The celebration hadn’t quite subsided for 2015 U.S. Senior Amateur champion Chip Lutz when a letter from one of the game’s icons arrived at his Reading, Pa., home.
Days earlier, Lutz had received a text message from Jim Bryan, a Latrobe, Pa., dentist who is one of Arnold Palmer’s frequent golf companions at Latrobe Country Club and one of Palmer’s closest confidants. Bryan, whom Lutz had befriended when the two represented Pennsylvania in the 2001 USGA Men’s State Team Championship, needed Lutz’s address because, “AP wants to drop you a note.”
Lutz knew exactly who “AP” was. Through Bryan, he had played a few rounds with The King at Latrobe C.C., where Palmer grew up. Lutz’s father, J. Elmer “Buddy” Lutz, had competed against Palmer in many Pennsylvania events, including the Sunnehanna Invitational (precursor to the current Sunnehanna Amateur) when Lutz reached the 1948 semifinals. Palmer claimed the title at 18, while Buddy Lutz, who was taught by Byron Nelson when Nelson represented Reading Country Club in the 1930s, won the event in 1947 and 1949.
Now Palmer wanted to congratulate Lutz on adding another Keystone State native to the fraternity of USGA champions, a list that includes such luminaries as Palmer, Jay Sigel, Nathan Smith and Carol Semple Thompson.
Lutz defeated Tom Brandes, 5 and 3, in the championship match of the U.S. Senior Amateur at Hidden Creek Golf Club in Egg Harbor Township, N.J.
“It was really cool,” said Lutz of the typed letter. “[Palmer] even referenced how neat it was to have my [89-year-old] mom there.”
Indeed, Janet Lutz had made the two-hour trip to Hidden Creek with Lutz’s younger brother, Putter. All three Lutz boys are named John, and Buddy gave them the golf-centric nicknames of Chip, Wedge (the oldest) and Putter. Chip’s sister, Courtney, was spared.
Janet Lutz had never seen Chip play in a competitive event, only club events at Reading. Courtney also had never watched Chip compete, so on the eve of the championship match, arrangements were made to get everyone to Hidden Creek. Unfortunately, Buddy had died 10 years earlier.
Lutz had been a three-time U.S. Senior Amateur semifinalist, and he wanted everyone to share in what could be a crowning achievement.
“It increased my focus,” said Lutz, a title insurance executive who turns 61 in January. “I didn’t want to disappoint in the only instance she would have seen me play.”
Going into the U.S. Senior Amateur, Lutz realized his window was rapidly closing to win this elusive title. He was now 60 and in his final year of a two-year exemption for being a semifinalist in 2013. Qualifying for any USGA championship is challenging, even for elite golfers.
Given the championship’s proximity to Reading, Lutz went about his preparations early. Hidden Creek owners Roger and Edwina Hansen invited him down a month early for some early practice rounds. Mike Killian, a former University of Florida teammate and the retired director of golf at Galloway National, offered Lutz the use of the practice facilities there.
The U.S. Senior Amateur was the last significant senior title left for Lutz, who in 2011 and 2012 had won consecutive Canadian Senior Amateur and Seniors Amateur Championships, conducted by The R&A, all at stroke play. His two UK titles had earned him exemptions into the Senior Open Championship, also conducted by The R&A, where he was the silver medalist for being low amateur twice in his four appearances from 2012-15.
But the U.S. Senior Amateur had treated Lutz as if he were a modern-day Sisyphus. He was a semifinalist in 2010 at Lake Nona in Orlando, Fla., his first year of eligibility, and again in 2011 at Kinloch Golf Club in suburban Richmond, Va. As the stroke-play medalist in 2013 at Wade Hampton Golf Club in Cashiers, N.C., Lutz lost a tough semifinal match to eventual champion Doug Hanzel. In 2014 at Big Canyon Country Club in Newport Beach, Calif., eventual champion Pat Tallent registered seven birdies over the first 11 holes and held on for a 1-up victory in the Round of 64 when Lutz missed a short birdie putt on 18 that would have forced extra holes.
