Amateurs Finest Hour

By Michael ArkushApril 2, 2008, 4:00 pm
Editor's Note: The following is a special feature courtesy LINKS Magazine
 
Amateur is not a term of derision at the Masters. Rather, largely due to the example set by tournament co-founder Bobby Jones, amateurs leave Augusta much richer in experience, if not in their wallets. They get to stay in the Crow's Nest in the clubhouse for the week and are feted during an annual dinner, one of the Masters' grand traditions. (The other pre-tournament dinner is the one with a strict dress code: green jacket required.) Amateurs play practice rounds with the game's greats and are paired with past champions for the first two rounds.
 
'That was living the dream for me,' says Matt Kuchar, who played the 1998 and '99 Masters as an amateur. 'The coolest thing was waking up in the Crow's Nest. You walk down these ladder-like stairs. You exit from what appears to be a phone booth out into the main dining room, and people go, 'Where did he come from?' And then you see this magnificent view of the big oak tree and the putting green and the 18th green.'
 
The amateur experience at the Masters remains entrenched despite golf's shift of power almost entirely to the professional game during the past several decades, a trend reflected in the number of amateur invitees-from a high of 26 in 1966 to three this year.
 
But no matter the number of amateurs in the field, there has been one constant: None has won the Masters. A few have come close, and here are the 10 best amateur performances in tournament history.
 
1. Ken Venturi - 1956
For three rounds, 24-year-old Ken Venturi simply outclassed Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Arnold Palmer to hold a four-shot advantage. Heading into the final 18, the improbable seemed inevitable: An amateur was going to win the Masters.
 
'All I had to do was the same thing I had been doing all week long,' Venturi explained in his autobiography.
 
He couldn't. Although he played well from tee to green, hitting 15 greens on a windy day in which there were only two rounds under par and the low score was 71, Venturi three-putted six times. He still had a four-shot lead with nine holes remaining, but made bogeys on five of the next six holes and shot 80. Jackie Burke, who started the round eight shots behind, donned the green jacket.
 
'Did I choke?' Venturi wrote. 'If you go by my score, you can make that argument. I choose to look at it differently.'
 

2. Billy Joe Patton - 1954
A decade after World War II, another Patton was marching toward victory. After matching his age by shooting 32 on the front nine of the final round that included an ace on the 6th hole, Billy Joe Patton held a one-shot lead as he stood in the 13th fairway, debating whether to go for the green or lay up on the par 5.
 
If the aggressive play was a long shot, Patton himself was a longer one. The lumber salesman from Morganton, North Carolina, was playing his first Masters, having qualified for being an alternate on the 1953 Walker Cup team. (Patton went on to play in five Walker Cups.)
 
'What the hell,' he said, reaching for a 3-wood. 'I didn't get where I've got by playing safe.' His second shot found the tributary of Rae's Creek guarding the 13th green; Patton made double bogey and he finished one shot out of a playoff between Sam Snead and Ben Hogan, won by Snead.
 
Patton played in 12 more Masters, finishing in the top 10 in 1958 and '59.
 

3. Charles Coe - 1961
While most of the attention was on another amateur, long-hitting Jack Nicklaus, it was Charlie Coe who nearly stole the tournament from Gary Player, who shot 74 in the final round. The 37-year-old Coe, a WWII pilot who had won the 1949 and 1958 U.S. Amateurs, shot 69 to tie for second with Arnold Palmer, who infamously made double bogey on the final hole.
 
Coe, who was an Augusta National member, is the Masters' most decorated amateur: He played in 19 tournaments, finishing in the top 10 three times and in the top 25 nine times.
 

4. E. Harvie Ward Jr. - 1957
The name at the top of the leader board Sunday morning was no great surprise: Sam Snead. The name right under it, Harvie Ward, was. The 30-year-old car salesman from San Francisco and the winner of back-to-back U.S. Amateurs in 1955 and '56 trailed by a single shot.
 
Neither Ward nor Snead played particularly well, and Doug Ford blew by both of them with a final-round 66. Afterward, Ward was banned from competitive golf for a year after it was ruled that he had violated his amateur status for accepting expense money from his car dealership.
 

5. Frank Stranahan - 1947
Although he never seriously threatened to win the tournament, 24-year-old Frank Stranahan shot a final-round 68, the lowest score of the day, to tie Byron Nelson for second, two strokes behind Jimmy Demaret. It was the highest finish by an amateur to date.
 
Unfortunately, Stranahan is remembered more for what happened the following year, when his invitation was revoked for allegedly hitting more than one ball into the greens during a practice round.
 
