Colorado Springs, Colo. - By the time The U.S. Senior Open is over at The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs this week, Jim Holtgrieve will have known this championship in every way a player can possibly know it.
To clarify, this will be Holtgrieve's fourth Senior Open. He played in the championship twice as a professional, finishing tied for 21st in 2001 at Salem Country Club. More recently, in 2005, he competed in the tournament as an "AR." More specifically, he was an amateur for reinstatement, not a full-fledged pro, not a full-fledged amateur, a man without a country.
"I missed the cut at (Inverness Club in '05)," said Holtgrieve. "But when I was done, the USGA's Mike Davis presented me with an award as the low AR. It was a box with a pen in it. We all got a good laugh out of that."
By shooting a 2-under-par 68 at Westwood Country Club in St. Louis, Mo., earlier this month,
Holtgrieve secured the only qualifying spot available and made it back to the national championship. But this will be the first time Holtgrieve comes dressed in proper attire, comfortable in his own skin. This will be the first time he comes as an amateur.
As an amateur, Holtgrieve is a man with credentials. He helped create the USGA's Mid-Amateur Championship and then won the inaugural event at Bellerive Country Club in 1981. As an amateur, he played in four Masters, made the cut twice. He also made two cuts at The Memorial Tournament.
As an amateur, he represented the U.S. in the World Amateur Team Championships, advanced to the semifinals of the U.S. Amateur, played in the finals of the British Amateur, competed in three Walker Cups and played in a U.S. Open.
Holtgrieve the amateur is among the royals in St. Louis golf history, owner of numerous state and district championships. His name stands alongside honored amateurs like Bob Cochran, Jim Jackson, Jimmy Manion and others.
But in 1998, at age 51, he changed spots. While watching contemporaries like Jay Sigel, Hal Sutton and others go on to success in the professional ranks, Holtgrieve always wondered how good he might be if he played golf every day, tried it for a living. With that window of opportunity closing, he traded in his business suit for a Champions Tour bag tag.
There's no crime in it. The Champions Tour is golf's ultimate mulligan, a place where career amateurs, career golf professionals, as well as tour players are enticed by a fountain of youth and a pot of gold. Holtgrieve turned pro in time to compete in the Boone Valley Classic on the outskirts of St. Louis in the fall of '98, on a golf course he knew well. He tied for 13th and made $22,750, a promising start.
For the next several years, he played full-time professional golf. He made some official money, as much as $376,498 in 2001, as much as $1.4 million overall (before expenses). But he never won, never secured full exempt status, never fulfilled that initial promise.
As a pro, Jim Holtgrieve was a fish out of water.
"I went in with idea that if I played golf every day, if I was practicing every day, that I could really get good and I would have a chance to compete," said Holtgrieve. "The problem that I had is what Lanny Wadkins told me, about a year too late. He said, 'Jim, you didn't go out there to win. You were always just trying to make top 48 or top 30, you didn't go out there to win.'
"I was trying to make the dollars work, trying to get status or protect it. Rather than going for something and trying to make birdie, I was playing it safe ... And you just can't play that way out there. I'm disappointed in myself that I took that attitude."
Holtgrieve playing defensively is like David Ortiz squaring to bunt. It was an approach that was foreign to his nature, a maze of mediocrity he could not escape. Tired of asking for favors, weary of wondering where his next exemption was coming from, Holtgrieve went home.
"A lot of people were really good to me," he said. "They gave me an opportunity to prove myself and I came close a couple of times. But I didn't do it. And I just decided I'm not going to keep asking people for another chance."
In May, 2005 Holtgrieve applied for reinstatement to amateur status. Last spring, the reinstatement became official. Now, at age 60, he is setting goals, playing to win again. He wants to be a Walker Cup captain, something his father wanted for him. He wants to contend for a Senior Amateur title. He wants to put up some competitive numbers this week at The Broadmoor.
"I'm not just going to go play on Saturday morning with four guys," said Holtgrieve. "I want to compete. I want to be a Walker Cup captain, something my dad wanted for me and something I want. I'd like to think I could win a Senior Amateur, although I don't know if that is realistic or not.
"But as I come out and play in some of these tournaments, people still think I'm a threat. That's flattering, and I'm going to try to make sure I am a threat and somewhat keep up the reputation that I can still play."
In the end, who is to say whether Holtgrieve chose poorly. He still has contradictory thoughts.
"Would I do it again? Probably not," said Holtgrieve. "But I don't regret it. It was a great experience. I got closer to people like Arnold Palmer and (Jack) Nicklaus. I got the experience of what it's like to play golf every day and travel around the country. I liked playing in the pro-ams and meeting people ... it was a great experience."
Somewhere inside, Holtgrieve had an itch and he scratched it. Had he not, the "what if" question might have haunted him the remainder of his life. He can be at peace with that.
"I got playing for the wrong reasons as a pro, got playing for the money and forgot about playing golf for fun, which is what it's supposed to be," he said. "I want it to be fun. I'm on the back nine of life now, it's time to have some fun."
This week at the Senior Open, Holtgrieve will have fun renewing old Champions Tour acquaintances and reliving past experiences. This week, he will complete the circle from amateur to professional and back again, back where he belongs.