The 1962 U.S. Amateur Championship was notable for two
occurrences: it was the first USGA championship conducted on Pinehurst Resort
& Country Club’s Course No. 2, and it signaled the coming dominance of
college-age players over the career amateurs who had ruled the championship for
most of its first six decades.
This passing of the baton was further demonstrated on the
eve of the 62nd Amateur, when Charles “Chick” Evans addressed the competitors
at the players’ dinner. Not only had Evans won two U.S. Amateurs and a U.S.
Open, he was competing that week in his 50th and final U.S. Amateur. A
three-time runner-up who had earned a record 57 match-play victories in the
championship, the 72-year-old told the audience at Pinehurst, “I have always
thought that golf is like a sleigh which has two equal runners – professionals
and amateurs, and if one is destroyed, the sleigh cannot run… But with the
possible fantastic earnings of a golf professional today, it is difficult to
see how an individual could remain an amateur if he had unusual ability.”
Labron Harris Jr., 20, of Enid, Okla., had never seen
Pinehurst No. 2, which was set up at 7,051 yards, the longest course in USGA
championship history to that date. Though it was hosting its first USGA event,
it was the longtime site of the prestigious North & South Amateur for men
and women, and it had hosted a professional event, the North & South Open,
for five decades.
“That was a different time for amateur golf,” Harris
recalled in a phone interview. “Most of the Eastern players played in the North
& South, while players from my area played in the Trans-Miss; an event in
Memphis; one in Fort Smith, Ark. … It wasn’t until about 10 years later that
players began to travel around the country to play on the amateur circuit.”
Chick Evans was dispatched in the first round that year, 8
and 7, by Dick Siderowf, who would go on to win a British Amateur and play on
four USA Walker Cup Teams, though he would lose in Round 2 at Pinehurst. Other
standout career amateurs such as two-time U.S. Amateur winner Charles Coe,
William Hyndman, William Campbell and Robert Gardner – along with Dudley Wysong,
runner-up in the previous year’s Amateur to Jack Nicklaus – were ousted early.
The late Frank Hannigan of the USGA, who covered the championship for the USGA Journal, overheard one person
describe it as “the slaughter of the ancients.”
The lone player over age 30 to reach the quarterfinals was
Billy Joe Patton, 40, of Morganton, N.C., another celebrated amateur who was in
the midst of his run of five Walker Cup Team appearances for the USA, and who
had also won three North & South Amateurs. Patton would go on to captain
two Walker Cup Teams and earn the USGA’s Bob Jones Award in 1982, but he would
never win the U.S. Amateur, and he would never come closer than in 1962 at
Pinehurst, where he fell, 3 and 1, to Harris in the semifinals.
One of the noteworthy matches of the championship was
between two players who would go on to PGA Tour success. Deane Beman, 24, had
already won a British Amateur and a U.S. Amateur and would become best known as
the Tour’s longtime commissioner after earning four Tour victories. Beman was
ousted in 24 holes by Homero Blancas, then a college star at the University of
Houston who would also go on to capture four Tour events in a long career.
Like Patton, Blancas was eliminated by Harris, who played for
his father, Labron Harris Sr., at Oklahoma State. Harris Sr. had founded the
OSU golf program and coached 27 All-America players in nearly three decades as
the Cowboys’ coach, including his son.
Harris Jr. was a strong student as well, having just
graduated with a 3.5 GPA. He would go on to earn a master’s degree in
statistics, and his game featured similar precision. According to Hannigan,
“Harris is a long but not overpowering hitter, is very accurate with all his
iron shots, and is exceptionally deft around the greens.”
“Pinehurst was a different type of golf course than I had
ever played,” Harris recalled. “When you missed the green, it would just roll
off onto the grass. I had very good feel in my hands, so I would putt from
everywhere. I would putt out of bunkers.”
Having defeated Patton in the semifinals, Harris faced A. Downing
Gray, 24, an insurance salesman from Warrington, Fla., in the championship
match. Gray had ousted Charles Coody (who would go on to win the 1971 Masters),
3 and 2, in the semifinal round.
“That was an incredible week,” said Harris, who entered the
final having won four of his six matches by identical 2-and-1 scores. He prevailed
in 21 holes over two-time reigning U.S. Amateur Public Links champion R.H.
Sikes in the fifth round. “If I didn’t have my best game, my opponent was off a
little bit, too. If my opponent played well, I managed to have a good round.
That’s the beauty of match play.”
In the 36-hole championship match, Gray leaped to a 5-up
lead by the end of the morning 18 holes.
Harris spoke to his father, who was playing in a tournament
in West Texas, during the lunch break.
“I told him, Dad, I’m 5 down,” Harris recalled. “He said, ‘You
have it in you to come back from that.’ And I said, I know I have it in me, but
can I get it out of me?”
He did, reeling off five straight winning holes to square
the match before the turn, and going ahead on the 28th hole, the par-5 10th,
when Gray’s ball ended up against a clump of lovegrass and he couldn’t advance
it. Harris sealed a 1-up victory by making a testing 4-footer for par on the
“Winning the U.S. Amateur changed my life,” said Harris. “I
had been a good player, but I had never thought of going on and making a
livelihood out of golf.”
Hannigan neatly characterized the first USGA championship at
Pinehurst: “In all, Harris played 174 holes and was credited with scores
totaling 19 over par. If these statistics seem ordinary, it should be noted
that the definition of par is rigidly defended by the No. 2 Course.”
Again, the dichotomy between the professional and the career
amateur was played out by the 1962 Amateur finalists.
Harris went on to the PGA Tour, notching one victory, defeating
Bert Yancey in a playoff at the 1971 Robbins Classic. After his playing career,
Harris worked for the Tour in Bethesda, Md., and in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.,
and later for a sports management group. For five years, he was the executive
director of the Kemper Open, and he also directed the 1983 Ryder Cup Matches in
Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.
Harris, 72, lives in Bethesda and spends much of his time as
a professional stamp collector. He is proud of the fact that he played in eight
USGA-affiliated championships in his career: the Junior Amateur, the APL, the
Amateur, the Walker Cup, the Americas Cup, the World Amateur Team, the U.S.
Open and the U.S. Senior Open. “I hit golf balls every day,” Harris said. “I’m
a ball beater. I still dream of hitting it better.”
Gray would compete in 19 U.S. Amateurs and play on three
Walker Cup Teams (1963, 1965, 1967), and he captained the 1995 and 1997 USA
Teams. He played in seven Masters and was twice the low amateur. He served as the
director of the Southern Golf Association, and The First Tee facility in
Pensacola, Fla., bears his name.
Ron Driscoll is the
USGA’s manager of editorial services. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.