The son of the founder of the spark plug manufacturing company Champion, Stranahan played in 11 more Masters. He also won two British Amateurs and tied for second behind Ben Hogan in the historic 1953 British Open before turning pro in 1954.
 

6. Ryan Moore - 2005
In 2004 Ryan Moore had the greatest season in modern amateur golf, winning the NCAA Championship, U.S. Amateur Public Links, Western Amateur and U.S. Amateur, and helping the U.S. win the World Amateur Team Championship while earning low individual honors-an unprecedented sweep.
 
So expectations for the 22-year-old Moore at the Masters were higher than for most amateurs. Still, few expected him to play as well as he did, finishing in a tie for 13th. 'I was just having a blast out there,' Moore, now on the PGA Tour, recalls of that week. 'It was an incredible experience.'
 

7. Jack Nicklaus - 1961
Jack Nicklaus again displayed his awesome potential, 10 months after finishing second in the 1960 U.S. Open, a tournament that his final-36-hole playing partner Ben Hogan said Nicklaus 'should have won by 10 shots.'
 
In his final Masters as an amateur, the 21-year-old Nicklaus finished tied for seventh, his second consecutive top-10 showing in a major. Nicklaus won the first of his record six green jackets two years later.
 

8. Robert Tyre Jones Jr. - 1934
The performance was far from vintage Bobby Jones: rounds of 76, 74, 72 and 72, tied for 13th. No matter. Given his responsibilities as the host in the inaugural event and his four-year absence from competition since capturing the Grand Slam, the 32-year-old Jones' performance still ranks as one of the finest showings by an amateur on this grand stage.
 
Jones competed in 11 more Masters but never eclipsed his 1934 finish.
 

9. Richard Chapman - 1954
Dick Chapman's bid to make history was not nearly as dramatic as the one put together by Billy Joe Patton that year. A closing 70 sent 43-year-old Chapman into 11th place, six strokes behind Sam Snead and Ben Hogan. It was his best finish in 19 starts, tied with Charlie Coe for the most among amateurs, spanning from 1939 to 1962.
 
Chapman, a major in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II, finished in the top 20 four times at the Masters and also won the U.S. and British Amateurs, as well as the North and South Amateur.
 

10. Matt Kuchar - 1998
After a rather ordinary first 36 holes (72-76), Matt Kuchar shot 68 in the third round. On that magical Saturday, Kuchar's infectious joy at shining during his first Masters radiated from the smile that seemed to be fixed permanently on his face. Kuchar, 19, closed with a 72 on Sunday, finishing in a tie for 21st, which earned him a return invitation the following year, the first amateur to do so since Sam Randolph in 1985. Two months later, he tied for 14th at the U.S. Open, the best showing by an amateur since 1971.
 
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    After Further Review: Haas crash strikes a chord

    By Golf Channel DigitalFebruary 19, 2018, 2:39 am

    Each week, GolfChannel.com takes a look back at the week in golf. Here's what's weighing on our writers' minds.


    On the horrifying car crash involving Bill Haas ...

    I spent a lot of time this week thinking about Bill Haas. He was the passenger in a car crash that killed a member of his host family. That man, 71-year-old Mark Gibello, was a successful businessman in Pacific Palisades, Calif., and a new friend.

    Haas escaped without any major injuries, but he withdrew from the Genesis Open to return home to Greenville, S.C. When he’ll return to the Tour is anyone’s guess. It could be a while, as he grapples with the many emotions after surviving that horrifying crash – seriously, check out the photos – while the man next to him did not.

    The entire Haas clan is some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. Wish them the best in their recovery. – Ryan Lavner


    On TIger Woods' missed cut at the Genesis Open ...

    After missing the cut at the Genesis Open by more than a few car lengths, Tiger Woods appeared to take his early exit in stride. Perhaps that in and of itself is a form of progress.

    Years ago, a second-round 76 with a tattered back-nine scorecard would have elicited a wide range of emotions. But none of them would have been particularly tempered, or optimistic, looking ahead to his next start. At age 42, though, Woods has finally ceded that a win-or-bust mentality is no longer helpful or productive.

    The road back from his latest surgery will be a winding one, mixed with both ups and downs. His return at Torrey Pines qualified as the former, while his trunk slam at Riviera certainly served as the latter. There will surely be more of both in the coming weeks and months, and Woods’ ability to stomach the rough patches could prove pivotal for his long-term prognosis. - Will Gray


    On the debate over increased driving distance on the PGA Tour ...

    The drumbeat is only going to get louder as the game’s best get longer. On Sunday, Bubba Watson pounded his way to his 10th PGA Tour title at the Genesis Open and the average driving distance continues to climb.

