November 14 marks 25 years since Jay Sigel’s 5-foot putt on the 16th hole of The Vintage Club in Indian Wells, Calif., vaulted him into history. The putt sealed Sigel’s win in the 1985 U.S. Mid-Amateur. With it, Sigel had captured four USGA championships in four years. Not even Jack Nicklaus ever reached such a pinnacle.
Today, Sigel doesn’t spend time thinking about his achievement. In fact, he wasn’t aware of it.
“Is that right?” Sigel said. “I didn’t know about it until you mentioned it. That was a good period for me and I had success, but I’ve always been one not to look too far back. It’s fabulous, but I was one who didn’t really pat myself on the back for what I did yesterday. It was what are you going to do today and tomorrow.”
In those days, Sigel didn’t fit the prototype of the successful amateur. College, which produced so many long-hitting young champions, was far behind him. Sigel was married, the father of three daughters, and a successful businessman who played mostly on weekends. But in the early 1980s, Sigel, nearing 40, dominated American amateur golf.
While his four victories in four years received few salutes at the time, in the 116-year history of USGA championships it has happened only five times.
Sigel won the U.S. Amateur in 1982 and ’83 and the U.S. Mid-Amateur in 1983 and 1985 (he also won the 1987 Mid-Amateur). Only Bob Jones, Tiger Woods, Carolyn Cudone and Carol Semple Thompson join Sigel in this elite group and Woods’ and Thompson’s feats came in the next decade.
Jones won at least one USGA championship in eight straight years beginning in 1923, capped by U.S. Amateur and U.S. Open victories in his Grand Slam year of 1930. Cudone won five straight USGA Senior Women’s Amateur titles and Thompson won four. Woods won six consecutive championships, beginning in 1991 with three straight U.S. Junior Amateur titles, then three straight U.S. Amateur championships.
Like so much that is considered minutiae, this detail is relegated to the archives, but Sigel’s achievement bears remembering if for no other reason than the prevailing dominance of college players in the U.S. Amateur. College-age players had won the championship for 10 straight years before Sigel won at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., in 1982.
Golf World editor Dick Taylor referred to the youngsters as “the modern-day limber-backed, pole-ax driving, I-can-sink-a-putt-from-anywhere, college-financed future professionals.” In 1982 they were expected to win again.
Sigel was an endangered species. At 38, his age was seemingly against him. In 1982, in fact, the average age of U.S. Amateur players was only 22; 150 of the 282 had played college golf during the year, most of them on golf scholarships. In Golf World, however, Taylor referred to Sigel as “destiny’s child.”
The Country Club is a flagship of American golf. The formidable club was celebrating its 100th anniversary in high style with polo matches, classic-car shows and Gay Nineties parties. The Amateur was its highlight and this was the 13th time the club had hosted the championship. Huge crowds spilled out of the parking lots and onto the course. By week’s end, thousands were on hand for the semifinal matches, some 5,000 watching Cape Cod favorite Jim Hallet’s losing encounter against Virginian David Tolley.
Sigel, who had tried to win the Amateur 16 times previously, faced Rick Fehr of Seattle and Brigham Young University in the semifinals. Accustomed to arising at 5:30 each morning for match play, Sigel faced a 2 p.m. start time and even considered, briefly, playing a morning round with the press. Wisely, he changed his mind.
Fehr was on a hot streak. He had mostly dominated his opponents and hadn’t been taken as far as the 15th hole since the first round. But Fehr’s silky putting stroke failed him in the semifinals, and the match was level by the 16th.
The 17th, Sigel believes, was the key to the match.
“We both hit really good drives and he hit it to about eight feet,” said Sigel. “I hit into a bunker, then bladed it out to within 30 feet. There must have been six undulations on that putt. It looked impossible, but something came over me and I thought, ‘You can make this putt. If there are six undulations, it’s probably straight.’ Somehow I made the putt and, fortunately, he missed. I won it on the 18th. Rick was a real gentleman. He was then and he has always been. We’ve talked about (that match) many times since.”
