CASHIERS, N.C. – Most people know Steve Melnyk from his docile voice that permeated the airwaves on CBS, ESPN and ABC golf telecasts for a quarter-century.
Melnyk, a Brunswick, Ga., native who now resides in Jacksonville, Fla., at one time or the other had one of the best seats for all four major championships, most notably the Masters during his 10-year stint with CBS. He was in a tower behind the 12th green calling the action at Amen Corner when Jack Nicklaus made his brilliant second-nine run to the title in 1986 and a year later called Larry Mize’s improbable 140-foot chip-in birdie on the 11th hole that beat Greg Norman in a sudden-death playoff.
What people do forget about Melnyk, now 66, is his remarkable amateur career. A two-time All-American at the University of Florida in the late 1960s, Melnyk won the 1969 U.S. Amateur at Oakmont Country Club by five strokes over Vinny Giles and two years later, he defeated Jim Simons, 3 and 2, to win the British Amateur at Carnoustie. He also was a two-time USA Walker Cup member, teaming with Giles in foursomes play in 1969 at Milwaukee Country Club and 1971 at St. Andrews, where the USA suffered a rare defeat.
But this week, Melnyk made his first appearance in a USGA amateur competition since turning pro after his British Amateur win. Reinstated in 2009, Melnyk held off playing the Senior Amateur due to several knee and hip operations.
It was Wade Hampton Golf Club, however, that brought Melnyk to the hills of western North Carolina. When the club first opened in 1987, Melnyk was a founding member.
“I thought it was the perfect time to come back and see a lot of old friends,” said Melnyk, who opened stroke-play qualifying on Saturday with an 84 in a steady downpour. His second round began at 5:30 p.m., meaning his qualifying wouldn’t conclude until Monday.
“I played a couple of practice rounds with Vinny and [past Walker Cup member and two-time captain] Buddy Marucci, who I have known for years. It’s fun. I wish I was more competitive.”
Despite a stellar amateur career, which also included winning the 1969 Western Amateur and leading Florida to a NCAA championship in 1968, Melnyk failed to win as a professional. He had four second-place finishes and his best showing in a major came at the 1972 Masters (T-12). But when he broke his elbow at the 1982 Phoenix Open, Melnyk literally got a big break. CBS needed an on-course reporter and Melnyk naturally fell into the role.
“I always was comfortable on my feet,” he said. “I thought I could put words into pictures in a way that would complement the broadcast.”
The elbow injury ended Melnyk’s PGA Tour career, but launched another.
With his sweet southern accent that came across as smooth as molasses, Melnyk would spent the next 25-plus years describing the game, always knowing when to let the pictures tell the story.
Although couldn’t suppress a scream when Mize made his miraculous shot, more so as a fan watching than a broadcaster.
“Words do not do justice to the greatness of that shot,” Melnyk later said.
“The easiest assignment I had every year was at The Masters,” he added. “I covered 11 and 12. I didn’t have to say anything. You listen to the sound, you don’t listen to me.”
Melnyk left television in 2007 mainly due to the travel. If he could stay at home and still broadcast events, he would have done it. For a few years after leaving ABC/ESPN, he did some amateur competitions for Golf Channel, working with Dottie Pepper on U.S. Women’s Amateur telecasts. To him, that was fun because he always “fancied himself as an amateur golfer.”
He first applied for amateur reinstatement with the USGA in 1990, but was denied. His last professional event was the U.S. Senior Open in 1997, the year he turned 50. As a past U.S. Amateur champion, he was given one free pass without qualifying.
It was David Fay and former USGA President Fred Ridley who urged him to apply again for amateur reinstatement, which he finally received in 2009. It wasn’t necessarily to play the amateur circuit again, but rather to just “have status.” By now, Melnyk was far past his prime and his two boys, Dalton and Butler, were booming it by him. Dalton, like his dad a Florida graduate, has qualified for the U.S. Amateur Public Links and U.S. Mid-Amateur. Butler, who attended Georgia, works in sports management for the Wasserman Group, but occasionally will play in a competitive event.
“I go to tees way in advance of their tees,” said Steve, with a smile. “I told them, wait until you’re 66 years old.”
Nevertheless, Melnyk still remains connected to the amateur game. In 1997, he donated money to his alma mater to improve its practice facilities, which now bear his name. He is a past president of Gator Boosters, the fund-raising arm of the school’s athletic department.
He also is involved with the Walker Cup Society, a group of alums who gather every two years for camaraderie, golf and good cheer. This year, Melnyk was at National Golf Links of America for the competition and played a round at Shinnecock Hills with Giles, University of Florida golf coach Buddy Alexander and ex-Gator Steve Scott, the former two having won the U.S. Amateur in 1972 and 1986, respectively, while Scott was runner-up to Tiger Woods in 1996.
“It was the best Walker Cup ever,” said Melnyk of the 2013 Match. “The venue, the setting, everything about it lent itself to the most special Walker Cup. The Opening Ceremonies just took your breath away. [George] Bush’s comments were incredible. He hung around and played with [the USA Team]. He played golf with us on Friday. It could not have been better.”
Melnyk certainly would like his golf game to be as good as it was 45 years ago when he was one of the amateur game’s elite. His investment banking work with Warren Stephens’ Arkansas-based firm have also kept Melnyk busy, but it’s his hip that’s prevented him from playing a lot of competitive golf.
Exempt into the Senior Amateur until age 70 – all past U.S. Amateur winners are exempt in the first 15 years of their eligibility – Melnyk would love to play the championship next year at Big Canyon in Newport Beach, Calif. His wife, Debby, wants him to play.
“That competitive window is shrinking,” said Melnyk using his thumb and index finger to show that small gap. “If all I have to worry about is a bad hip, I am OK. I am not complaining.”
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.