Amateurs Finest Hour

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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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