March 21, 2014
By David Shefter, USGA
Bill McDonald, then a 20-year-old rising junior at Washburn University, defeated Dean Wilson Jr., of Omaha, Neb., 5 and 3, to win the 1964 U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship at Francis A. Gross Golf Course in Minneapolis. The Topeka, Kan., resident later became a guidance counselor and elementary school teacher in the Detroit metro area, working in education for 33 years before retiring and returning to Topeka. McDonald competed in 15 APLs – he qualified for 14 – and two U.S. Senior Amateur Championships. A 1992 inductee into the Michigan Golf Hall of Fame, McDonald also won the 1981 Michigan Amateur, claimed the Michigan Public Links Match Play a record six times and won the state Senior Match Play four times. Now 70, he remains active in the game, competing in senior amateur competitions around the country.
From my understanding, just qualifying for the 1964 APL was difficult.
|Kansas native Bill McDonald claimed the APL 50 years ago in Minneapolis. (USGA Museum)
I can remember going down to Wichita and qualifying. I had tried to qualify the previous year and didn’t make it, so I said I would try again. There were only six or seven guys trying to qualify for one spot. I was fortunate to get it. There was a guy named Monty Kaser from Wichita (who would win the APL two years later). He was three or four years older than I was, and I edged him out by two or three strokes. My parents then put me on the train to the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. I was going through my files and found something from [the USGA’s] P.J. Boatwright that they had arranged for a hotel in Minneapolis for $10 a day.
I hooked up with a kid from Duluth, Minn. (David Hicks). He was also a college student [at Minnesota-Duluth] and he was an [Olympic] ski jumper [who qualified for the 1964 Winter Games].
What do you remember from the early rounds?
In the first round, I faced Eddie Leonard from Detroit. I remember the match because I made a deuce on every par 3 and won it, 2 up. Years later when I was living in Michigan, I ran into his wife. She was a secretary down at Wayne State University in Detroit (where McDonald earned his doctorate in guidance and counseling). So, I got to visit with Eddie sometimes when I was living in the Detroit metro area. Yes, he remembered that match. Four deuces … that doesn’t happen very often.
Tell me the interesting story about your semifinal opponent.
I was playing this guy from North Carolina named Yates Adams. He was 6-foot-8 and here I was at 5-6, 5-7. He was only carrying nine golf clubs. And he was a real fast player. As soon as you marked your ball, he would putt. I was playing behind him [in the quarterfinals], and he was playing Bob Lunn, who had won it [in 1963]. I didn’t see it, but they said on the first hole, Bob Lunn went to mark his ball and Yates Adams putted [his ball] through [Lunn’s] legs and it went in the cup. I beat Yates, 8 and 6. He was having a bad day.
You developed blisters in that 36-hole semifinal match. Didn’t someone from the USGA take you to the emergency room midway through the final?
They treated me after the semifinal match. The final was also 36 holes. [Midway through], they looked at my blisters and took me over to the emergency room. They bandaged them up, and I finished the match. It wasn’t as bad as the press made it out to be. But it was a lot of walking.
What kind of support did you get?
One of the people writing for the Topeka Capital-Journal, Bob Hanson, and an owner of a public golf course (Jack Wiley) here in Topeka flew up in a private plane and they picked me up and took me back. My parents were unable to come up. My dad was a professional baseball scout for the [Los Angeles] Dodgers, so he was on a trip scouting some people.
Was this the biggest news in Topeka?
You should have seen the headlines. It was one of the biggest sports stories around. We had never had a USGA champion here in Topeka, so it was a huge deal. And it was a big deal in Kansas. Even down in Wichita, where I qualified, they had quite a bit of coverage because there had been no USGA champion from here in the state.
What did winning the APL do for your golf career?
I had gone to Washburn and done well in the NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics) tournament. My first year, I placed in the top 10 in the national tournament. I had played in a couple of state events, but hadn’t done particularly well. But after winning [the APL], I got invited to all these other amateur tournaments like the Porter Cup and the Sunnehanna. I did try to qualify [for the U.S. Amateur]. Back then, the only thing the [APL winner] got was an opportunity to qualify. They didn’t have the Masters [invitation]. They didn’t have the 10-year exemption [from qualifying for the APL] for winning. The only thing you got is the next year you didn’t have to qualify.
Being something of a local legend, you got an invitation to a charity exhibition with one of the game’s greats.
When I was a senior in college, there was a golf exhibition here at Topeka Country Club. They got Jack Nicklaus to come in and he had just won the U.S. Open. They invited me and I was like 22 or 23. Tom Watson came over [from Kansas City] and he was like 16. Jean Ashley, who was the ladies state amateur champion (and the 1965 U.S. Women’s Amateur champion), was the other member of the foursome. I wonder if Nicklaus remembers playing with Watson, because Watson wasn’t the name he is now.
Did you ever think about turning professional?
No. Pro golf was not as big a deal in the mid-1960s as it is now. You only had 30 guys that made quite a bit of money, where now you have places to play all over the world. In the mid-60s, you had 25 to 30 guys, but the other ones weren’t making a lot of money.
You kept playing in the APL long after your college days.
It was predominantly people who were working and then playing golf. The purpose of the [APL] was for the working person who would play golf two, three or four times a week and then work the other time.
Nowadays, the APL is predominantly college players. Did you see those changes happening?
The dramatic change was probably that Masters [invitation]. I remember they had the APL at The Orchards in the Detroit area in 2002. They also had the U.S. Amateur at Oakland Hills [in suburban Detroit] that same year. Ryan Moore won it at The Orchards. I remember going to see both tournaments and it was essentially the same young guys. You’d see them at The Orchards and then you’d see them playing at Oakland Hills. So I can see why the USGA is eliminating the APL. It’s a duplication of tournaments.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer with the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.