NEWTON, Kan. – After John Nakamura announced each of the competitors in the final match of the first round of the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship (APL), the spectators and volunteers around the first tee clapped in acknowledgement and appreciation.
Nakamura then called out the name of Dennis Davis, the walking Rules official for the group. When nobody cheered, Davis playfully clapped for himself, grinning sheepishly to indicate that he was joking. The players and onlookers laughed, breaking the pre-match tension.
Davis might not have been serious, but his moment of levity brought to light the appreciation that the USGA and the competitors owe Davis, Nakamura and the 74 other volunteer members of the USGA’s Public Links Championship Committee.
These committee members – many of whom have served for years – have helped to conduct the Public Links Championship, serving in many different capacities. Coming from different backgrounds and regions, they have gathered together every year to give selflessly and generously of their time and energy; to represent the vast, vibrant landscape of public golf; and to help to identify generations of national champions, from future major champions such as Trevor Immelman to career amateur Guy Yamamoto, who won in 1994 at age 32 after 11 attempts at qualifying for the championships.
During the 89th and final Public Links Championship, several long-time committee members reflected on their service to the USGA and to the game.
The national championship is a big deal and the USGA goes to great lengths to make everything right and give that championship feel, said Richard Wight, who has been on the committee since 1998. We try to make all the players feel like they’ve played in something big.
For most of the players, the Public Links is the only golf championship in which they compete that includes touches like walking Rules official with each group, spotters in the fairways and nameplates on the driving range – all thanks to volunteers. (In addition to the committee members, there were 295 volunteers organized by the staff at Sand Creek Station Golf Course.)
Everything is so well done here, said Rohan Ramnath, who was playing in his first Public Links. It made me feel like a pro for a little bit.
Several committee members understand the players’ psyche because they have first-hand experience. Before John Kueper joined the committee in 2002, he competed in five APLs, in four different decades: 1975, 1984, 1990, 1993 and 2000.
Walking inside the ropes [as a Rules official] brings back a few memories, said Kueper, 64, of Carlyle, Ill. I think, I used to hit shots like that. I like being around the players, giving back to the game. I’ve been lucky enough and blessed to meet all the people involved in the championship.
In the nearly 40 years that Kueper has been associated with the APL, he has noticed some shifts in the tenor of the championship.
Back then, I was 25, and I was one of the young pups, said Kueper, who qualified for match play twice, in 1990 and 1993. It was mostly a mid-amateur field back then.
Then in ’84, I noticed everybody had a college bag. In the ’90s, holy cow, here come the junior players. In 2000, it was strictly all college and junior players. It’s changed big time.
Cleve Lynch, a committee member since 1994, also competed in the APL, in 1977 at Brown Deer Park Golf Course in Milwaukee. He shot 157 and missed qualifying for match play by just three strokes.
That would have been one of the highest scores this year, he said. That tells you the difference in the quality of play from then to now.
Lynch, 68, a former prosecutor in Phoenix, is a lifelong public golfer. A native of Phoenix, he started playing golf as a teenager at Encanto Golf Course, a municipal layout.
And I still play at Encanto, he said. It’s not a great course, but it’s where I play.
When he arrived at the 2005 APL, held at Shaker Run Golf Club in Lebanon, Ohio, Lynch realized that he had forgotten to bring his USGA blazer for that evening’s function. So he went to a thrift store and found a blue blazer in his size.
The price tag was $3.50, recalled Lynch. But they were running a sale, so they sold it to me for $1.75. That is the blue blazer I still wear. That’s a pretty good blue blazer.
A lot of people have retold that story, and everyone has a different amount for how much that blue blazer cost.
The 2005 championship was also the one in which 15-year-old Michelle Wie became the first female to qualify for a men’s USGA championship, reaching the quarterfinals.
All of a sudden we’re getting galleries, said Lynch. We had thousands of people. The roads were blocked, people were parking on the side of the road, and we had to scrounge up gallery ropes. Instead of being Rules officials, we were gallery control.
In addition to collecting memories on the course, committee members have amassed experiences outside the ropes during their travels around the country for the championship.
A recipient of the USGA’s Ike Grainger Award (in recognition of 25 years of service), Nakamura, 78, is a dean of California golf. He is a former president of the Northern California Golf Association and a starter at the PGA Tour’s AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. He had traveled extensively within his home state but never much outside it until he became a member of the Public Links Championship Committee in 1996.
Last year, the championship took place at Laurel Hill Golf Club in Lorton, Va. Afterward, Nakamura visited Washington, D.C., for the first time.
Everybody should have a chance to tour our nation’s capital, he said.
The APL has taken him to some historic landmarks, including the Alamo, the Oklahoma City National Memorial, and a site that has special significance to him: Camp Amache in Colorado.
That was where my family was interned during World War II, said Nakamura, who was born in Petaluma, Calif. I was too young to know what was going on at the time. But just knowing that is part of my history made me very emotional when I went there.
For nearly every member of the committee, one of the most rewarding aspects of their service is the relationships and camaraderie they have built with their fellow members. They have become lifelong friends, and every championship is a reunion, where they catch up on the past year, retell old stories and quickly fall into the familiar rhythms of amity and revelry.
I feel like I work with 20 of my closest friends, said Lynch.
Above all, the committee members embody the greatest traditions and values of the game and the USGA, which was founded on the bedrock of volunteerism. Although the championship is coming to an end, the members of the Public Links Championship Committee hope to carry on this spirit of service in the years to come.
This has been such a major event in my life, said Nakamura. I understand that things change and go on. I feel good enough to do a few more years. If the USGA would like me to help them, I would be honored to do so.
Hunki Yun is the director of strategic projects for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.