Vinny Giles, borrowing a page from Hale Irwin’s Sunday celebration in the 1990 U.S. Open, converted an 18-foot downhill putt on the 18th hole at Beverly Country Club Thursday to beat John Grace, 61, of Fort Worth, Texas, 1 up, in the 55th USGA Senior Amateur.
When the ball disappeared into the hole, the 66-year-old Giles, of Richmond, Va., threw a thundering fist pump and ran halfway around the green before knocking twice on the face of his putter. In the process, Giles established a new record for most years between USGA championship titles, last winning the 1972 U.S. Amateur. His 37 years between championship wins eclipses the old mark, which was held by Bruce Fleisher, who had gone 33 years between U.S. Amateur (1968) and U.S. Senior Open (2001) victories.
In addition, Giles joined William C. Campbell as the only players to have won a U.S. Amateur and USGA Senior Amateur title.
The celebratory antics by the mild-mannered Giles surprised even his wife, Kay, smiling wide just off the 18th green. Giles had set winning the championship as a last competitive goal when he turned 55.
"I was more excited there than I have ever been," said Giles. "The only thing I hadn't done is win a USGA Senior Amateur. I've done it. I'm done. I've done everything in golf I've wanted to."
Giles said he will still try to defend next year at Lake Nona Golf and Country Club in Orlando, Fla., saying in his distinctive southern dialect “it’s proper protocol.”
Afterward, Grace jokingly said that Giles will need to grow old before he can beat him. He added that Giles has always been someone he’s looked up to, to which a nearby Giles cracked, “That’s because you’re shorter than me.”
When the excitement dissipated, Grace personally congratulated Giles one-on-one off the course with a firm handshake, telling him, “Vinny, that was a very good match.”
On the 6,672-yard, par-71 Donald Ross redesign, which had firmed up from days of continuous sunshine and wind, the two 1975 USA Walker Cup teammates started with a flurry out of the gate. Giles chipped in off the green, seemingly grabbing a quick 1-up lead with the birdie hole-out, but Grace countered with a 20-foot birdie putt to gain a halve.
The seesaw duel tilted in Giles’ favor on the par-3 third when he went 1 up with a birdie. He held the lead for six holes before Grace, a reinstated amateur, evened the match on No. 9. Grace converted a 33-foot birdie putt from off the front off the green.
Grace earned his first lead on the 371-yard, par-4 13th. Giles blocked his drive and his ball stopped 45 yards short of the green. He couldn’t equal Grace’s par save, lagging a 6-foot putt that went wide.
The two halved the 14th in lackluster fashion. Giles ran a 45-foot birdie putt by about 8 feet and couldn’t salvage the par save on the comebacker, eliciting a growl while he looked skyward. Grace had an 8-footer to win, but he left it a couple feet short.
As it turned out, it was a crucial misfire.
“I was just trying to make it and I misread it,” said Grace.
With the way Giles had been putting on the undulating and menacing greens, which measured 10½ feet on the Stimpmeter, there was little indication that he might pull off the 18th-hole dramatics. He pulled a 5-footer on No. 8 that would have won the hole and admitted that he should have sunk several more.
Giles’ saving grace was his length off the tee. He consistently boomed it ahead of Grace.
“If I'm in the greenside bunker and he [needs] 140 yards [to] every hole, I promise you I'm not gonna lose,” said Giles, knowing beforehand that Grace wasn’t terribly long.
On the 18th hole, the third longest par 5 on the course, Giles sent his second shot into the left rough, needing 56 yards to the hole. With the flagstick tucked in the front-center of the green, Grace landed his ball 18 left of the hole. Giles’ chip hopped high and ran 18 feet past.
Grace putted first, the ball running out of steam 2 feet short. Then Giles, surveying the undulations, stepped over his ball.
“I looked at it twice,” said Giles. “First time I said, ‘It's two balls there on the left.’ I looked again, and, I said, ‘No, you got to hit it, I think it's three.’ I hit it solidly, and it was just trickling down the hill. It was rolling at the hole.”
When it got within 2 feet, he began celebrating heartedly, eschewing an old Bobby Wadkins saying, ‘Early call, ball won’t fall.’
“It was the kind of putt, a very difficult putt, because it was straight downhill, and if you hit it the least bit too hard it's gonna go four, five feet past,” said Giles.
Said Grace, once again a runner-up in a USGA championship (1974 U.S. Amateur): "I really thought it would go extra holes, but I'm not surprised. He's been making those all his life."
When reminded he set a new record between titles, Giles remained humble.
“It feels like it's twice that long,” he said. “You know, until you mentioned it yesterday, it never even crossed my mind. To me, if you won a U.S. Open 30 years apart, that would be something, some feat. … But to be honest, doesn’t mean a thing.”
Except that no one else has done it, and Giles accomplished a goal that finally fulfilled his golf soul.
The USGA Senior Amateur is one of 13 national championships conducted annually by the United States Golf Association. Ten are strictly for amateurs.