Privately, Lutz wondered if he was cursed. Several close calls had produced only heartache and self-doubt.
Some wondered if Lutz was not cut out for match play, but he laughed at that theory. After all, he had advanced to three semifinals and had won several other regional and state titles in that format.
Months before the 2015 U.S. Senior Amateur, Tallent approached Lutz and told him his time would come. If there was anyone to gather inspiration from it was Tallent, who lost in the 2010 final to Paul Simson, only to win the title four years later.
But when Lutz qualified for match play and looked at his potential draw, an uneasy feeling washed over him. His opening-round opponent was Golf Association of Philadelphia rival Kenneth Phillips, of nearby Lancaster. A 6-and-4 win set up a Round-of-32 match with 2012 runner-up Curtis Skinner. In the quarterfinals, 2011 U.S. Mid-Amateur champion and 2014 semifinalist Randal Lewis stood in his way.
After a 4-and-2 win, Lutz faced two-time U.S. Mid-Amateur champion Tim Jackson in the semifinals, the round that had been his kryptonite on three previous occasions.
“It was like the glass ceiling,” said Lutz. “You can see the other side, but it’s hard to get through it.”
Lutz owned a 3-up through 12 holes, but sometimes the toughest thing to accomplish in sport is to close out an opponent. Jackson rallied and was only 1 down on the 17th hole when Lutz thinned an approach shot that somehow stopped at the back of the green. Lutz managed to two-putt for a half and then nervously watched Jackson miss a 12-foot birdie attempt on 18 that would have forced extra holes. The moment had finally arrived.
“It was really the hardest win I had mentally,” said Lutz. “I played physically well the entire [championship], but it was the mental piece of that match [against Jackson] that was the hardest part.”
The previous five years of heartache bubbled up and exploded the next morning. Lutz never let Brandes have a chance and the once elusive title was now his. Lutz joined Simson as the only players to have won the U.S., Canadian and British titles.
And the celebration hasn’t stopped. In late October, LedgeRock Golf Club, in Monhton, Pa., threw a huge party, as did The Fish Pond. Hidden Creek and LedgeRock awarded Lutz honorary memberships.
Lutz also became the answer to a trivia question. He was the last player to win a USGA championship using an anchored stroke, which the governing bodies banned on Jan. 1, 2016. Lutz started using a long putter when he turned 55 simply because he felt more comfortable with it. He’s not sure what he will do going forward. He hinted about returning to the short putter and using a modified grip.
“I feel as though I can go back to a traditional putter,” said Lutz. “One option is I may just un-anchor the [long] putter. I haven’t sorted it out yet.”
One problem he won’t have is filling his 2016 schedule. He is exempt into the U.S. Senior Amateur for 10 years, and he also has exemptions into the U.S. Senior Open, U.S. Mid-Amateur, U.S. Amateur and sectional qualifying for the U.S. Open. The U.S. Mid-Amateur is scheduled for Stonewall Links in Elverson, Pa., a 30-minute drive from home.
“Maybe I can be the first 60-year-old to win it,” said Lutz with a smile.
Lutz also will tee it up for the first time in a U.S. Senior Open, which will be held at historic Scioto Country Club in Columbus, Ohio, the boyhood club of Jack Nicklaus. Lutz, who has visited Scioto but has yet to play the venerable Donald Ross layout, will be in the traditional grouping with the reigning U.S. Senior Open (Jeff Maggert) and Senior Open (Marco Dawson) champions.
Competing in four Senior Open Championships at Turnberry (2012), Royal Birkdale (2013), Royal Porthcawl (2014) and Sunningdale (2015) in front of large galleries has prepared Lutz for what he will encounter in August at Scioto. And casual rounds with Palmer have made Lutz comfortable around high-profile players.
“It will be great,” said Lutz. “I’m sure it will be a terrific venue. I am looking forward to playing there.”
After clearing his ultimate hurdle in October, anything else will probably seem like a breeze.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.