15 Years Later, Hamilton Embraces His Return to USGA Competition
September 10, 2016 | Elverson, Pa.
By David Shefter, USGA
The videotape from the final match of the 2001 U.S. Amateur Championship at Atlanta’s East Lake Country Club has remained in its box and unwatched. Whether the 1-down defeat to Ben “Bubba” Dickerson still subconsciously stings, Robert Hamilton has chosen not to rekindle the memory.
There are no bitter feelings or remorse. In fact, a smile came across his face when the subject was broached to the 39-year-old from Gold River, Calif., upon his return to the national stage this week at Stonewall for the 36th U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship. It’s Hamilton’s first appearance in a USGA competition since coming so close to winning the biggest championship in amateur golf 15 years ago.
That week remains one of Hamilton’s career highlights. His father, Dean, celebrated his 50th birthday on the day he won his semifinal match over Manuel Merizalde, which earned Hamilton an invitation to the 2002 Masters. Atlanta native and Augusta National Golf Club member Billy Payne introduced himself to Hamilton’s family that Saturday and invited Dean and Robert to the club for a pre-Masters practice round.
“We stayed on the property and spent time with him,” said Hamilton, recounting the memory after his first Mid-Amateur practice round Thursday on the newer North Course at Stonewall.
Much has changed in Hamilton’s life in the past 15 years. He turned professional and spent seven years chasing his dream, mainly on the Canadian Tour. But he was unable to sustain any success – he never advanced past the second stage of PGA Tour Qualifying School – and he eventually retired in 2009. He had met his wife, Marele, and they wanted to start a family, which now includes 4-year-old son Graeme.
“Early on I had a lot of success on the Canadian Tour,” said Hamilton. “One summer I did the British Open qualifier in New Jersey and shot seven under and lost in a playoff against a lot of PGA Tour guys. It was always just that one shot. I thought I needed to make some swing changes. Looking back, had I stayed the course that could have been the ticket. It didn’t give me the results I was looking for.”
A Sacramento-area native, Hamilton enrolled at Sacramento State after high school graduation and won five times in two years. Seeking better competition, Hamilton transferred to the University of California-Berkeley in 1998 and qualified for two NCAA Championships. He graduated in 2000, but decided to spend an additional summer on the amateur circuit in 2001 to play in the country’s best events. He was runner-up to Luke Donald in the Northeast Amateur and qualified for match play in the Western Amateur.
The only time he qualified for the U.S. Amateur was that summer, and it wasn’t in California.
“I was traveling, so I qualified in Michigan,” he said. “Maybe that was a smart move.”
Despite being an U.S. Amateur rookie, Hamilton, who was a week away from turning 24, felt calm and confident the entire week. He beat Andrew Svoboda in the Round of 64 and current PGA Tour pro Daniel Summerhays in the quarterfinals. Against Dickerson, he built a 5-up lead after 14 holes of the morning round, only to see Dickerson rally to trim the deficit to 1-down by the lunch break. Hamilton held a 1-up lead with two to play, but got an unfortunate bounce on the par-4 35th hole when his ball kicked into the right rough, leading to a losing bogey.
At the par-3 36th hole, Dickerson’s tee shot stopped 15 feet from the hole, while Hamilton’s 3-iron caught the lip of a greenside bunker, leading to a double-bogey 5. Dickerson, with three putts to win the title, only required one.
“East Lake was amazing,” said Hamilton. “I had my family there and one of my best friends (Phil Cuthbertson) caddied for me. It was one of those weeks where everything was clicking.”
At the Masters the following April, Hamilton slept in the Crow’s Nest, attended the Amateur Dinner and witnessed the tee shots by the honorary starters, which at the time included Byron Nelson. But the highlight was being grouped with Arnold Palmer, who treated him like a king. During a practice round, Palmer came over and introduced himself to Hamilton’s grandparents, and he sent him several autographed photos. He
“You just do the whole thing,” said Hamilton of the week. “It’s funny, you’re a fan and spectator even though you’re playing in the event. That’s kind of hard, but a good problem to have.”
Seven years later, Hamilton decided to give up life as a professional golfer. He became a sales rep for a packaging company where his father was the vice president. The position, which he still maintains, requires regional travel but no overnight stays.
While Hamilton regained his amateur status in January 2012, he’s only been competing on a limited basis. This year his competitive schedule included three events, and two were USGA qualifiers.
Hamilton, who stands 6 feet, 2 inches, remains fit, a product of working out and eating properly. Occasionally his game reverts back to 2001-02, like when he shot a 60 at Del Paso Country Club in Sacramento. He still has the course record (63) at Winchester Country Club and he shot a 64 on the Plantation Course at Kapalua in Hawaii, the site of the PGA Tour’s annual Tournament of Champions.
“The hardest thing for me right now is managing expectations because I’ll still hit shots that are better than when I was playing as an [younger] amateur or a pro,” said Hamilton, who carded a 3-over 73 on the Old Course on Saturday. “Obviously, I don’t hit them as consistently.”
His big return to amateur golf, however, came last month at Fountaingrove Golf & Athletic Club in Santa Rosa, Calif., when he earned medalist honors at his U.S. Mid-Amateur qualifier by shooting a 70. Afterward, he was overcome with emotion.
“Yeah, it does mean a lot,” said Hamilton. “The biggest thing for me, and I know it sounds crazy, is I want to get back to the Masters. That’s as simplistic as it gets. I know I can win the Mid-Amateur [and get the likely invitation to Augusta] because I have stayed in shape and my golf swing is still there. I know how difficult it is to win [a USGA championship]. But I feel like I have the tools to win.”
With FS1 televising the last two days of the Mid-Amateur, who knows, Hamilton might have another reason to watch the video of a USGA championship.
Perhaps with a much happier ending.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.