The remarkable growth of senior golf prompted the USGA to establish the Senior Amateur Championship in 1955. Many senior golf associations had come into being on the local, state, and regional level, proving that the competitive instinct among golfers was not diminished by age.
In 1955, the notion of a tournament only for seniors was not a new one. Fifty years earlier, The Apawamis Club, in Rye, N.Y., had started the oldest senior competition still in existence, which led directly to the formation of the U.S. Senior Golf Association, a private organization not linked to the USGA.
Apawamis extended invitations to golfers 60 years of age and older. When the response was not overwhelming, the age minimum was dropped to 55 to gather a representative field. Thus was the definition of a senior amateur golfer established.
The U.S. Senior Golf Association conducted a fine tournament, but membership in the organization was limited, and a long waiting list developed. Because there was no one event open to all senior amateurs, the USGA was asked to start a true national championship. The Senior Amateur was added to the schedule in 1955. Entries were open to golfers age 55 and over who had handicaps not over 10 strokes.
Addition of the Senior Amateur gave the USGA exactly twice as many championships as it had conducted before World War II, when there were just four: the Amateur, Open, and Women’s Amateur, started in 1895, and the Amateur Public Links (1922). From World War II until 1955, the USGA added four more: the Junior Amateur (1948), the Girls’ Junior (1949), the Women’s Open (1953), and the Senior Amateur (1955). The USGA now conducts 13 national championships, 10 of which are strictly for amateurs.
The first Senior Amateur, at Belle Meade Country Club, in Nashville, Tenn., drew 370 entries from 30 states and the District of Columbia. J. Wood Platt, 56, the eight time Philadelphia Amateur champion, defeated George Studinger of San Francisco, Calif., 5 and 4, in the final.
In 1959, J. Clark Espie, who had won in 1957, became the Senior Amateur’s first two-time champion. Lewis W. Oehmig, a record six-time finalist, is also the only three-time winner (1972, 1976, 1985).
Senior Amateur contestants may ride in carts, a concession not allowed when the championship was first played. Traditionalists, who believed walking was vital to a valid national title, finally gave in because the championship is played in the fall, when it is difficult to obtain caddies. Carts have been allowed since 1969.