When Don Essig III, of Indianapolis, claimed the 1957 U.S. Amateur Public Links title with a 6-and-5 win over Gene Towry, the rising sophomore at Louisiana State University became, at 18 years, 3 months, the second-youngest champion in the event’s history. Even as the APL fields have become younger and stronger, Essig still holds that distinction. Essig, who also won the 1957 Western Junior, competed in six APLs, the last in 1960 when he decided to turn professional a week after competing at Ala Wai G.C. in Honolulu, where he fell in the Round of 16. He competed on the PGA Tour for parts of three seasons – he spent most of 1962 in France as a member of the Indiana Air National Guard – before accepting a club professional job in Indianapolis. Now 75, Essig, who competed in four U.S. Juniors, six APLs, two U.S. Amateurs and three U.S. Opens, remains active in the industry as he oversees the golf operation – along with his son Chip – at Hickory Stick Golf Club, a daily-fee facility in Greenwood, Ind. He also shot his age 35 times in 2013.
Does it seem like 57 years since you won the APL?
I was invited to the 2000 Public Links in Portland for the 75th anniversary and [Managing Director, Rules, Competitions & Amateur Status] Jeff Hall from the USGA asked me to speak at the players’ banquet. Since I was a member of the PGA Rules Committee and had been a USGA committee member, they asked me to stay and help out with the Rules for the first three days. For the first round of match play, they had me as a walking referee. They had enough [Rules] people to have a referee with each match. I had two college kids and one was a freshman. He was as innocent as could be. He asked me, “You won this tournament at one time didn’t you?” I said yes, and he asked me what year I had won. I said 1957. And without even stopping to think – and he wasn’t trying to be smart – he said, “Man, my parents weren’t even born then.” We all cracked up.
Give us a sense of what the APL was like in the late 1950s?
At that time, if you played in the APL, you could not play in the U.S. Amateur. If you got to the semifinals, you could try to qualify for the Amateur. If you won, you got into the Am. There were not as many [college players] at that time [in the APL]. A lot of the college players in the Amateur had access to country clubs. I grew up on a little nine-hole course that was regulation length and an 18-hole par-3. I was definitely a muni player.
How did winning the APL affect your career?
Winning the Public Links opened up a lot of things for me. At the time, you didn’t get invited to the Masters … but it got you into the Amateur. You got better pairings in tournaments. They didn’t have [PGA] Tour Q-School, but after I graduated from college, I applied to get on the PGA Tour. You had to give them your amateur record to get a card. I’m sure winning the Public Links had a lot to do with them issuing me a [PGA] Tour card immediately.
Talk about your third-round match against fellow Hoosier George Roddy Sr.
George was an African-American from Indianapolis who was the golf coach at Crispus Attucks High, where [basketball Hall of Famer] Oscar Robertson went. I beat him in the third round. He and I were good friends, but it’s the only time we played match play against each other.
What do you remember about your 19-hole quarterfinal win over defending champion James Buxbaum, a 41-year-old from Memphis?
The funny part of that is in the morning match [third round], [Buxbaum] had called a penalty on his opponent on the 18th hole to win the match [1 up], and everyone was kind of down on him. I had everybody behind me. He was a former touring pro. (Essig hit a 5-iron from a tough lie on the first extra playoff to 8 feet and Buxbaum’s approach skipped out of bounds). There’s no question that was my toughest match.
[But] at that age, you think you can beat everybody. I was playing good. I had great eyes at that time and could really putt. I could drive it straight and really putt. And that helps in match play a lot.
Do you recall much about the final?
The referee was [USGA President] Dick Tufts, who not only at the time owned Pinehurst – and I got invited to the North and South [Amateur] the next year – but he later wrote the book, “The Principles Behind the Rules of Golf.” At that time, I didn’t realize what a big deal Dick Tufts was. And I later became good friends with [USGA Executive Director] Joe Dey and others. These are people that you know all your life.
Where is your gold medal?
It’s in a beautiful necklace that a local jeweler made for my wife. In 1995 in Newport, [R.I.], the USGA had a reunion of amateur champions [to celebrate the Association’s centennial]. Dale Morey, who had won a Senior Amateur, and [another Senior Amateur champion] Curtis Person had made up this necklace for their wives. So, I went to our local jeweler. It is one beautiful necklace. There is only one problem with it. It’s so heavy that when my wife wears it too long, it hurts her neck. I’m not a saver, but that’s one [item] that is definitely saved.
Did you think in 1957 that golf would become your vocation?
I wrote a paper in the eighth grade that my desire was to become a golf professional and spend my life in golf. I definitely thought I would be doing this. I lived my dream. The Lord has blessed me so much. It’s the only job I ever wanted.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer with the USGA. Email him at email@example.com