When Ralph Howe III claimed the 1988 U.S. Amateur Public Links title at Jackson Hole Golf & Tennis Club in Jackson, Wyo., with a 37-hole victory over defending champion Kevin Johnson, he made history twice. Not only was the recent Florida Southern University graduate and Long Island, N.Y., native the first left-handed USGA champion, he also became the first APL winner to receive a Masters invitation. The next year, Howe competed in the Masters (missed cut) and played for the USA Walker Cup Team before turning professional. From 1989-98, Howe bounced around several mini-tours and the Nationwide Tour (1994) before becoming a pastor in Orlando, Fla. The 49-year-old recently spent four years in China Shadow Creek in suburban Beijing teaching golf before returning to Orlando in January to resume his pastoral duties at Discovery Church, where he oversees a congregation of 2,000. Howe, who competed in four APLs and one U.S. Amateur, has four children, two of whom are adopted from China.
In 1988, Augusta National announced that the APL champion would receive a Masters invitation. How much did that pique your motivation?
I was a decent Division II college golfer, but I didn’t do anything outstanding. However, I had a strong desire to play professionally and I really wanted to play in the Masters. That was my dream, but I just thought it would stay a dream. I went to the British Amateur [in May]. It was a graduation present from my parents and I guess I had a good enough resume to get invited to play. And I played some of my best golf and got to the quarterfinals. I was only a couple of matches away from an invitation to the Masters.
I had a month and a half before the Public Links and I had to qualify locally. I just made it. I shot 147 and there were three people who qualified, and I got the third spot. Then I had an amazing week and won the championship.
In the quarterfinals, you faced All-American Robert Gamez, who had tremendous amateur credentials. How did you beat him?
I don’t think there were too many days back then where Ralph Howe would have beaten Robert Gamez. He was a great college golfer and a great amateur golfer, and he went on to do some great things on the PGA Tour. But I beat him on that day. He was pretty confident in himself and that kind of stirred something in me. I said to myself, this is match play and I’m going to take him down.
Kevin Johnson, the defending champion, beat Kevin Wentworth in the semifinals to prevent an all-left-handed final. That would have been a USGA first.
That would have been interesting. He’s another one from my day. You didn’t want to play him. You never really thought about beating him. He was a strong Division I [player from Oklahoma State].
Obviously, you played some remarkable golf to beat Johnson in the championship.
He was the toughest player [I faced that week]. He was defending champion and he was a super, super guy. I remember in the morning [round], I shot 66 with 12 pars and six birdies and was only 2 up. We had lunch and went to the first tee, and he had this big smile on his face. He said, “OK, I guess you’re giving me a shot a side this time.” It was just a great spirit. We both competed hard and he was a great sportsman. He played a lot better than me in the second 18, but I just hung tough. I birdied 18, the 36th hole, to pull back even, and then really had a miraculous chip-in [birdie] on the 37th hole. It was just great fortune for me and tough for him.
What did winning the APL do for your confidence and career?
It was the absolute turning point in my golf life. It gave me confidence. During the week of the Public Links, I was only focused on my next match and next shot. A few months later, I realized I had to be the quality of player that I wasn’t giving myself credit for. You just can’t win a USGA championship being a fluke. Of course, it opened a lot of doors for me. The chance to play in a Walker Cup Match was incredible.
What was it like to receive the invitation from Augusta?
I’ve got it framed. I brought it with me to China. It was amazing. I played some practice rounds with some of my heroes. I played with Ray Floyd, I played with Paul Azinger and Andy Bean. In my generation, that was thrilling. An absolutely amazing week. I missed the cut, but every week that goes by, I am more grateful for the experience. It’s not like a U.S. Open. I never qualified for a U.S. Open. I made it to [sectionals] six times and never made it. I shot 41 on the back nine and missed by two one year. The Masters is even tougher because you can’t qualify to get into the field.
Do you still have your gold medal?
I brought my Public Links gold medal with me to China. I showed it to a lot of people because they were so interested in it. I would tell them it’s the same medal that any USGA champion gets. Around U.S. Open time, I would show people and they really loved seeing that.
What were your feelings when it was announced the APL was being retired?
I haven’t had an overly emotional reaction. I understand why the USGA is doing it. I really think it’s good that the organization moves with the times and sees that there’s a need to change. I agree with the reasoning behind it. It makes sense. It’s a great event in the history of the USGA and amateur golf, and that won’t change. But the environment is not the same. You don’t need the Public Links anymore.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer with the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.