It's About The Game: Bill Campbell And Amateur Golf

By Bill Campbell
July 15, 2011

Bill Campbell is one of the finest career amateurs in the game's history. (USGA Museum)

For our series, “It’s About the Game,” we asked Bill Campbell, one of the world’s foremost amateurs, to write about amateur golf. Bill, a past USGA president, the 1964 U.S. Amateur champion, 1979 and 1980 USGA Senior Amateur champion, and eight-time member of the USA Walker Cup Team, gave this speech at the centennial U.S. Amateur players’ dinner in 1995. After all, Bill says, over the years his true and steadfast perception of amateur golf has not changed. We join him in celebrating those values. 

The amateur golfer plays the game because he loves it. But the amateur spirit is not limited to amateurs – as everyone knows who saw Arnold Palmer finish his last Opens at Oakmont and St. Andrews. Or, consider any of the pros among the past champions here. How about Harvie Ward for starters? It’s a state of mind and heart, and it’s free to all believers.

Yet the Code of Amateur Status and Conduct is a pillar of the USGA and R&A – along with The Rules of Golf and the conduct of national championships. The code avoids confusion between amateurs and professionals, protecting both. Thanks to its firm but fair administration, everyone knows where he stands, whereas lines in some other sports are blurred if they exist at all.

A simpler test was given at the contestants’ dinner at the 1951 U.S. Amateur, where Honorary General Chairman Eugene Grace said simply, “In your heart you know whether or not you are an amateur.” By that standard, a lot of red tape could be saved in Golf House. But there must be a procedure, and it works, for the record shows that, despite the lure of professional golf in its various forms, the grass isn’t always greener across the fence; some 400 reinstatements to amateur status are processed each year. Well might you amateur champions consider why so many professionals become disenchanted.

I am a relic of a time when amateur golf was a goal in itself, to be pursued and savored all of one’s life, rather than as a step to something else. And I still believe it.

John Behrend, of Hoylake, has written a delightful book chronicling the British Amateur, entitled simply, The Amateur. And such a book is being compiled about the U.S. Amateur by someone else. Wonderful stories are told about great competitions that have meant more to participants than others can imagine. This is why so many past champions of all our amateur events came here for this weekend’s reunion, for they have something indefinably important to share, and always will. This has been a great time, and we thank the organizers.

Frank Hannigan used to say that “Campbell is a better qualifier than a player.” My USGA batting average wasn’t so hot, but I got to bat often. Growing up when there was no junior golf, the only way I could compete was with the big boys – which I did from age 15 in the U.S. Amateur, 57 years ago.

I’ve always felt it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive; it’s nice to win, but it is great to try. And how fortunate we are to play a game where we can try, and try again, and keep on trying, and where age need not count at the first tee as we all respond to the challenge to play our best and be our best selves. What a treat, to tee it up in a national championship.

Many of you contestants seem to play in one tournament after another – to build up Walker Cup points, or whatever. It may suit some, but not everyone can afford the time and money to compete so often; and/or you may not like so concentric a life. I would like to think that you don’t have to play every tournament, or even play weekday golf, to be a Walker Cupper – so long as you play well when it counts most, as in the U.S. Amateur and/or the Mid-Amateur or Public Links championships, which can be done by the weekend golfer who has the desire and discipline and a tolerant family. Let’s not forget how few tournaments Bob Jones played in, pointing for the big ones. It worked for him! There’s a larger point here: In Britain, seven years ago, I was asked who would be the next dominant U.S. professional? I replied, “There won’t be one, for the best will self-destruct from over-scheduling and commercialization.” That wasn’t far off – and the point seems to apply to the foreign stars too, wherever there is the rat race for fame and fortune.

The amateur ideal is still friendly competition of like-minded people, with courtesy to each other in mutual support of the game’s true spirit as embodied in its ancient and honorable traditions – most importantly in the self-respect and good will of all who play the game because they love it. Golf has thrived on honor and sportsmanship – two reasons why it has generally not attracted the bad guys. Let’s keep it that way.

One hears that the amateur game doesn’t count any more, now that tours get all the attention. Don’t believe it. I’m not concerned about the P.R., but about the game itself, which belongs to the players. In that sense there’s more interest than ever in amateur golf, which is alive and well! If you doubt that, ask the fellows who will play at Royal Porthcawl for the Walker Cup two-and-a-half weeks hence – or those who would like to be there.

Finally, 100 years is a long time – or is it? To celebrate the Centennial of the U.S. Amateur is meet and proper, since this is where it all began. You’ve heard that the first U.S. Open on the next day was an afterthought, so some things have changed. But the important things are timeless. I am talking about golf’s longer perspective than 100 years. The R&A dates from 1754, the Honorable Company of Edinburgh Golfers (Muirfield) 1744, and Royal Burgess 1735. So these two clubs have held their 250th birthdays. And Royal Blackheath claims 1608, though others question it. Whichever, organized amateur golf has been around for a very long time. Let’s hope that it continues for even a longer time to come. To that end, Royal Lytham and St. Anne’s recently leased their golfing grounds for 999 years, and Royal Portrush leased theirs for ten-thousand years. Now that’s the idea!  

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