U.S. SENIOR AMATEUR
Competition – and Camaraderie – Permeate This Championship
August 30, 2017 | Minneapolis, Minn.
By Dave Shedloski
As defending champion Dave Ryan shook hands with newcomer Ken Lee after Ryan’s 2-and-1 quarterfinal victory Wednesday morning in the 63rd U.S. Senior Amateur, each man assured the other that they would get together for dinner at next year’s championship at Eugene Country Club in Oregon.
The exchange was brief but genuine. A new friendship had been forged. That goes along with all the established friendships that get renewed. The story of this week’s competition at The Minikahda Club is friendly competition. It’s hard-fought and well-played competition, but an amiable atmosphere permeates the proceedings.
“You get to know some really great players along the way, and then you meet some new faces, guys who are also really good players. And there’s a mutual respect there,” said Ryan, 63, of Taylorsville, Ill., after his title defense was halted in the semifinals by Sean Knapp of Oakmont, Pa. “I’ve got an old college teammate from Pennsylvania that played in it – Roc Irey – and we hung out and went to dinner. Then I’ve become friends with those established players like Chip Lutz, Paul Simson, Pat Tallent, Vinny Giles. That’s been cool, too. This is about the only place we see each other.”
Frank Vana Jr., of Boxford, Mass., who fell in the semis to Simson, a two-time U.S. Senior Am champion, had been looking forward for some time to playing in the championship after his close friend Jack Kearney talked up the experience.
“There is a camaraderie amongst this group of guys, a group of guys that have been pretty successful at this level, and all you can do is just watch them and smile,” Vana said.
Playing in his sixth U.S. Senior Amateur and 21st USGA championship, Kearney lost in the first round of match play at The Minikahda Club. But he volunteered to caddie for Vana after his first-round setback. “It was almost more enjoyable than playing, so I stuck around,” Kearney said, sipping a beer on the veranda.
Kearney, 62, of Peachtree City, Ga., said the Senior Am is the last roundup for championship golf, so nearly everyone is apt to relax more. “As we seniors get older we realize this is just amateur golf at its best, but we’re all about the same age. We’re competitive, but I think we enjoy it more. And we bust on each other all the time. It’s a blast.”
Kearney wasn’t the only competitor who picked up a friend’s bag. Dave Brown, the stroke-play medalist, was knocked out in the Round of 32. Since then the Ligonier, Pa., golfer has caddied for Knapp, a longtime friend and his roommate at various events, including here.
But it’s not just familiar faces who make the championship friendly. There is genuine kinship, common bonds of golf and, yes, aging. They’ve seen it all on the course. They all know aches and pains and have had a taste of life’s hard knocks. Being here is a shared victory, an accomplishment born out of scoring, but made possible through the simple grace of decent health.
“It’s fun, but it’s tough when you’re playing friends and people you hang out with a lot,” said Chip Lutz, who won the 2015 U.S. Senior Amateur. “But I’m sure we’ll be friends after.”
And that is what happened when Simson eliminated Lutz, 6 and 4, in the Round of 16.
“It’s unfortunate, but if you play well with other former champions, eventually you’re gonna meet,” said Simson, 66, 2010 and 2012 champion. “Chip and I are buddies, but it’s all business when it comes to the competition. You’d cut the guy’s heart out to beat him, and you’ll shake his hand afterwards.”
Each match seems to end not with just a handshake, but extra pats on the back or shoulder, sometimes a hug. Business cards get exchanged among that rare unfamiliar pairing. Or mobile numbers. No sense in not being sociable. Golf is hard, but at this level and this stage of their life cycles, it is also a blessing. There is no time for hard feelings.
“I think there's a respect quotient due to the fact that we've played a lot together over the years,” Knapp said. “I do have to give a shout-out to both of the guys I played with, Dave Nocar and, obviously, Dave [Ryan] in the semifinals. You know, it's what you want in golf. There was no gamesmanship. There was no gimmicky stuff. It was all just let's just see who is the better man today. I can't tell you how respectful I am for those two guys today to have spent the entire day today.
“It was one of the more special days … I can't articulate that well enough. It was just really good. Really good. You had to see it to understand it. It was gentlemanly golf the way golf is supposed to be played.”
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer whose work frequently appears on USGA websites.