Stanford, Calif. – Bill Power was a sprightly little gentleman, with a generous heart and a perpetual glint in his eye. He played baseball at the University of California and made his money in the insurance business. He really loved golf – and kids.
Power merged his passions, joined forces with his alma mater’s historic archrival and helped fashion one of the game’s most remarkable, under-the-radar traditions. Stanford University’s association with the U.S. Junior Amateur Championship stretches back more than 50 years, a run reflective of the school’s unwavering commitment to amateur golf and Power’s, well, powers.
Stanford hosted the U.S. Junior Amateur in 1959 (won by Larry Lee), then began hosting a sectional qualifier for the event. So it goes every summer since 1960 at Stanford Golf Course – a parade of talented teenagers flocking to Northern California to walk the same fairways Tom Watson and Tiger Woods walked in college, trying to trace the same path Johnny Miller did in 1964, when he qualified at Stanford and won the Junior Amateur at Eugene (Ore.) Country Club.
This championship historically offers a tidy preview of the game’s future stars, from Miller in the ‘60s to Woods in the early ‘90s (he won three consecutive Junior Amateurs from 1991-93, before he won the U.S. Amateur three straight years from 1994-96). More recently, Hunter Mahan beat Camilo Villegas in the 1999 final at York (Pa.) Country Club.
All the while, Stanford has been a fixture – willing to set aside its course annually on a Monday in late June or early July. Athletic director Bob Bowlsby, much like his predecessors over the years, remains committed to making the facility available to the United States Golf Association.
“It’s just kind of a given we’re going to have it there every year,” said U.S. Junior Championship Committeeman Jim Moriarty, who now runs the Stanford qualifier for the USGA. “Stanford has willingly given us the course an impressive number of times. It’s just been a wonderful run – they pretty much let us do whatever we want to do.”
Starting A Trend
The tradition started with Power, who first got involved in golf as a young caddie. He eventually became president of the Northern California Golf Association, was a founding member of Sharon Heights Golf & Country Club in Menlo Park, Calif., helped build Spyglass Hill with Robert Trent Jones Sr. and found his calling as the man who ran the Junior Amateur qualifier at Stanford.
Bruce Vogel, who took over those duties in the 1990s – Power died some years later at age 95 – remembered Power as a “devilishly funny guy.” Power also dedicated himself to the game and this championship in particular, making sure it was conducted in a first-class manner.
“He’s like the father of this event,” Vogel said. “The rest of us are little functionaries.”
Power happily advanced the Junior Amateur in its earliest days. He sent out mailings to juniors who had played previously, or to those who inquired. He often went to other junior tournaments and handed out applications, encouraging players to come to Stanford and try to qualify.
His biggest coup featured Miller, a rising teenage star up the road in San Francisco in the mid-1960s. Miller was a junior member at The Olympic Club, but those were the days of precious little publicity for events such as the Junior Amateur. As legend has it, Power exhorted, cajoled and all but harassed Miller into entering the Stanford qualifier in ’64.
Miller qualified, earned medalist honors and won the title at Eugene C.C., defeating Enrique Sterling Jr., 2 and 1, in the final. Miller went on to win 25 PGA Tour events, including the 1973 U.S. Open at Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club and the 1976 British Open at Royal Birkdale. That worked out pretty well.
Power had a way of making his case, as Miller and many other top juniors learned.
“Bill was a little intimidating at first,” said Stanford men’s golf coach Conrad Ray, who played at the school in the mid-90s. “I kind of remember him as a grouchy old Rules official, in a good way. But he loved to talk to the kids and he wasn’t afraid to tell you what he thought. You could tell he had great passion for the event and for golf.”
Power’s personality surfaced in his role as a Rules official. Ron Read, the USGA’s director of regional affairs for the West Region, told the story of a kid whose golf ball once came to rest against a fence. He summoned Power, who rather than issue an immediate ruling, looked at the kid and said, “You can hit that shot.”
“No, I can’t,” came the reply.
This polite disagreement continued until Power grabbed the club out of the kid’s hands and gently declared, “Here, I’ll show you how to hit it.”
Power mostly wanted young players to have the chance to develop into top golfers. The qualifier at Stanford was an enduring symbol of this quest, and Power’s efforts often went well beyond pitches to play.
He was more than willing to use his own money to help kids who couldn’t otherwise afford to enter the championship.
“Bill and his wife never had children, and therefore he embraced the kids playing in this event,” said Read. “There are kids who will never know how they got to the U.S. Junior Amateur, and it was because Bill was reaching in his own pocket. I don’t know how many kids that was, but I can guarantee you he wrote a lot of checks.”
