Napa, Calif. – A nondescript white van pulls into the desolate parking lot at Napa Valley Golf Course at Kennedy Park on a rainy morning in mid-March.
The incessant rain and wind have kept most inside, but when the vehicle comes to a stop, three golfers wearing rain gear emerge, two from a nearby truck. They are greeted by their coach, a white-haired man wearing a green hat. Clubs are quickly stored in the van and the group departs for a Costco in nearby Suisun City to pick up the team’s remaining three players.
Banter is light for the two-hour drive south to the farming town of Ripon, Calif., and the Spring Creek Golf & Country Club, the site of the day’s junior college conference tournament hosted by Modesto Junior College. Some players listen to music, while others talk in hushed tones. Up front, a visitor chats with the coach about his impressive golf résumé that includes a USGA championship.
Fifty years ago, Jim Wiechers, a native of Atherton, Calif., claimed the U.S. Junior Amateur Championship at Lochmoor Club in Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich. Wiechers also captured such prestigious titles as the 1964 Western Junior, 1966 Western Amateur and ’66 Trans-Mississippi Amateur before embarking on a 13-year PGA Tour career that netted him one title: the 1969 West End Classic in the Bahamas and a winner’s check for a whopping $5,000.
Today, those achievements are well in the rear-view mirror. The 67-year-old Wiechers spends the majority of his time overseeing the men’s and women’s golf programs at Napa Valley College and teaching the game to a select number of clients at Chardonnay Golf Club.
His players are aware of his past successes, but few know that he won the 1962 U.S. Junior Amateur.
Said Tyler Beierle, a 19-year-old freshman who is Napa’s No. 1 player, “He has told us a bunch of stories that he played in all of these tour events. The first time we asked him [about the PGA Tour] we were in awe. Wow, the coach is good.”
During the two-hour drive to Spring Creek, Wiechers detailed his junior, amateur and professional exploits as if they happened yesterday. He defeated his Bellarmine Prep teammate, James Sullivan (Troncatty), in the ’62 Junior Amateur final, the only time in Junior Am history that two high school teammates have met in the championship match. (Phil Mickelson defeated his ex-University High of San Diego teammate Manny Zerman in the 1990 U.S. Amateur final).
Wiechers’ post-PGA Tour career included a wine distributorship that lasted 10 years, until the earthquake of 1989 forced him to close its doors. That led him to re-engage with golf, and he became a teaching pro at Chardonnay G.C., where one of his students was 1998 U.S. Girls’ Junior semifinalist Kristin Thompson. Another student, Barry Logar, qualified for last year’s U.S. Mid-Amateur and fell in the first round of match play.
Wiechers provides plenty of instruction and advice to his team, but never during a tournament. As his men’s team prepared to compete at Spring Creek, Wiechers kept quiet, only telling the players that the first six holes are tight and “you might not want to hit driver.”
Driving around in a golf cart with his clipboard and starting-time sheet, Wiechers blends in with the rest of the coaches. Their conference, the Big 8, is the result of a split of the schools in California’s Bay Valley Conference. Currently, just seven schools offer golf because Butte College recently dropped its men’s team. Wiechers offers his players water, but doesn’t ask how they are playing.
“He makes me nervous,” Beierle admitted. “I will [usually] mess up after he comes up to me. I think he wants us to play without having us think about him being there.”
On this day, Beierle carded a team-best 73 (two over par). Only one other golfer, Roderick Kenney (77), would break 80 for Napa Valley, which finished a distant fifth.
During a lunch break, Wiechers talks about the difficulties in recruiting players.
“We’re not getting the blue-chippers,” he says. “I try to attend a couple of the high school tournaments in the area and I have an assistant coach who also looks at potential players.”
During his eight years at the helm, Wiechers said he has had a couple of players earn scholarships to four-year colleges, including Chico State, a strong Division II program.
Even though he isn’t tutoring future All-Americans, Wiechers loves what he’s doing. The instructor in him wants to help make the players better.
“Mostly short game – that’s what I like to focus on,” said Wiechers. “That’s what ultimately makes a lot of these kids. I make mental notes of what they are doing wrong. I have worked with a couple kids on their swings, Chris [Verschoyle] and Roderick. Tyler has kind of his own action. There’s a couple of things that I would like to change, but the middle of the season is not the time to change it.”
Added Beierle: “This guy knows what he’s talking about. His advice helps me.”
