|Mike Bell, practicing Wednesday, is one of many amateur hopefuls to hoist the Senior Open trophy by the weekend. (John Mummert/USGA)
Colorado Springs, Colo. — Few hold the illusion of hoisting the Francis D. Ouimet Memorial Trophy at this week’s 29th U.S. Senior Open.
When play opens blearily at 7:15 Thursday morning at The Broadmoor East Course, there will be a small fraternity content with deferring that honor to those 127 players in this week’s field who make golf their trade, their main source of paying the bills and securing their futures.
Instead, the 29 amateurs in the field will mainly be playing for pride, playing to make the 36-hole cut and playing to the best of this year’s small group.
"Realistically?" said Alan Fadel, 53, of Toledo, Ohio, who is making his third straight U.S. Senior Open appearance. "If I can be competitive with my fellow amateurs then I’ll consider it a successful week."
There is a good reason why — no amateur has ever won this event.
Since Roberto De Vicenzo won the inaugural U.S. Senior Open in 1980, the best amateur finishes have been by William C. Campbell (second) and Ed Tutwiler (tied for fifth) — both in that same year when there were a record-high 64 amateurs in the field at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y.
Included in this week’s amateur ranks are 19 who will make their first U.S. Senior Open appearance. Meanwhile, George Zahringer, 55, of New York, N.Y., and Paul Simson, 57, of Raleigh, N.C., are considered the long-toothed veterans of the group, making their respective sixth and fifth starts.
Four of the amateurs — Simson (2001, Salem Country Club, Peabody, Mass.); Danny Green (2005, NCR Country Club, Kettering, Ohio); Randy Reifers (2006, Prairie Dunes Country Club, Hutchinson, Kansas); and Zahringer (2005; 2007, Whistling Straits, Kohler, Wisc.) — have either been outright or co-low amateurs. In fact, they are the only four of this week’s crop to have played on the weekend.
Vinny Giles III holds the record for most times as low amateur (1993, 1996 and 1997). The low amateur receives a golf medal. The second lowest receives a silver medal and all remaining amateurs are awarded a bronze medal.
But just qualifying is a memory for many.
Consider the tale of Bob Stephens, 51, of Indianapolis, Ind.
After 25 years of attempting to qualify for any U.S. Golf Association championship, he finally did on July 1, shooting 71 to be the medalist at Hickory Stick Golf Club in Greenwood, Ind.
"Being an amateur, you just have to have a lot of things going right. I play in a lot of competitions, been close a few times, but not close enough," said Stephens.
Stephens’ success story is made even sweeter by the fact that at last year’s sectional, his first attempt to qualify for the U.S. Senior Open, he shot 86. The U.S. Senior Open is open to any player with a USGA Handicap Index not exceeding 3.4.
"The USGA sent me a letter asking me to document why they should accept my entries into future tournaments," laughed Stephens, a utility designer for Indiana Power and Light. "I documented some of my finishes in Indiana tournaments, but there really was no explanation. Just a bad day … just a bad day."
On Tuesday, Stephens played a practice round with Loren Roberts and was not as inhibited as he would have thought. Then, again, it really is just practice.
Come Thursday morning, the stakes will change dramatically.
"Any amateur — no matter who you talk to — comes here to make the cut, because that’s your validation that you’ve done a good job," said Reifers, 61, of Columbus, Ohio, whose son Kyle plays on Nationwide Tour. "There is a sense of failure if you don’t make the cut, but ultimately it’s an honor to be here. I sell furniture for a living."
Reifers, a member of the Ohio Golf Hall of Fame, is making his third straight U.S. Senior Open appearance and understands the highs and lows that go with this event. Two years ago, he was low amateur with a 12-over 292 that tied him for 47th. Last year, with an injured left hand, he shot 82-83 and missed the cut.
Reifers is now attempting to stay one step of his son, Kyle.
The younger Reifers currently sits 31st on the Nationwide Tour money list, six slots shy of the top 25 who will earn their 2009 PGA Tour card at season’s end. Kyle is looking to regain his big boy card for a second time after finishing 181st on the PGA Tour money list in 2007. Missing from Kyle’s resume, though, is a professional major appearance, but it doesn’t keep him from needling his father.
"I’ve played in 16 USGA events and I know the routine, so now I’m just working on my credibility with Kyle," the elder Reifers said. "So when I say something, he can’t say ‘Well, I got into my Open, how about you?"
And Kyle offers a bit of inspiration for Pops.
"He says ‘Don’t just be satisfied with being there,’" father said. "So I’m not. I’m trying to prove I can play with some of these younger amateurs."
Fadel played briefly on the PGA Tour, notching a T-25 at the Greater New Orleans Open in 1980, before ultimately being reinstated as an amateur in 1987.
"I think I was meant to be an amateur golfer," said Fadel, who said the fact he had two young children at the time swayed him back toward an amateur life. Today, he is first vice-president for Merrill Lynch.
Fadel considers himself a historian and collector of the game, and prizes a ball press from the late 1800s as one of his cherished possessions. Not lost on Fadel either is a bit of amateur lore.
"I can’t help but remember Francis Ouimet, who helped set the foundation for the game in this country," said Fadel. "He went from being a caddie to winning our national championship as an amateur. The prospect of someone doing that this week is so cool."
Only fitting then that an amateur lift the Ouimet Trophy.
Stuart Hall is a freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on www.ussenioropen.com.