In 1990, Michael Combs, then a 23-year-old senior at the University of Washington, became the fifth stroke-play medalist to claim the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship, defeating Terrence Miskell, 4 and 3, in the final at Eastmoreland Golf Course in Portland, Ore. Combs was something of a local favorite, having grown up 3½ hours away in Kennewick, Wash. Combs, who went on to be the runner-up to David Berganio Jr. in the 1991 APL, turned pro in 1992 and played professionally for nearly 20 years before taking a job with a government nuclear security force. Combs, 47, is the father of three children, ages 4, 12 and 16. He regained his amateur status in 2012 and plays 30 rounds a year.
What do you remember about that week?
It was a good week. I distinctly remember putting well every day. I remember a couple of my matches went to sudden death. It was just a great week for not getting ahead of myself.
Being rather close to home, did you have a lot of family in attendance?
My dad lived in Portland. My girlfriend at the time, who is now my wife, she was there. Her parents came down. My mom came down. I had a lot of family. It was like a home crowd.
You built a big lead in the final against Miskell, but then had a Rules infraction on hole No. 7, the 25th of the match. What happened?
I got dinged for touching the line of putt, so I lost the hole. I had a routine where on long putts, I would go halfway between where the ball was and the hole and take a couple of practice strokes. One of the officials informed me on the eighth hole that I touched the line of putt. I had lost the sixth hole and then lost the eighth hole, so my lead went from 6 up to 3 up.
You regrouped and won holes 27 and 28. Did the infraction get you more focused?
It’s something I’ve used throughout [my career]. I was a fairly emotional player, at least internally. It just kind of made me angry. I can normally channel it well. I usually hated playing against really nice guys because I couldn’t find anything to get mad at them about.
As you cruised toward the title, you started getting gracious with concessions. Was that just confidence?
The 13th was a reachable par 5 and he reached it in two. I had laid up and hit my third to 15 feet. He ran his eagle putt like 3 feet by and I was so intent on getting up to hit my putt – because I felt really good about making it – that I told him his putt was good. And he just looked at me. I remember the people following us started murmuring. Then I just rolled a 15-footer in right on top of it to keep my [4-up] lead. On the next hole, I gave him a putt of about 3 feet. I told him I didn’t want to see a guy lose the Public Links by missing a 3-footer. I think I [won it] one hole later.
Were you thinking about the Masters invitation that week?
I was in a spot where I didn’t allow my thoughts to go there until I had won it.
You got quite a pairing at the Masters. What was it like playing with Jack Nicklaus?
I still get a lot of mileage out of that to this day. My first [professional] event I get to tee it up at the Masters with the greatest player in history. That’s a pretty good story. He was wonderful to me. I shot 81 that day. He shot 68. He’s 51 years old and it was great. On the 10th hole, he had a 50- or 60-foot bunker shot and he left it hanging on the lip [of the hole]. I think I said, “That’s pretty good for a guy they say can’t hit bunker shots.” Then I chipped it in on 13 [for birdie]. I laid up too close [in two] and chunked my wedge. From the fairway, it looked like my ball had rolled back into Rae’s Creek. It hadn’t. It just hung up. I chipped it up and the ball falls in. The crowd just goes crazy.
On 18, I fanned my approach to the right. As I’m walking up to my shot, he dings me in the backside with his putter. I turn real quick and he goes, “Why don’t you chip that one in, too.” And I lipped it out. He smiled at me. Then he made like a 4-footer to finish off his 68.
How often do you think about playing in the Masters again?
I lost in the Public Links [final] the next year and that made it a bitter pill to swallow because I knew I wasn’t going to get back to the Masters. I have three kids now and they are always asking me about it. When I told them Dad was going to try and qualify for the APL again [this year], they said, “Sweet, we’re going to the Masters?” I told them there’s a little bit to do between now and then. And they said, “Oh, you can do it, Dad.” [Combs did not attempt to qualify for the final APL.]
Are you disappointed to see the APL being retired?
I took my kids in the golf shop [at Eastmoreland] a couple of years ago and one of the pros happened to be there when I won it [in 1990.]. He goes, “Hey, how are you doing?” Of course, the kids don’t realize how much of a big deal it was back then. I see the reasoning why they are retiring it, but it is a sad thing.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer with the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.