Evolution Of A Champion
Two important events during his freshman year at Bellarmine Prep in San Jose led Wiechers to golf. The first was a special-teams drill on the freshman football team, when Wiechers tore up his knee.
|JIM WIECHERS FILE|
|Born: Aug. 7, 1944
City: Atherton, Calif
1962 U.S. Junior Amateur champion1964 Western Junior champion
1965 NCAA Division I runner-up
1965 NCAA All-American
1966 Western Amateur champion
1966 Trans-Mississippi champion
1966 Golf Digest No. 1-ranked amateur
1969 West End Classic champion (PGA Tour)
4 U.S. Open appearances (T-14 in 1975)
“If that doesn’t happen, I probably never start playing golf,” said Wiechers. “Baseball and football were my two favorite sports.”
Wiechers’ father was a member at Sharon Heights Golf & C.C. in Menlo Park. But it was Romie Espinosa, the younger brother of 1929 U.S. Open runner-up Al Espinosa, who served as Wiechers’ mentor. Espinosa ran a local driving range and Wiechers was a willing pupil.
“I learned the game from him,” said Wiechers.
Wiechers qualified for his first U.S. Junior at age 16 in 1961. At the Cornell University G.C. in Ithaca, N.Y., he advanced to the quarterfinals before losing to eventual runner-up Jay Sigel. Sigel would go on to win five USGA championships and play on nine USA Walker Cup Teams. At the same championship, Jim Troncatty (he would play as Jim Sullivan in ’62) lost to eventual champion Charles McDowell in the quarterfinals.
Troncatty and Wiechers were both students at Bellarmine, considered one of the premier private high schools in Northern California. Troncatty was from north of Sacramento and was recruited to the school for academics by a couple of local Jesuit priests. Wiechers commuted by train, a 30-minute ride.
At Bellarmine, they were the top two golfers, although Wiechers said they weren’t close friends. Wiechers commuted, while Troncatty lived in the on-campus dorms.
Troncatty had lost his father to a heart attack in 1956. His mother, Dorothy, an elite female golfer who competed often against 1954 U.S. Women’s Amateur champion Barbara Romack, later married Buddy Sullivan, a PGA Tour player. By 1962, Sullivan had adopted Troncatty, who competed as James Sullivan for the 1962 U.S. Junior.
Sullivan, Wiechers and Ron Cerrudo, another of the Bay Area’s top players, shot 67, 68, and 70, respectively, at the Peninsula Club in Burlingame to earn the three available qualifying spots for the 1962 U.S. Junior.
Cerrudo, a future USA World Amateur Team (1966) and Walker Cup (1967) participant, was eliminated in the second round, but Sullivan and Wiechers kept advancing.
In the quarterfinals, Wiechers was in imminent danger of being eliminated. On the fifth hole, his opponent, Bob Jewett from Fort Myers, Fla., was penalized a hole for touching the line of putt when he was about to easily win the hole. Still, Jewett owned a 1-up lead going to the par-5 18th hole, then proceeded to make a messy bogey. Wiechers was in a greenside bunker in three, needing to get up and down to force extra holes. He did.
On the first extra hole, Wiechers hit his approach 30 feet from the flagstick, while Jewett was some 6 feet away. Wiechers holed his birdie putt and Jewett missed.
“I knew from that point that it was my tournament,” said Wiechers. “I should have been eliminated.”
He defeated defending champion Charles McDowell in the semis to set up the match against Sullivan.
Both players said it was “surreal” to be facing each other in the championship match.
At the ninth hole of the final, Sullivan converted a 25-foot birdie putt, only to be quickly matched when Wiechers made his 20-footer.
“Jim was just a great, great, great putter,” said Cerrudo, who remains one of his closest friends. “He never missed.”
Sullivan, who would lose his mother and step-sister to a tragic car accident a month after the Junior, said he could feel any momentum slipping away after the ninth hole.
“It wore on me big time,” said Troncatty, who went back to his original surname after a falling out with his stepfather. “Jimmy was a great player. He was a big, powerful guy. He looked like a linebacker. He had a controlled hook. He hit the ball low and hard and was a good iron player.”
The title, earned by a 4-and-3 margin, came three days before Wiechers turned 18 and a few weeks before he enrolled at Santa Clara, the college his father had attended. In fact, few college programs recruited Wiechers. At the time of his Junior victory, only the United States Military Academy at West Point formally offered him a scholarship.
Today, Wiechers acknowledged, he would have received offers from every major program in the country.
“The Junior victory proved that I could play against anyone,” said Wiechers. “It gave me a tremendous amount of confidence.”
