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Nine Champions Who Have Shaped San Diego's Golf Legacy August 5, 2017 | Chula Vista, Calif. By Bill Fields

Mickey Wright won her record-fourth U.S. Women's Open title in 1964 at San Diego Country Club, where she was a member. (USGA Museum)

U.S. Women's Amateur Home

The weather – warm, dry and excellent for year-round golf – certainly is advantageous for golfers. Scott Simpson, 1987 U.S. Open champion and one of the talented golfers to have grown up in the San Diego, once joked about having to battle the elements: a rare winter day when the thermometer didn’t top 60 degrees.

Lacking any meteorological excuses, San Diegans have been, and continue to be, a big part of the game. The San Diego Junior Golf Association, a trailblazer for junior golf that was founded in 1952, has played a crucial role in growing the game for generations of golfers in their formative years.

The spotlight will shine on this Southern California city this week when the 117th U.S. Women’s Amateur returns to San Diego Country Club for the first time in 34 years.

A half-dozen locals – including 2017 U.S. Women’s Open qualifier Brooke Seay and University of Arizona standout Haley Moore, who is playing in her third consecutive Women’s Amateur – are among the 156 contestants competing at the club that was founded in 1897 and moved to its current location in Chula Vista, Calif., 24 years later. The club has hosted two USGA championships, the 1964 U.S. Women’s Open won by San Diego native Mickey Wright, and the 1993 U.S. Women’s Amateur, when Jill McGill, then an All-American at the University of Southern California, defeated Sarah LeBrun Ingram in the final.

San Diego, however, is no stranger to hosting elite golf competitions, having held a PGA Tour event (now called the Farmers Insurance Open) since the early 1950s. San Diego Country Club hosted the first two, in 1952 and ’53. Another popular PGA Tour stop also began nearby, as the Bing Crosby Pro-Am was held six times at Rancho Santa Fe Golf Club before relocating to Pebble Beach in 1947. Sam Snead won the Crosby three times at Rancho Santa Fe (1937, ’38, ’41) and was stationed in San Diego while in the Navy during World War II.

So with this in mind, here are nine notable San Diego golfers who enjoyed success in USGA championships:

Mickey Wright

Regarded as having one of the finest swings in golf history – a beautiful and powerful by-the-book action – Wright, 82, whose age now matches her number of LPGA Tour victories (second to Kathy Whitworth’s 88 career titles), came to national prominence by winning the 1952 U.S. Girls’ Junior.

Wright grew up playing at La Jolla Country Club and later San Diego Country Club, her game shaped by being around future PGA Tour stars and USGA champions Gene Littler and Billy Casper, each a bit older than her. The tutelage paid off, with Wright dominating women’s golf by averaging 10 wins a season from 1960 through 1964.

The apex of that period occurred in the 1964 U.S. Women’s Open at San Diego Country Club, where she defeated Ruth Jessen in an 18-hole playoff for her record-tying fourth Women’s Open victory, the 12th of her 13 major-championship triumphs, which is second only to Patty Berg’s 15. The hometown triumph was what Wright has called “the most special week of my entire life,” in part because it was the only time her father, Arthur, and mother, Kathryn, were each present for one of their daughter’s victories.

Photos and other memorabilia can be found throughout the clubhouse and the Mickey Wright Lounge is to your left when arriving at the main entrance.

San Diego native Billy Casper registered two U.S. Open victories (1959 and 1966) during his hall-of-fame career. (USGA Museum)

Billy Casper

Baseball and golf were the first athletic loves for Casper, who died at age 83 in 2015. But the San Diego native started caddieing at San Diego Country Club when he was 11 and became immersed in the game that would make him a Hall of Famer.

A two-time U.S. Open champion (1959, ’66) and 1983 U.S. Senior Open champion, Casper won 51 PGA Tour events in an era of stiff competition that included the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player. Casper, who also claimed the 1970 Masters and represented the U.S. in eight Ryder Cup Matches, won tour events over a two-decade span (1956-1975).

Possessing a strong overall game, Casper was best known for his putting skill developed as a young golfer, when he often practiced at dusk which forced him to rely on touch and feel.