In the final, Sigel faced Tolley. This was Sigel’s day. Five holes up after shooting 2-under-par golf to Tolley’s 43 on the front nine, he cruised to an 8-and-7 victory.
In the media room Sigel’s emotions, held in check all week, overflowed. “I said to my wife Betty, ‘Do you know what this means?’ ” There was a long pause. “Maybe tomorrow I’ll know.”
The following year at North Shore C.C. in suburban Chicago, Sigel won his second straight U.S. Amateur and joined an elite group of successful defenders that included Jones, Walter Travis, H. Chandler Egan, Jerome Travers, Lawson Little, H.J. Whigham and Harvie Ward.
With so many college men still in the amateur ranks, Sigel stood nearly alone in his age group. Jim Moriarty wrote in Golf World that Sigel proved “competitive golf at its highest level does not end when you grow up and go to work… Golf doesn’t have to be your life. It can remain just a part of it. A game, if you will.”
Sigel proved Moriarty’s words. This championship established him as a great player, according to wordsmiths and players alike.
“Billy Tuten may be ranked as the No. 1 amateur in the country, but he’s not,” said Roy Biancalana, who lost to Sigel in the quarters. “Sigel is the best week in and week out and he has been for years.”
“I shared a room with a longtime friend, Dick Horne, that week,” said Sigel. “I was pretty much run down from making all of the appearances as U.S. Amateur champion. I was exhausted and not really chipper. Dick kept on me and on me. He kept pumping me up. He did well in the championship, and then he lost. And I went on to win.”
Spectators were wowed by Sigel’s molasses backswing and equally syrupy putting. Chris Perry, Sigel’s final-match opponent, wasn’t wowed exactly, but he was nevertheless blown away in the scheduled 36-hole bout, 8 and 7, the exact winning margin Sigel had enjoyed in the 1982 final.
“Jay was in control the whole day,” Perry said.
Sigel pressured his opponents with his quiet, gentlemanly demeanor, Moriarty wrote. “He’s been there so many times before. He looks so calm. It’s hard for the college kids to realize he’s jumping up and down inside, just like they are.”
Sigel’s two 8-and-7 final match margins in the U.S. Amateur weren’t just victories, they were statements.
Moriarty believed Sigel’s edge over players of lesser experience was deceptive. “Poor old guy,” he wrote. “He just struggles through one Amateur after another, each one possibly his last. Each time explaining how it’s getting tougher and tougher to scrape those size 13 shoes around the golf course.”
In the autumn of that year, Sigel won a championship that seemed designed specifically for him; the U.S. Mid-Amateur, for amateurs age 25 or older. College-age players were ineligible for the championship that had been founded two years earlier.
Just 32 days after winning the U.S. Amateur title, Sigel won the Mid-Amateur at Cherry Hills C.C. outside of Denver. He first had to clear a bracket heavy with weighty names; Jim Holtgrieve, the 1981 champion and a Walker Cup teammate; Bob Lewis, another Walker Cup teammate; Larry Stubblefield, the co-medalist and a former professional; and Alton Duhon, the 1982 USGA Senior Amateur champion.
Sigel got past them all, ending Lewis’ hopes in the quarterfinals – just barely – by rolling in a 35-foot birdie putt on the 24th hole. In the semifinals, he defeated Craig Scheibert, 4 and 3.
The final was against future Walker Cup player Randy Sonnier. The two players halved the first 10 holes and the golf was admittedly sloppy. “We didn’t play very well for the first 10 holes – and that may be an understatement,” Sigel said.
All was forgotten on the 577-yard, par-5 11th when Sigel smashed a 300-yard drive to the crest of a hill, and then stung a 2-iron. Aided by the hard turf, the ball bounded to within 4 feet of the hole. With Sonnier slashing away in the woods, Sigel’s eagle putt was conceded.
The match was all square at the 14th and Sigel’s ball was 20 feet from the hole. He wanted to win so badly, he said, that walking up the fairway “I could really feel the heat.”
