stan turned pro, finished second in the 1977 Greater New Orleans Open on the PGA Tour, and ultimately regained his amateur status. He works with his brother in the insurance business.
“Pretty good for a couple of brothers from a little old Arkansas town, eh?” exclaimed the joyful Louis.
With so much happiness and emotion, nobody was arguing with that.