    Lost in the debate over driving distances and potential fixes, none of which seem to be simple, is a beacon of sanity, Riviera Country Club’s par-4 10th hole. The 10th played just over 300 yards for the week and yet yielded almost as many bogeys (86) as birdies (87) with a 4.053 stroke average.

    That ranks the 10th as the 94th toughest par 4 on Tour this season, ahead of behemoths like the 480-yard first at Waialae and 549-yard 17th at Kapalua. Maybe the game doesn’t need new rules that limit how far the golf ball goes, maybe it just needs better-designed golf holes. - Rex Hoggard


    On the depth of LPGA talent coming out of South Korea ...

    The South Korean pipeline to the LPGA shows no signs of drying up any time soon. Jin Young Ko, 22, won her LPGA debut as a tour member Sunday at the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open, and Hyejin Choi, 18, nearly won the right to claim LPGA membership there. The former world No. 1 amateur who just turned pro finished second playing on a sponsor exemption. Sung Hyun Park, who shared Rolex Player of the Year honors with So Yeon Ryu last year, is set to make her 2018 debut this week at the Honda LPGA Thailand. And Inbee Park is set to make her return to the LPGA in two weeks at the HSBC Women’s World Championship after missing most of last year due to injury. The LPGA continues to go through South Korea no matter where this tour goes. - Randall Mell

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    Nature calls: Hole-out rescues Bubba's bladder

    By Rex HoggardFebruary 19, 2018, 2:20 am

    LOS ANGELES – Clinging to a one-stroke lead, Bubba Watson had just teed off on the 14th hole at Riviera Country Club and was searching for a bathroom.

    “I asked Cameron [Smith], ‘where's the bathroom?’ He said, ‘On the next tee there's one. Give yourself a couple more shots, then you can go to the bathroom,’” Watson recalled. “I said, ‘So now I'm just going to hole it and go to the bathroom.’”

    By the time Watson got to his shot, which had found the bunker left of the green, his caddie Ted Scott had a similar comment.


    Full-field scores from the Genesis Open

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    “When he went down to hit it I said, ‘You know you haven’t holed one in a long time,’” Scott said.

    Watson’s shot landed just short of the hole, bounced once and crashed into the flagstick before dropping into the hole for an unlikely birdie and a two-stroke lead that he would not relinquish on his way to his third victory at the Genesis Open and his 10th PGA Tour title.

    “I looked at Teddy [Scott] and said, ‘You called it.’ Then Cameron [who was paired with Watson] came over and said I called it. I’d forgotten he and I had talked about it,” Watson said.

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    Bubba Golf takes long road back to winner's circle

    By Rex HoggardFebruary 19, 2018, 1:55 am

    LOS ANGELES – Bubba’s back.

    It’s been just two years since he hoisted a trophy on the PGA Tour, but with a mind that moves as fast as Bubba Watson’s, it must have felt like an eternity.

    Since his last victory, which was also a shootout at Riviera Country Club in 2016, Watson was passed over for a captain’s pick at the 2016 Ryder Cup, endured a mystery illness, lost his confidence, his desire and the better part of 40 pounds.

    He admits that along that ride he considered retirement and wondered if his best days were behind him.

    “I was close [to retirement]. My wife was not close,” he conceded. “My wife basically told me to quit whining and play golf. She's a lot tougher than I am.”

    What else could he do? With apologies to his University of Georgia education and a growing portfolio of small businesses, Watson was made to be on the golf course, particularly a golf course like Riviera, which is the canvas that brings out Bubba’s best.

    In a game that can too often become a monotonous parade of fairways and greens, Watson is a freewheeling iconoclast who thrives on adversity. Where others only see straight lines and one-dimensional options, Bubba embraces the unconventional and the untried.

    For a player who sometimes refers to himself in the third person, it was a perfectly Bubba moment midway through his final round on Sunday at the Genesis Open. Having stumbled out of the 54-hole lead with bogeys at Nos. 3 and 6, Watson pulled his 2-iron tee shot wildly right at the seventh because, “[his playing partners] both went left.”

    From an impossible lie in thick rough with his golf ball 2 feet above his feet, Watson’s often-fragile focus zeroed in for one of the week’s most entertaining shots, which landed about 70 feet from the hole and led to a two-putt par.


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    “His feel for that kind of stuff, you can’t go to the range and practice that. You can’t,” said Watson’s caddie Ted Scott. “Put a ball 2 feet above your feet and then have to hold the face open and then to swing that easy. That’s why I have the best seat in the house. That’s the essence of Bubba golf.”