Read summed it up neatly.
“There will never be another Bill Power,” he said.
Getting A Boost
Power couldn’t do it alone, naturally. He needed a stout layout to challenge the youngsters, a course where the leadership understood the importance of amateur golf and growing the game.
The school has a rich golf history that predates Watson and Woods. The Cardinal men’s team has won eight NCAA championships. Frank “Sandy” Tatum won the individual title in 1942; Woods followed suit 54 years later.
Tatum later became president of the USGA, as did fellow Stanford alums Grant Spaeth, Walter Driver and Jim Vernon. So there are deep connections between the school and the national governing body, and thus a clear view of the need to keep the Junior Amateur qualifier thriving.
“Stanford really deserves a lot of credit – I can’t say enough about how generous they’ve been,” said Vogel, who ran the sectional qualifier for about 15 years. “The kids love it. We were always the largest site and the first site to fill up – just because the kids love playing at a known course, with heritage and history. It’s an attraction in itself.”
It didn’t hurt that Woods used two years at Stanford as his springboard to soaring success on the PGA Tour. Stanford already was one of the most popular qualifying sites in the country, but Woods took it to another level – winning those six straight national titles and then romping to his historic Masters victory in April 1997, less than a year after leaving school. He has since won 14 major titles, three of them U.S. Opens, including his record 15-stroke romp at Pebble Beach (Calif.) Golf Links in 2000.
The total number of entries for the Junior Amateur nearly doubled, to 4,500, in the space of five or six years. USGA officials usually keep the Stanford field to 96 players (vying for five spots), with all 96 playing 18 holes in the morning and then 40-plus going around again in the afternoon. One year, Vogel remembered 113 in the field.
“The biggest thing to happen in my time was the Tiger boom,” he said. “When he got on the pro tour, after winning three Junior Amateurs and three U.S. Amateurs, applicants started getting younger and better than ever before.”
It reached the point where Vogel lobbied for a reduction in the maximum USGA Handicap Index because there’s only so much sunlight on one summer day. Players currently need a 6.4 or lower handicap to enter the championship.
“We used to joke about playing from ‘can see’ to ‘can’t see,’” Vogel said of the Stanford qualifier. “We literally went from dawn to darkness – and inevitably there was a playoff for the last spot.”
By all accounts, Stanford officials go out of their way to make the qualifier work. They let the players – mostly high-school kids, all under age 18 – practice the day before, on a course in terrific condition. It’s a big undertaking to host an event like this, but Stanford seems intent on pulling it off, year after year.
There are benefits to the school, no question. Ray, the coach, insisted he must stay “a little bit at arm’s length” from players in the Junior Amateur, given NCAA recruiting rules. There’s still great exposure for Stanford in having many of the nation’s top young players come to campus and see the facilities.
The players find a classic layout, designed in 1930 by noted architects William Bell and George Thomas. It’s not especially long by modern standards, but players must work the ball both ways and hit a wide variety of shots. Length off the tee helps, but it’s not the only ingredient for success at Stanford.
“I think it’s a great test, because it’s not one of those courses where you have to shoot a million under par to get through,” Ray said. “Usually, around even-par will do it. There’s a lot of shot value out there. … It separates the field quickly, and because of that it’s been a good place to host the qualifying.”
Or, as Spaeth said, “It’s absolutely perfect for the teenagers. The guys who can hit it a long way are welcomed, but they’ve still got to be good around the greens. The challenges are very good for 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds.”
A Path To Greatness?
Notable names, beyond Miller and Woods, are scattered throughout the long history of the Junior Amateur. Future U.S. Open champion Ken Venturi lost in the finals of the inaugural competition in 1948, as did Al Geiberger (Mr. 59) in 1954 and two-time Open champ Andy North in ’67. Gary Koch won in 1970 and Scott Simpson, another Open winner, lost in the ’72 finals. David Duval won in 1989.
It’s not a stretch to suggest the path for the next notable name might begin at Stanford. Tatum, the former USGA president, finds it appropriate given Northern California’s strong commitment to junior golf – from bustling First Tee programs throughout the region to the NCGA’s popular Youth on Course initiative, providing kids with affordable access to the game.
The Junior Amateur qualifier at Stanford is a natural extension of this – and an important one, too.
“There are just some clubs that get it,” Read said. “No club is more generous with amateur golf than Lake Merced (which will host the 2012 U.S. Girls’ Junior and hosted the 1990 U.S. Junior Amateur, where Woods was a semifinalist) – every time the USGA knocks on the door, there they are. Stanford is like that, too.”
Ron Kroichick, who covers golf for the San Francisco Chronicle, has written previously for USGA websites.