Cleveland – When weather delay interrupted Sunday’s practice round for the U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship, a handful of young players posed with its stately prize, the Robert Cox Trophy.
“Take my picture!” they called, giggling and grinning as their relatives snapped shots.
“Look at them,” said Martha Leach. “They’re so excited.”
Leach, 50, has walked past that trophy in five different decades. Since the 1970s, Leach has stared at it, appreciated it, coveted it and, as the years have rolled by, has begun to stroll past it with barely a glance, fairly sure that the Cox Trophy, in its gleaming splendor, would never be hers.
This week, at The Country Club, she is giving it yet another try.
It was 1978 when Martha Stacy played in her first U.S. Women’s Amateur at the age of 16. Jimmy Carter was president of the United States. Affirmed won the Kentucky Derby. The first mobile phone was introduced and gasoline was 63 cents per gallon.
In 1978, most of the current contestants, whose average age is a bit over 20, had not yet been born. A few of the parents here hadn’t been born. This week, the lockers on either side of Martha’s locker belong to Bronte Law and Alison Lee. They are 17 years old. Leach’s daughter, Madison, is 25.
Martha Leach prepared for this championship with what she calls a lack of preparation. Her life is busy. She’s married, has many friends and works in real estate.
“If I get 30 minutes of practice a day, I am very fortunate,” she said. “A goal will be to make it to match play. It’s been a long time and I’ve not played a lot of golf. But how do you tell someone to have low expectations? Whether it’s making dinner or whatever, you do your best.”
Leach doesn’t look as if she is 30 years older than most of the contestants. Her skin is unlined and her eyes are expressive. When she strides through the clubhouse wearing a baseball cap, she looks contemporary.
“I have some ailments,” she said. “They’re not life-threatening, but I have aches and pains.”
Martha Stacy Leach has seen a lot of changes in championship golf in the last five decades. “The competition is unbelievable, so it’s really good there,” Leach said. “But I feel that there’s now a dollar sign in golf, so it is not as good there. In equipment, I can’t compare the 1970s at all. I used to use a 4-wood from 160 yards. Today, I use a 5-iron or maybe a 6. And golf courses are in better condition.”
This week, seemingly every player has a parent in tow. That too, Leach says, is a change.
“My mom would put me on a plane to a tournament in the 1970s and when I got there, we’d go to private housing provided by the club,” she remembers. “We traveled alone, but we’d meet up with other players and we were well taken care of.”
Leach thinks that golf swings, with the exceptions of the great players of earlier times, have improved overall. She knows what she is talking about. Leach occupies the rarified air of the championship strata, having won the 2009 U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur. That week, her older sister, Hollis Stacy, was calling Golden Hills Golf & Turf Club in Ocala, Fla., twice a day for updates.
Stacy bubbled with enthusiasm for her sister.
“Martha is such a nice person,” Stacy said. “You would not believe some of the things she has done. After Harvey Penick (the famed golf instructor who died in 1995 at age 90) died, Martha went to his house, knocked on the door and told Helen, his widow, ‘Helen, I am here to help you put up your Christmas decorations.’ Now, who else would do that?”
At the Stacy household, 10 children made it a crowded upbringing. “We competed for hot-water showers, or a place to eat breakfast,” Martha said, “so I am innately competitive.”
It’s worth noting that in 1978, when Martha played in her first U.S. Women’s Amateur, Hollis had just won her second U.S. Women’s Open. Hollis now owns six USGA championship titles and was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in May. She selected Martha to present her at the induction ceremonies.
“I was so nervous!” Martha remembered. “These other players had famous presenters, like (television producer) Terry Jastrow for Peter Allis, and I was just Hollis’ sister! After it was over I said to a relative, ‘Did you see all of those other presenters?’”
A Place of Her Own
Martha is hitting balls on the practice tee under the eye of John Leach, her husband, coach, caddie and best friend.
Up and down the line, the other players hit shots. “Slam!” “Crash!” They hold nothing back. Leach is not among the longest hitters here, but she is long enough and her golf swing is a tribute to both the past and present, although it does not much resemble the swing of Hollis.
In Hollis’ greatest years, the 1970s and ‘80s, you could tell who it was from two fairways away. Her swing was natural, graceful, built on timing rather than power. As Hollis strolled along, she swung her hands in a gentle arc in front of her, getting the timing down, sometimes with a club, sometimes with just the palm of her hand. What timing it was. If Martha has a more modern sort of swing, it still seems as if good rhythm and timing run in the family.
Martha’s husband, John, used to make the four-hour drive from Austin to Fort Worth just to watch Ben Hogan practice. John is a superb teacher who has helped Fred Funk, Chip Beck, Gene Sauers and other playing professionals. John helped Martha to update her swing. At the same time, however, Martha has retained her natural grace. Like her competitiveness, this may also be innate.
And yet, ask Martha Leach to describe her greatest achievement and she will not name the 2009 U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur Championship that she won. Instead, she refers to raising a daughter who is responsible, loving and “a great person.”
Leach has made her own way. “It’s my life choice and I’ve been happy with it,” she said. If she has any regrets, it is that she was overlooked for the USA Curtis Cup team, although she was once named an alternate.
What Leach most enjoys about golf, however, has nothing to do with holing a putt to win. Instead, she treasures her lifetime of amateur golf, treasures playing a variety of good courses and thinking of the people who may have walked there, treasures playing golf with the same friends who stood by her for her daughter’s wedding.
“The words ‘champion’ and ‘winner’ are fleeting, good for one year, at best,” Martha said, “but as an amateur your longevity is lifetime. I do admit I miss the romance in golf. Golf (today) is fast, far and in the ‘now’ moment. It took me 34 years to win a USGA event and, in those years, I fell in and out of love with golf millions of times. But golf owes me nothing. I could never repay what the game has bestowed on me.”
Martha Leach is not the oldest player here. Brenda Pictor, at the age of 56, has that honor. Leach qualified for the Women’s Amateur by finishing as runner-up in the 2011 Women’s Mid-Amateur. At 50, she is eligible for the USGA Senior Women’s Amateur for the first time. It will be played in September.
“I’ve entered,” she said. “Right now, I plan to play.”
The Women’s Amateur, with its lack of age restrictions, is her favorite championship. She frequently reminds the young players to thank club members and volunteers.
Amateur golf, Leach believes, is a privilege. She should know. In her fifth decade at this championship, she still chases the dream.
Rhonda Glenn is a manager of communications for the USGA. E-mail her at email@example.com.