    There were plenty of highlight moments on Sunday for Watson. There were crucial putts at Nos. 11 (birdie), 12 (par) and 13 (par) to break free of what was becoming an increasingly fluid leaderboard, and his chip-in birdie from a greenside bunker at the 14th hole extended his lead to two strokes.

    “It was just a bunker shot, no big deal,” smiled Watson, who closed with a 69 for a two-stroke victory over Kevin Na and Tony Finau.

    A player that can often appear handcuffed by the most straightforward of shots was at his best at Riviera, withstanding numerous challenges to win the Genesis Open for his 10th PGA Tour title.

    That he did so on a frenzied afternoon that featured four different players moving into, however briefly, at last a share of the lead, Watson never appeared rattled. But, of course, we all know that wasn’t the case.

    Watson can become famously uncomfortable on the course and isn’t exactly known for his ability to ignore distractions. But Riviera, where he’s now won three times, is akin to competitive Ritalin for Watson.

    “[Watson] feels very comfortable moving the ball, turning it a lot. That allows him to get to a lot of the tucked pins,” said Phil Mickelson, who finished tied for sixth after moving to within one stroke of the lead early in round. “A lot of guys don't feel comfortable doing that and they end up accepting a 15 to 30 footer in the center of the green. He ends up making a lot more birdies than a lot of guys.”

    It’s the soul of what Scott calls Bubba Golf, which is in simplest terms the most creative form of the game.

    Watson can’t explain exactly what Bubba Golf is, but there was a telling moment earlier this week when Aaron Baddeley offered Watson an impromptu putting lesson, which Bubba said was the worst putting lesson he’d ever gotten.

    “He goes, ‘how do you hit a fade?’ I said, ‘I aim it right and think fade.’ How do you hit a draw? I aim it left and think draw,” Watson said. “He said, ‘how do you putt?’ I said, ‘I don't know.’ He said, ‘well, aim it to the right when it breaks to the left, aim it to the left when it breaks to the right,’ exactly how you imagine your golf ball in the fairway or off the tee, however you imagine it, imagine it that way.”

    It’s certain that there’s more going on internally, but when he’s playing his best the sum total of Watson’s game can be simply explained – see ball, hit ball. Anything more complicated than that and he runs the risk of losing what makes him so unique and – when the stars align and a course like Riviera or Augusta National, where he’s won twice, asks the right questions – virtually unbeatable.

    That’s a long way from the depths of 2017, when he failed to advance past the second playoff event and dropped outside the top 100 in the Official World Golf Ranking. But then, Watson has covered a lot of ground in his career on his way to 10 Tour victories.

    “I never thought I could get there,” he said. “Nobody thought that Bubba Watson from Bagdad, Fla., would ever get to 10 wins, let's be honest. Without lessons, head case, hooking the ball, slicing the ball, can't putt, you know? Somehow we're here making fun of it.”

    Somehow, through all the adversity and distractions, he found a way to be Bubba again.

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    Spieth: 'I feel great about the state of my game'

    By Will GrayFebruary 19, 2018, 1:43 am

    LOS ANGELES – Jordan Spieth is starting to feel confident again with the putter, which is probably a bad sign for the rest of the PGA Tour.

    Spieth struggled on the greens two weeks ago at TPC Scottsdale, but he began to right the ship at Pebble Beach and cracked the top 10 this week at the Genesis Open. Perhaps more important than his final spot on the leaderboard was his standing in the strokes gained putting category – 12th among the field at Riviera Country Club, including a 24-putt performance in the third round.

    Spieth closed out the week with a 4-under 67 to finish in a tie for ninth, five shots behind Bubba Watson. But after the round he spoke like a man whose preparation for the season’s first major is once again right on track.


    Full-field scores from the Genesis Open

    Genesis Open: Articles, photos and videos


    “I was kind of, you know, skiing uphill with my putting after Phoenix and the beginning of Pebble week, and really just for a little while now through the new year,” Spieth said. “I just made some tremendous progress. I putted extremely well this week, which is awesome. I feel great about the state of my game going forward, feel like I’m in a great place at this time of the year as we’re starting to head into major season.”

    Spieth will take a break next week, and where he next tees it up remains uncertain. He still has not announced a decision about playing or skipping the WGC-Mexico Championship, and he will have until 5 p.m. ET Friday to make a final decision on the no-cut event.

    Whether or not he flies down to Mexico City, Spieth’s optimism has officially returned after a brief hiccup on the West Coast swing.

    “For where I was starting out Phoenix to where I am and how I feel about my game going forward the rest of the year, there was a lot of progress made,” he said. “Now I’ve just got to figure out what the best schedule is for myself as we head into the Masters.”