At Santa Clara, Wiechers became an All-American in 1965, losing the NCAA Division I individual title by one stroke to University of Houston standout Marty Fleckman. Wiechers had birdied the final two holes at Holston Hills C.C. in Knoxville, Tenn., only to see Fleckman hole a 12-footer at the 72nd hole to claim the title. Had he missed, the two would have been declared co-champions.
That summer, Wiechers, Cerrudo, Troncatty (who played at San Jose State with Cerrudo) and Bob Smith, another Northern California standout, traveled the country to play amateur events. Smith would win the Trans-Mississippi Amateur and Western Amateur.
After he graduated from Santa Clara in 1966, Wiechers went on another summer golf spree with Smith, Cerrudo and Ross Randall.
“Our car won just about every amateur event we entered,” said Cerrudo, who in the 1966 U.S. Amateur at Merion Golf Club came up one stroke shy of the playoff between Deane Beman and eventual winner Gary Cowan.
Smith won the Porter Cup, while Wiechers beat Cerrudo, 1 up, to take the Western Amateur at Pinehurst No. 2. Wiechers beat Smith in the Trans-Mississippi final at Edina (Minn.) Country Club.
The foursome was undaunted by the national stage, being accustomed to facing stiff competition in the Bay Area. At the time, Johnny Miller was coming into his own as an amateur, having finished eighth in the 1966 U.S. Open at The Olympic Club. Bob Lunn, Dick Lotz, two-time U.S. Amateur champion E. Harvie Ward and 1967 U.S. Amateur Public Links champion Verne Callison were all formidable foes.
“You had to really play well to win a tournament in the Bay Area,” said Cerrudo, who is now the director of instruction at the Daniel Island Club near Charleston, S.C.
Wiechers, whom Golf Digest had ranked as the country’s top amateur for 1966, was named the second alternate for the USA World Amateur Team, while Cerrudo was invited to play. It’s one reason why Wiechers chose to turn pro at the end of 1966 instead of keeping his amateur status for the 1967 Walker Cup, a team Wiechers said he would likely have made.
His disappointing U.S. Amateur showings – he failed to qualify for the final 36 holes in 1966 – likely hurt Wiechers’ chances for the ’66 World Amateur Team.
By 1967, Wiechers was a PGA Tour rookie, but the biggest check he would cash over the next 12 years would be $11,000 for making a hole-in-one at Sedgefield Country Club during the Greater Greensboro (N.C.) Open. He also cashed a $5,000 check for making an ace at the Hawaiian Open at Waialae C.C. He lost a playoff to Bob Goalby at a tournament in Robinson, Ill., in 1969. But for the most part, Wiechers was a journeyman pro.
He did qualify for four U.S. Opens, finishing 14th in 1975 at Medinah (Ill.) C.C., which earned him an invitation to the 1976 Masters. Augusta’s lightning-quick greens would get the best of Wiechers. After playing the first three holes in one under par, he quickly suffered three consecutive three-putt greens, then four-putted the seventh. He would miss the cut and never make it back to the Masters.
By 1979, Wiechers had enough of tour life and wanted to settle down. He started a wine delivery and storage company that was successful for 10 years. When the earthquake hit in October 1989, all the main arteries around Oakland were shut down, leaving his warehouse severely handcuffed. Since it affected holiday-season sales, the business was forced to close.
“All of our clients had to go somewhere else,” said Wiechers. “That’s when I decided to get back into the golf business.”
Wiechers started teaching at Chardonnay G.C., then at nearby Eagle Vines Golf Club before recently returning to Chardonnay. He landed the coaching position at Napa Valley College in 2005 and he recently took over the women’s program, although he had only two players last fall and was forced to suspend the season. One of the female players, Portia Kenney (Roderick’s sister) is currently a reserve on the men’s team.
More importantly, the laid-back Wiechers is comfortable with his lifestyle. He is separated from his wife, but remains close to his daughter, Erica, and her family.
The only time he plays is when Cerrudo makes his annual trip to Northern California, where the two longtime friends go to Lake Tahoe for a little rest and relaxation.
“He’ll play more in a week than he does all year,” said Cerrudo. “He’s a low-key guy. He’s happy in his own skin. He’s just a good person.”
Wiechers might not have the best team in the Big 8 Conference, but few would question his credentials.
Asked how much longer he plans to coach, Wiechers didn’t have a definitive timetable.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Right now I enjoy it.”
David Shefter is a senior staff writer/content manager for the USGA. E-mail him at email@example.com.