Toledo, Ohio – As a child, Steve Liebler would go to the driving range with his older brother Lloyd, sit on a shag bag and marvel at Lloyd’s ability to strike a golf ball. When Lloyd tired, Steve would attempt to emulate his idol.
There was good reason for such admiration. Lloyd Liebler, seven years older than Steve, was the 1965 U.S. Junior Amateur runner-up at Wilmington Country Club in Delaware. At the time, he was the youngest finalist in USGA history, at age 14. Four years later, Liebler finished 11th behind Steve Melnyk at the U.S. Amateur Championship at Oakmont Country Club.
There’s no question that Lloyd was the best golfer in the family, said Butch Liebler, the oldest of three Liebler sons.
At 20 and a sophomore at the University of Georgia, Lloyd Liebler died of cancer.
He was devastated, said Butch Liebler of Steve, who is 15 years his junior. Lloyd was his big brother growing up. Lloyd’s death, I believe, gave Steve his desire to win, his tenacity to win. Steve was very young at the time, and he took it upon himself to carry the banner for both of them.
Steve Liebler, of Irmo, S.C., has done his brothers proud by intricately weaving his name throughout USGA championship history.
When he tees off in this week’s U.S. Senior Open Championship at Inverness Club, Liebler will have played in each USGA individual championship for which he is eligible – six in all. He has also competed in the USGA State Team championship. Liebler, 52, is three years shy of qualifying for the U.S. Senior Amateur Championship.
To be able to say you have played in every USGA event that you’re eligible for puts you in a small category of people, he said. To make the Senior Amateur would be a great way to complete the cycle.
Liebler’s first USGA appearance was in the 1973 U.S. Junior at Singing Hills Country Club in El Cajon, Calif. All total, Liebler says he has played in 15 USGA championships.
It’s an amazing feat, said Butch Liebler, a Virginia-based club pro who received The PGA of America’s Middle Atlantic Section’s 1985 Horton Smith Award for service and contributions to developing PGA professionals and the 1998 PGA Professional of the Year honor. I know the idea piqued his interest. Keep in mind, wanting to do something and having the ability to perform at that level are two different things.
While the U.S. Senior Open adds to the list, not until Liebler qualified for his first U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship last month at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort did this week take on added meaning.
By qualifying for the APL, Liebler had to scramble to change a conflict in his qualifying plans for this championship. Instead of attempting to qualify in nearby Florence, S.C., on June 28, Liebler played five days earlier at the Golden Horseshoe Golf Club’s Green Course in Williamsburg, Va. Liebler shot 71 to win the one-spot qualifier.
I’ve been bragging to all of my friends about it, said Chase Liebler, Steve Liebler’s 22-year-old son, who recently completed his own collegiate career at the University of South Carolina and will be on his father’s bag this week. The feat spans his life basically.
For all of Liebler’s attempts, his best finish was at the 2005 U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship at The Honors Course in Ooltewah, Tenn. He lost to eventual champion Kevin Marsh, of Las Vegas, in the semifinals.
His most memorable, though, may have been the first, the 1973 U.S. Junior.
It was the first time I had been on an airplane, first time being away from home, playing across the country, he said of 1973. I made match play on the number, and I think that experience is what drove me to play in other USGA events.
A close second would be a 43rd-place finish at the 1984 U.S. Open, which was won by Fuzzy Zoeller at Winged Foot.
That Liebler has accomplished a unique USGA feat should come as little surprise, as his entire golf life is rich in texture. An accomplished junior, he was a two-time All-American at South Carolina, played on the PGA Tour for a handful of years, retired to coach his alma mater to six NCAA Championship appearances in 10 years and later regained his amateur status.
But it all began in Portsmouth, Va., with the influence of his father, Al, and his local club’s head golf professional, Tom Strange, the father of two-time U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange.
And then there was Lloyd.
He was my idol, so that kind of drove me to want to play the game and play at a very high level and make it a big part of my life, said Steve Liebler. In 1965, Lloyd was runner-up to Lanny Wadkins in the Virginia State Golf Association’s Junior Amateur. The next year, Lloyd Liebler won the first of two consecutive VSGA Junior Am titles by shooting a final-round 64, beating Wadkins by six strokes.
Steve Liebler may be an amateur in status this week, but Butch Liebler would not be stunned by any success his brother achieves this week. A few weeks ago, Steve Liebler won his third Eastern Amateur — 30 years after his first title.
From a swing standpoint, Steven never had a great golf swing, Butch Liebler said. He has made up for his inefficiencies through practice and repetition. That being said, he’s been one of the most solid and accurate iron players I’ve ever seen.
The other factor that separates him from others is the management of his game. He would admit he’s not the longest hitter out there, but he has always been able to position the ball in all the right locations. He’s very calculating on the course.
Steve Liebler is realistic about his chances this week, but also knows that USGA events are a different breed of championship that tests all components of a player’s physical and mental makeup.
The strength of my game is experience, Steve Liebler said. I've played at a lot of different levels against a lot of different players and gotten a lot of knowledge from the players I played with — growing up and caddieing for players like Ben Crenshaw [as an amateur] and then through my tour years of playing with [Jack] Nicklaus and [Arnold] Palmer and [Lee] Trevino and [Tom] Watson and then coming back and learning from the young kids about the aggressiveness that you have to play with to play amateur golf today at that level.
My true strength is my ball-striking and playing within myself. I'm not a long hitter by any stretch of the imagination, but I pride myself on being a very good ball-striker.
Chase Liebler never got to see his father play professionally, but he has played against him in numerous amateur events, the latest being the Eastern Amateur. So he has little doubt his father can hold his own.
My dad played against a lot of these guys when he was out on tour and holds his own against the younger guys like me, he said. This will be fun.
Fun, and memorable.
Stuart Hall is a North Carolina-based writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA websites.