Between 1979 and 1983, Bill Tuten compiled a remarkable USGA match-play record of 30-6. The Palatka, Fla., native advanced to four championship matches (one U.S. Junior Amateur and three U.S. Amateur Public Links) along with one Amateur Public Links semifinal in five years, culminating in consecutive APL titles in 1982 and ’83. Tuten, a University of Houston graduate, is the last golfer to successfully defend an APL crown. After losing the 1981 APL final to Georgia Southern All-American and defending champion Jodie Mudd, Tuten defeated Brad Heninger, 6 and 5, in the ‘82 championship match at Eagle Creek Golf Club in Indianapolis, and followed it up in ‘83 by defeating David Hobby, 3 and 1, at Hominy Hill Golf Course in Colts Neck, N.J. Tuten was also a member of the victorious 1983 USA Walker Cup Team at Royal Liverpool (Hoylake). Tuten turned pro a week after playing in the 1984 Masters and spent the next 20 years on various circuits, including the 1989 season on the PGA Tour. After retiring in 2004, Tuten, who now resides in Sugar Land, Texas, started teaching the game and is currently in his eighth season as the boys golf coach at St. Thomas High, a private school in Houston. In 2012, he qualified for the U.S. Senior Open, but was forced to withdraw due to a hand injury.
Why did you perform so well in match-play events?
I guess it was knowing what I had to do that day. I was able to focus better. I knew I had to beat this guy today, no matter what it took. I think I was able to laser focus on that and handle the pressure. My mentality was, If my ship goes down, I am not going to have any ammunition left on board.
Making four USGA championship finals in five years – and an APL semifinal in 1980 – obviously take some skill, but also mental fortitude as well. Did you have a special secret?
I don’t have any secret psychology or anything. I just went out and played golf. I figured in my head if I beat the course, I would beat the player. If I’m a couple under [par] after 14 or 15 [holes], I am probably going to win the match. If [my opponent] is six under, then I’ll go shake his hand and go down the road.
One thing people probably don’t know is that despite being a finalist in the 1981 APL, you weren’t exempt for the 1982 championship. Then you failed to qualify, but got into the field as an alternate and won the title. What happened?
I think I was the first guy to win a USGA [championship] as an alternate. I remember his name: Chris Young. I don’t know what his job was, but he had a wife and kids and his employer told him you can go to the tournament but you won’t have a job when you come back. With a wife and kids to support, that was probably more important than the golf tournament.
Where were you when the USGA called with this fortunate news?
I was over at the beach fishing. I wasn’t planning on going. I was in the right place at the right time and was able to take advantage of it.
Do you recall any special moment from either of your two wins?
To be honest, the moment that stands out was a mistake. I was playing the final match in ’83 at Hominy Hill and I made an error on the [13th] green [in the morning round]. I didn’t move my [ball]mark back [to its original position]. And my opponent didn’t notice it when I putted out. We were on the next hole when someone in the gallery mentioned the fact to me. I couldn’t remember so I asked my caddie. He said, I don’t think you did. It turned out that I hadn’t and [eventually lost the hole as a result of the infraction] . But they had to call P.J. Boatwright at Golf House. This was before everyone had cell phones and it was quite an ordeal. I’ll never forget when we came off the 15th green and the [walking Rules] official said, Ladies and gentlemen, at this point the status of the match is in question, because we were still awaiting a ruling on that situation. It wasn’t a crucial penalty, but when you do something like that, you remember it.
What confidence did you gain from the victories?
I was always pretty shallow-minded when it came to golf. I was always, What do I have to do today? I wasn’t much on, Last year I lost in the finals and I’m going to win it this year. I was pretty much highly motivated every day and I still am that way. I played more on determination than I did confidence. I was just determined.
Coming from a small town in northeast Florida, what was the reaction to your wins?
It was a big deal. People were very supportive and pulled for me. You didn’t have the back-and-forth information that you do now. It wasn’t like I was texting with people all night. When I came back home, I had the trophy at the club and there were congratulations and way to go. I probably didn’t realize how big a deal it was when I did it.
Does it seem like a bigger achievement when you look back on it 30-plus years later?
When I think about it, it’s just something to hang your hat on. It’s something that follows you through life. No one remembers if I won the high school state championship or if I finished 10th in the Southern Open as a pro. They can’t take it away from you.
You’ve stated in the past your affinity for USGA championships, so I’m sure you’re saddened by the APL’s retirement. What made playing in USGA events special?
I loved the formality of them. I loved that the golf courses were always in great shape. I loved the Rules official being out there [with your match or grouping]. There just was a sense that something important was going on. And it was. It was a national championship.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.