Sigel made the putt to go 1 up, and halved his way home for the win.
“I knew if there was a way to win it, Jay would find it,” said Sonnier of his conqueror.
Sigel had been focused since the beginning of the week. In stroke-play qualifying, he was penalized for violating a rule he didn’t know. Huge leaves had fallen into some of the bunkers. When Sigel played a bunker shot, his club grazed the leaf on his backswing.
“An official was very nice about it, but I did not know the rule,” said Sigel. “That got my attention very early in the week because it’s pretty hard just to qualify, you know.”
With the victory Sigel became the first player since Jones to possess two USGA national titles in the same calendar year. Jones held both the U.S. Open and U.S. Amateur crowns in 1930, the year of his Grand Slam. The Mid-Amateur trophy, in fact, was one of Jones’ silver trophies and was presented by the Atlanta Athletic Club to the USGA to use for this championship.
After three wins in 1982-83, the year 1984 was something of a dry season when Sigel failed to win a national championship. In 1985, he returned to form. The U.S. Mid-Amateur was played at The Vintage Club in Indian Wells, Calif. Since the championship had begun in 1981, no one under 30 had won. No one under 30 had even reached the final. Jim Holtgrieve was 33 when he won in ’81. Bill Hoffer was 33 when he won in ‘82, and Mike Podolak had captured the 1984 championship at the age of 30. Sigel had been 39 when he won in 1983.
Now he was 41. Clearly, it was Sigel’s week. He stayed with Dave Palm at Palm’s condominium in nearby LaQuinta. On Tuesday of the championship week, Palm received a telephone call, informing him that his company had brought in an oil gusher.
The day the oil began to flow, Sigel was four holes down with five to play in his match against Seth Knight of Atlanta. Sigel played the next six holes, including the 19th, in six under par and saved the day.
“Seth never bogeyed a hole coming in,” said Sigel. “The poor guy never should have lost the match.”
Sigel advanced to the final against O. Gordon Brewer, a fellow Philadelphian, who was 48. Against Brewer, Sigel was again destiny’s child but it was, he said, the most difficult match he ever played.
“The final was as uncomfortable as I’ve ever felt, because Gordon Brewer was a friend,” he said. “I think, basically, I might have been the favorite, but it was difficult because I was thinking how wonderful it would be if Gordon won, for Philadelphia and for his club, Pine Valley. I don’t think there’s a finer person than Gordon and I have more respect for him than probably anyone in golf.”
But it was Sigel’s week. On the ninth, he pushed his drive 45 yards into the rough. He hit his next shot up the driving range. Then, from about 180 yards, he hit his third shot to within 10 feet of the hole and dropped the putt for a birdie. Brewer, meanwhile, played three solid shots up the middle, made an orthodox par five, and lost the hole.
Sigel won the match, 3 and 2.
Other great players have had record runs. Some have been greeted with ticker-tape parades down Broadway. Jones and Ben Hogan come to mind. But in a day when it takes at least a Super Bowl victory to inspire such celebrations, Sigel had only the quiet satisfaction of knowing what he had done.
He would represent the USA on nine straight Walker Cup teams from 1977-93. In 1994, at the age of 50, Sigel turned professional and joined the Champions Tour. He was Rookie of the Year. For a change, this great champion who didn’t begin collecting national amateur titles until he was 38 was, at least on the senior tour, at last, “the kid.”
Today Sigel and his wife Betty live in Berwyn, Pa., and South Florida. Surgeries, two on his knees and three on his shoulder, have infringed on his professional career. Each year, he plays in a few events but perhaps not the full schedule he would like.
On this, the 25th anniversary of four national championships in four years, perhaps it is time for Sigel to look back, to remember those days of glory when the grass was so green and the air so light, those days when Jay Sigel of Philadelphia was the finest amateur in the world.
Rhonda Glenn is a USGA Manager of Communications. E-mail her with questions or comments at email@example.com.