Golf runs deep in the hearts of Michigan residents. Selecting a top moment in a state that has hosted 32 USGA championships, six PGA Championships, one Ryder Cup and an annual PGA Tour stop is almost like having to pick your favorite Wolverine or Spartan football player: There are many options to choose from.
Champions in the state include many of the game’s greats: Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and JoAnne Carner, to name a few. There have been dramatic finishes, playoffs and even a famous double-hit from the leader in a U.S. Open final round. But there is only one King.
As a professional, Arnold Palmer won twice in the state of Michigan – the 1961 Western Open at Blythefield Country Club in Belmont, when he edged Sam Snead by two strokes, and the 1981 U.S. Senior Open at Oakland Hills Country Club, when he defeated Billy Casper and Bob Stone in an 18-hole playoff.
But it was Palmer’s victory in the Great Lakes State as an amateur that is remembered best – one that put Palmer on the path to stardom while simultaneously ushering in golf’s modern era.
The son of a Latrobe, Pa., golf course superintendent, Palmer started the game at a young age, soon excelling in many local and regional amateur events. After a three-year stint in the Coast Guard, Palmer returned to competitive golf in the spring of 1954.
That August, the U.S. Amateur was played at the Country Club of Detroit. The par-70 course had been redesigned by Robert Trent Jones in 1951, adding more than 400 yards and several bunkers to the original design. The venerable layout, located in the northeast part of Michigan’s largest city, will also host the U.S. Senior Amateur on Aug. 29 to Sept. 3, 2020.
From 1947 to 1963, the U.S. Amateur was played entirely at match play. That meant the champion would play eight total matches – six contested at 18 holes, with the semifinals and finals at 36 holes. Additionally, for the first time in the championship’s history, all fairways and greens were roped off in 1954.
There were 1,278 entrants in 1954, and 200 qualifiers for the championship. Palmer qualified in Ohio, where he lived at the time, working as a paint salesman in Cleveland. Teenager Lew Echlin was assigned to carry Palmer’s bag in a practice round at the Country Club of Detroit, but when given the option to continue in that role during the championship, Echlin opted to work the scoreboard for $2.50 an hour.
With 16-year-old Jimmy Gill on his bag, Palmer plodded his way through the first four rounds in workmanlike fashion. In the fifth round, he faced Frank Stranahan, who had more than two dozen amateur victories to his credit, as well as four PGA Tour titles he won as an amateur. Stranahan had beaten Palmer in their two previous meetings, but on this day Palmer emerged with a 3-and-1 victory.
After dispatching 1953 Canadian Amateur champion Don Cherry, 1 up, in the quarterfinals, Palmer needed three extra holes to vanquish Edward Meister in the semis, setting up a showdown with Robert Sweeny, a 43-year-old investment banker, in the final.
Sweeny was the 1937 British Amateur champion who attended Oxford University and was rumored to have inspired Ian Fleming’s most famous character, James Bond. During World War II, Sweeny earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for helping organize the Eagle Squadron, a group of American pilots who flew for the Royal Air Force.
Sweeny got off to a hot start, sinking three consecutive birdie putts of 35, 18 and 20 feet on holes 2 through 4 to take an early 3-up lead. He maintained a 2-up advantage after the morning round, but Palmer chipped away at his deficit and took his first lead of the match on the 32nd hole. Palmer won the 33rd with a birdie before three-putting the 35th, remaining 1 up heading to the final hole. On the 36th, a poor drive by Sweeny dashed his chances, and Palmer sealed a 1-up win.
In the immediate aftermath of the biggest victory of his career, Palmer embraced his mother, Doris, who had tears streaming down her face. His father, Deacon, a loving but largely unsentimental man from the steel belt in Pennsylvania, told his son with characteristic understated affection, “You did pretty good, boy.”
The following week, Palmer met his future wife, Winifred Walzer, and the couple was married by the end of the year. He turned professional in November, less than three months after hoisting the Havemeyer Trophy.
Palmer would go on to win 95 professional tournaments, including seven major championships, but he always pointed to his victory in the 1954 U.S. Amateur at the Country Club of Detroit as the “turning point” of his celebrated career.
Mike Trostel is the executive producer of content for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.