Bridgehampton, N.Y. — Everything about Oct. 10, 1981 was fresh and new for the USGA.
“Good times,” recalls George “Buddy” Marucci of the weekend and subsequent four days at Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis.
For the working stiff golfer — a career amateur in politically correct terms — there was finally a national championship to call his own — the U.S. Mid-Amateur.
The championship was created for golfers age 25 and older and with handicap indexes no higher than 3.4. That first year attracted 1,638 entries, from which 150 arrived in St. Louis.
Tom O’Toole, who caddied for eventual winner Jim Holtgrieve and is the current chairman of the USGA’s championship committee, remembers the week as being cold, wet and windy.
But for top-flight players such as Marucci, Holtgrieve, Jay Sigel, George Zahringer, Bob Lewis Jr. and others, the weather conditions were overshadowed by the renewed hope of becoming a national champion.
The U.S. Amateur was evolving into a young man’s championship, dominated by college-aged players who were able to devote large chunks of time to practice and play. The older guys were squeezing golf into a schedule that included the 40-hour work week and, often times, family commitments. The playing ground was becoming decidedly unbalanced.
A 41-year-old Lewis reached the U.S. Amateur final in 1980, and advanced to the semifinals in 1981. In his late 30s Jay Sigel won consecutive U.S. Amateur titles in 1982 and ’83, and 41-year-old John Harris won the 1993 U.S. Amateur.
But such instances of winning were dimming.
“Obviously I was much younger at the time,” said Marucci, who was 28 in 1981, “but it was becoming difficult [to win a U.S. Amateur]. There were a lot of quality career amateurs back then — and still are — but we were up against guys whose games were sharper due to the fact they played throughout the spring and summer. As a competitor you want to play the very best players, but … it was just harder.“
In some states around the country, a mid-amateur championship was already in place. Not so, though, at the national level.
A number of top-flight amateurs, including Holtgrieve, pooled their efforts and lobbied to the USGA that such an event would not only be viable, but well-received. Four years had passed since the USGA had debuted a new championship for amateurs (Women's Amateur Public Links), but this one clearly filled a growing niche.
“It was perfect for guys like me who were building a career outside of golf,” said Marucci, who along with Zahringer was in the field at this week’s U.S. Mid-Amateur at Atlantic Golf Club. “We could come in on Friday, play a practice round and then head home on Sunday night if we didn’t advance to match play.”
The weekend start was also a USGA first.
Holtgrieve, then a 33-year-old St. Louis resident who was building a stellar amateur resume, helped secure Bellerive as the inaugural venue. Bellerive hosted the 1965 U.S. Open won by Gary Player, so that added more cache to the first Mid-Amateur.
Jay Sigel, who later won Mid-Am titles in 1983, ’85 and ’87, was co-medalist that year. Marucci defeated Zahringer, 5 and 4, in the second round. In front of a hometown gathering, Holtgrieve advanced to the final against Lewis. Down a hole, Holtgrieve benefitted from Lewis’ three-putting the par-3 13th and 16th holes in the scheduled 18-hole final (the final became 36 holes in 2001) and won 2 up.
“I know Jim was a Walker Cupper in 1979 and 1981, but that win really helped define his career,” said O’Toole of Holtgrieve, who played in two Masters as an amateur and later joined the Champions Tour.
The acceptance of that first U.S. Mid-Amateur left no doubt that the championship would thrive.
“Given how many entries it receives, it’s obviously well established on the national and international radar screen of all the top amateurs,” Zahringer said.
This year, 3,860 players entered the championship, while a record 5,271 entries were received in 1997. As well, the venues have added prestige.
Major championship venues Cherry Hills Country Club, Hazeltine National Golf Club, Atlanta Athletic Club, NCR Country, along with former Ryder Cup venue Old Warson Country Club, have served as host clubs.
Over the ensuing years, players agree that the fields have improved.
“When you get 4,000 entrants 25 years and older, by definition the quality of the field keeps getting better and better,” said Zahringer, who won the Mid-Am in 2002 at The Stanwich Club in Greenwich, Conn. “When you throw in an increasing number of reinstated amateurs, you really have to play solid golf for six days to come out on top. The other change, and I was in the first 36-hole final in 2001, that makes the endurance part of the tournament an even more important component.
“The thing that never changes is that you have to beat six guys,” Zahringer said.
At least the playing field is level.
Stuart Hall is a freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA championship websites.