This is the fifth installment in our eight-part series looking back at USGA championships conducted at The Olympic Club in San Francisco, site of this year’s U.S. Open. This article reviews the 1958 U.S. Amateur won by Charlie Coe.
When one associates motivational speeches with a sport, golf isn’t usually the one that first comes to mind.
Yet that’s exactly what restored Charlie Coe’s confidence in the weeks leading up to the 1958 U.S. Amateur at The Olympic Club’s Lake Course.
Coe was a lifelong amateur who had an extremely successful career. By the mid-1950s he had already won one U.S. Amateur – the 1949 championship at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y. – as well as a Western Amateur and four Trans-Mississippi Amateur titles.
But Coe began struggling with his swing in 1956 and lost confidence in his game. He went winless for over a year and a half on the amateur circuit with his low point arguably coming in the form of a second-round 86 at Augusta National in the 1957 Masters Tournament.
During the summer of 1958, Coe sought the advice of friend and longtime University of Oklahoma football coach Bud Wilkinson. The Hall-of-Fame coach gave Coe a pep talk about competition, concentration and desire. He told Coe, “The tougher the day, the more it brings out the good player.”
Whether it was Wilkinson’s inspiration or a few mechanical adjustments made to his swing, something clicked in Coe’s game at The Olympic Club.
Playing against a field that included future PGA professionals Deane Beman, Dale Douglass, Phil Rodgers, Al Geiberger, Bobby Nichols and an 18-year-old Jack Nicklaus, Coe dug deep and defeated Tommy Aaron, 5 and 4, in the championship match to win his second U.S. Amateur title.
“The victory was very special to me because not many people have won the U.S. Amateur more than once,” said Coe. “And it was played over one of the best tests of golf there is. It requires all the shots in the game and it’s a course that rewards good shots.”
The same course had denied Ben Hogan a fifth U.S. Open just three years before when unheralded Jack Fleck shocked the golf world by defeating Hogan in a playoff.
Armed with a renewed confidence, Coe would not be turned back in his bid to join Francis Ouimet and Willie Turnesa as the only players to win U.S. Amateurs more than a decade apart. Coe fell 2 down in the early stages of the championship match against Aaron, a 21-year-old standout from the University of Florida, but was able to grab a 2-up lead at the conclusion of the morning round.
Aaron pulled within one hole when Coe left two shots in a bunker at the 21st, but the 1973 Masters champion was never able to square the match.
“I think the turning point was the fourth hole in the afternoon round,” said Coe. The Ardmore, Okla., native drove his ball into the fairway on the 22nd, an uphill, dogleg-left par 4. “I hit a good 3-iron onto the green and then made the putt. That gave me a big lift.”
That started a stretch that saw Coe win five consecutive holes, putting him 6 up and in full control of the match.
“You need the luck of the draw and good breaks to win and I had both,” said Coe. “But I played some of the best golf in my life in that championship.”
The following year, Coe came within inches of successfully defending his title at The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Colo. All-square with Jack Nicklaus, Coe hit his approach shot on the 36th hole over the green, but nearly holed his chip, which stopped a revolution short of going in. Coe’s par was conceded, and then Nicklaus, who had put his second shot safely on the green, sank his 15-foot birdie to win his first USGA championship, 1 up.
When reflecting on that moment years later, Coe said, “I didn’t feel that I’d lost the match. I was just beaten by a very good player.”
In 1961, Coe nearly became the first amateur to win the Masters. He shot four rounds of par or better and maintained his composure on the final day when he was paired with Arnold Palmer in the final group. Both players finished at 7-under-par, one stroke behind Gary Player.
In total, Coe played in 19 Masters. He was low amateur six times and finished in the top 10 three times, including his runner-up finish in 1961. Coe later became a member of Augusta National and maintained a plus-7 handicap at the course.
Despite his success in amateur golf, Coe never seriously considered turning professional. In the early 1950s he had a conversation with his wife, Elizabeth, about playing golf as a career. She told her husband, “If you think you’re going to live out of a suitcase and raise three kids, you’re mistaken.” In Coe’s words, that was the end of the discussion right there.
For his “real” job, Coe served as president of Merco of Oklahoma, Inc. an oil and gas investment company he founded in 1977.
Despite never turning professional, or perhaps in some cases because of it, Coe was universally respected by his peers. He was a member of six USA Walker Cup teams and in 1964 received the Bob Jones Award, the USGA’s highest honor, given in recognition of distinguished sportsmanship.
Fellow two-time U.S. Amateur champion, E. Harvie Ward said of Coe, “Charlie was the only amateur golfer I feared when we played. I felt I could beat anyone else anytime, but not Charlie. He was just out and out good. I always enjoyed being with him – a heck of a guy and heck of a competitor.”
Golf hasn’t seen many lifelong amateurs remain competitive on the national stage in recent decades, as Coe and his idol Bob Jones were. Perhaps this year at Olympic, another amateur will make a run at a major championship, as Coe did more than 50 years ago at Augusta.
Michael Trostel is the curator/historian for the USGA Museum. Email questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.