125 Years of Golf in America: Virginia February 13, 2019

The USGA was founded on Dec. 22, 1894. With the 125th anniversary coming at the end of 2019, every week throughout the year we're highlighting how all 50 states, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, make the game we all love a great one in the United States. 

Next Week: Nebraska  125 Years of American Golf Home

Watch: An interview with 1970 U.S. Amateur champion and 21-time PGA Tour winner Lanny Wadkins, who grew up in Richmond, Va.

Career Amateur Giles Tops List of Virginia Golf Luminaries

By Michael Trostel, USGA

 

Vinny Giles' brilliant career includes a U.S. Amateur and U.S. Senior Amateur title as well as four Walker Cup appearances. (USGA/Steven Gibbons)

Golf is a game that can bring generations of families together. It provides an opportunity for a parent and child to deepen their relationship. But in the case of Vinny Giles, he was focused more on winning than bonding with his future father-in-law.

Marvin M. “Vinny” Giles III went on to become a titan in the golf world, the last of a dying breed of career amateurs headlined by names such as Francis Ouimet, Bob Jones and William C. Campbell. But in 1958, Giles was a precocious 15-year-old whose sights were set on winning the club championship at Boonsboro Country Club in his native Lynchburg, Va. Standing in his way in the 36-hole final was Jimmy Watts, one of the club’s best players, who also happened to be the father of his close friend, and future wife, Key.

“Her mother told [Key] that she couldn’t be nice to me that day because I was playing against her father,” recalled Giles. “She said, ‘You have to be rooting for your father, not Vinny.’”

As he would do many more times in his career, Giles won that day. And he hasn’t slowed down since.

Giles’ accomplishments are dizzying. He is the only player to have won the U.S. Amateur (1972), The Amateur Championship conducted by The R&A (1975) and the U.S. Senior Amateur (2009). He played on four USA Walker Cup Teams and served as captain in 1993. He’s been the low amateur in the Masters (1968), the U.S. Open (1973) and three U.S. Senior Opens. And he’s claimed a record seven Virginia State Amateur titles. 

But perhaps his most impressive qualities are consistency and longevity. How consistent was he? In a six-year span from 1967 through 1972, when the U.S. Amateur was contested at stroke play, Giles finished no lower than sixth, including three consecutive runner-up finishes (1967-69) in addition to his victory.

And the longevity? The 37 years between Giles’ USGA victories in the 1972 U.S. Amateur and 2009 U.S. Senior Amateur is a record. Oh, and he still regularly shoots his age. Now 76, he’s done it an estimated 500 times; he first achieved the feat with an 8-under 64 at Seminole Golf Club when he was 65.

All those accomplishments beg the question: Why didn’t Giles turn professional? It’s a query he has been asked many times.

“When Key and I got married in 1966, being a golf professional was not a good way to make a living,” said Giles.

Case in point, only three players cracked six figures in earnings for the entire year on the PGA Tour in 1966, led by that year’s U.S. Open champion, Billy Casper, at $121,945. Compare that to 2018, when Rickie Fowler made more than that just for finishing tied for 20th in the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills.

Instead, Giles attended law school at the University of Virginia where, he joked, that he “spent more time on the golf course than studying.” Though his playing record during that time in Charlottesville – victories in the Southern Amateur, the Virginia Open and the Virginia Amateur (twice) – may make you wonder how much time he actually spent in the library.

“I talked to guys who, after they turned pro, told me golf became a 9-to-5 job,” said Giles. “It quit being fun for them. I loved the game and wanted to keep it that way.”

After earning his law degree, Giles started a golf management company, Pros Inc., in 1973. He served as president of the company for more than 25 years, representing golfers that included major champions Tom Kite, Davis Love III, Lanny Wadkins, Justin Leonard, Beth Daniel and Meg Mallon.

After selling the company to Octagon in 1999, Giles co-designed Kinloch Golf Club in Manakin-Sabot, Va., just outside of Richmond. The course hosted the 2011 U.S. Senior Amateur and is scheduled to host the 2020 U.S. Mid-Amateur.

The highest praise for Giles, as both a player and a man, came from Wadkins, a fellow Virginian and 21-time winner on the PGA Tour. Seven years his junior, Wadkins admired Giles, lauding his competitiveness and integrity.

“He was the big stud in Virginia when I was growing up,” said Wadkins, who played on two USA Walker Cup Teams with Giles. “I would watch him with my mouth hanging open, he was so good. Not only did I admire him, but we became great friends.”

Giles still plays golf about four to five days a week and, as of Feb. 1, owns a 2.7 Handicap Index®. As for competitive golf, the 2019 U.S. Senior Amateur will mark the last year of Giles’ 10-year exemption for winning the title at Beverly Country Club in Chicago a decade ago.

Giles remains optimistic, with his typical self-deprecating sense of humor.

“If I play well, I think I can reach match play,” said Giles. “But at this point in my career, I think I’d have to cheat to win.”

Michael Trostel is the senior content producer for the USGA. Email him at mtrostel@usga.org.