CHAMPIONS
Melnyk's Magical Season Ends With U.S. Amateur Triumph March 28, 2016 | Far Hills, N.J. By David Shefter, USGA

Steve Melnyk went wire-to-wire in winning the 1969 U.S. Amateur. (USGA Archives)

The fifth story in a 16-part series detailing every USGA championship contested at Oakmont Country Club in suburban Pittsburgh recounts Steve Melnyk’s triumph in the 1969 U.S. Amateur Championship. 

On Labor Day weekend 1968, Steve Melnyk was only a few months removed from leading the University of Florida to its first-ever NCAA men’s golf championship. He was also in a Florida hospital, recovering from knee surgery necessitated by an old football injury.   

Days before the operation, childhood rival Bruce Fleisher had claimed the U.S. Amateur Championship at Scioto Country Club in Columbus, Ohio. Melnyk hadn’t even attempted to qualify.

With a hard cast extending from his hip to his calf, this Gator now was literally chomping at the bit to return to the competitive arena.

The three-month hiatus from golf rejuvenated Melnyk, and over the next nine months, he arguably became the game’s best amateur. In spring 1969, he reeled off five consecutive college victories. In July, he won the Western Amateur before representing the USA on the Walker Cup Team. He capped the summer with a five-stroke victory in the U.S. Amateur at Oakmont Country Club.

“I really was playing the best golf of anybody,” said Melnyk, 69, who now resides in Jacksonville, Fla., where he works in the investment banking business. “I wasn’t the longest and I wasn’t the best putter… Nothing stood out. I was pretty proficient in all phases of my game.”

Melnyk, who won the 1965 Georgia Open as an 18-year-old, arrived at Oakmont fresh off the USA’s 10-8 Walker Cup triumph over Great Britain and Ireland at Milwaukee (Wis.) Country Club. The intense two-day competition – Melnyk posted a 1-1-1 record – provided the perfect prep for the U.S. Amateur.  

The field at Oakmont was strong. All 20 Walker Cup players – 10 each from the USA and GB&I – were entered. Four future major champions also competed, three of whom would win the U.S. Open (Andy North, Tom Watson and Tom Kite). The fourth, Lanny Wadkins, would go on to win the 1970 U.S. Amateur and claim the 1977 PGA Championship.

And the 6,670-yard, par-70 layout was as challenging as ever.

“To this day, I’ve never seen greens that fast,” said Melnyk, who competed in all four majors during his career and was the low amateur in the 1971 Masters. “And I think the scores reflected it.”

Of the four under-par scores recorded that week, Melnyk owned two, bookending a pair of 73s with 1-under-par 70s for a total of 2-over 286. That 1969 championship was the fifth in an eight-year period (1965-1972) in which the U.S. Amateur was conducted at 72 holes of stroke play with a 36-hole cut. It returned to match play in 1973 and has retained that format ever since.

“Every hole was a battle,” Melnyk recalled of the testing Oakmont layout. “There were 18 one-hole battles.”

Steve Melnyk (light green shirt) watches his son, Butler, compete in the 2014 U.S. Amateur at Atlanta Athletic Club. (USGA/John Mummert)

That week, the USGA paired Walker Cup players from each side in the first two rounds of stroke play.

Melnyk remembered an inauspicious start for his fellow competitor from GB&I, Charlie Green. Known as a great ball-striker who struggled with putting, Green took a triple-bogey 7 after reaching the par-4 first hole in regulation. His first putt rolled off the green, then he chipped back and three-putted, holing a 4-footer for a 7.

“He turned to me and said in his Scottish brogue, ‘If I hadn’t made that short one, I would have been here a fortnight,’” Melnyk recalled.

Despite the ignominious beginning, Green shot 75 and ended the week in a tie for 30th (21-over 305).

Melnyk, who thrived on difficult course setups where par was a good score, led after every round.

Entering the final round, Melnyk owned a three-shot cushion over his Walker Cup foursomes partner, Marvin “Vinny” Giles. An opening bogey reduced that margin by one, but Melnyk recovered with a birdie at the par-4 second, where Giles bogeyed, then he holed a bunker shot for an eagle at the par-5 fourth. By the turn, Melnyk was eight shots clear of the field.

Giles finished second at 291, two ahead of another 1969 USA Walker Cup competitor, Allen Miller. It was his third consecutive runner-up finish (Giles would win the Amateur in 1972).

Melnyk’s winning total was only three strokes higher than Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer had posted in the U.S. Open at Oakmont seven years earlier, when Nicklaus prevailed in an 18-hole playoff. “I learned early on that you weren’t going to make any birdies because it was just that hard,” said Melnyk. “I shot 2 over and won by five. It gives you an idea how hard it was. You could argue that it was too hard for the U.S. Amateur.”

It was too much for Fleisher, as the defending champion missed the 36-hole cut. Melnyk and Fleisher were housed that week by Ken Elias, a friend of the latter. After Round 2, the two had dinner at a local diner and the 20-year-old Fleisher rhetorically asked his buddy what one does after missing the cut. Melnyk playfully suggested that he could carry Melnyk’s scorecard.

“I wish the kids today could be more like we were back then,” said Melnyk of the camaraderie among players of that era. “We didn’t have a lot of money, so we’d go to Burger King or a cafeteria [for dinner]. That was a big deal. Bruce and I were so different culturally, but we remain great friends. I was so happy to see him have success on the [Champions] Tour.”

Two years later, Melnyk would claim The Amateur Championship conducted by The R&A at Carnoustie, defeating Jim Simons in the final. He would also compete in another Walker Cup, a 13-11 USA defeat on the Old Course at St. Andrews, before turning professional later in 1971.

Melnyk’s PGA Tour career never mirrored his amateur success with no victories and four runner-up finishes, but he found a niche in television after injuring his elbow in 1982. CBS asked him to provide on-course commentary during the Phoenix Open, which led to a career that lasted more than 25 years and included stops at ESPN, ABC and Golf Channel.

After leaving TV, Melnyk regained his amateur status in 2009, and. in 2012, he helped create an invitation-only tournament for mid-amateur (25 and older) and senior golfers at his home course, Timuquana Country Club in Jacksonville. He competed in the 2013 U.S. Senior Amateur, missing the 36-hole cut for match play, and his two sons, Dalton and Butler, have also competed in USGA championships, the latter in the 2014 U.S. Amateur at Atlanta Athletic Club.

Watching Butler brought back many fond memories for Melnyk.

“Those were two tough, grinding weeks,” said Melnyk, referring to his Walker Cup and U.S. Amateur triumphs in 1969. “But trust me, people would cut off their right arm for a chance to do something like that.”

The grueling conditions only seemed to bring out the best in Melnyk.

David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at dshefter@usga.org.

The 2016 U.S. Open