Perhaps his most notable USGA achievement came in the 1966 U.S. Open at The Olympic Club when he erased a seven-stroke deficit to Arnold Palmer over the final nine holes to force an 18-hole playoff, which he won the next day. 

He remained a member at San Diego Country Club until his death in 2015. Casper's accomplishments are well displayed at San Diego C.C., and the Billy Casper Grill Room is on the right as you enter the clubhouse.

Gene Littler's only major championship came in the 1961 U.S. Open at Oakland Hills C.C., where the San Diego native won by a stroke. (USGA Museum)

Gene Littler

With one of the smoothest and repeatable swings in golf, Littler, 87, was nicknamed “Gene the Machine” by longtime San Diego sports columnist Jack Murphy. Growing up at La Jolla Country Club, where the rhythmic swing of his mother, Dorothy, was a fine model, and graduating from San Diego State, Littler quickly showed his potential by winning the 1953 U.S. Amateur. The next year, he won the San Diego Open while still an amateur.

One of Littler’s most notable professional accomplishments came in the 1961 U.S. Open at Oakland Hills Country Club, where he edged Bob Goalby and Doug Sanders by one stroke. The World Golf Hall of Fame member and 1973 USGA Bob Jones Award recipient won 29 PGA Tour events, but his biggest victory might have been overcoming cancer in the early 1970s and successfully returning to tournament competition.

After his prime, Littler played for many years on PGA Tour Champions, winning eight times.

Phil Rodgers

Tutored at La Jolla Country Club by the legendary Paul Runyan – who sometimes had his pupil play blindfolded to increase his touch – Rodgers, 79, came out of Southern California to star on a juggernaut University of Houston golf team in the late 1950s.

After serving in the Marine Corps, Rodgers joined the PGA Tour, where he won six titles during the 1960s. He came close to winning two majors, tying for third in the 1962 U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club – two strokes out of the Jack Nicklaus-Arnold Palmer playoff – and losing the 1963 Open Championship in a playoff to Bob Charles.

Given that he learned from Runyan, a wizard around the greens, Rodgers developed into a highly sought short-game instructor after his playing days. He was instrumental in helping eight-time USGA champion Nicklaus, an old friend, revamp his short game prior to winning two major championships at age 40 in 1980, including his fourth U.S. Open.

Craig Stadler

In 1973, the first year the USGA reverted the U.S. Amateur back to match play after an eight-year run of a 72-hole stroke-play format, San Diego-born Stadler raced to the championship at Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio. No on-site qualifying was held with all 200 competitors in the championship proper being placed in the match-play bracket.

Stadler, who was entering his junior season at the University of Southern California, won eight matches, including his 6-and-5 victory over David Strawn in the 36-hole final. In the semifinals, he defeated defending champion Marvin “Vinny” Giles, 3 and 1.

As a professional, Stadler, now 64, enjoyed a successful PGA Tour career, winning 13 times from 1980 to 2003. His last victory, at the B.C. Open, was the first time a player 50 or older had won on tour since Art Wall Jr. in 1975.

Nicknamed “The Walrus” because of his stocky stature and mustache, Stadler won the 1982 Masters in a playoff over Dan Pohl. He also counts two senior majors among nine PGA Tour Champions victories.

Stadler received a lot of notoriety for a Rules infraction during the third round of the 1987 Andy Williams Open at Torrey Pines. After a television viewer alerted officials the following day, Stadler was disqualified for building a stance. He had a placed a towel on the ground to keep his slacks from getting dirty while hitting a shot from his knees by a cypress tree on the 14th hole. Eight years later, when the tree was dying and had to be removed, Stadler helped cut it down. 

Scott Simpson, in 1987, joined fellow San Diegan Billy Casper by winning a U.S. Open at The Olympic Club in San Francisco. (USGA Museum) 

Scott Simpson

Introduced to the game by his father, Joe, a keen amateur who won the San Diego County match play championship 20 years apart and participated in the U.S. Senior Open and U.S. Senior Amateur multiple times, Simpson, now 61, started competing in San Diego Junior Golf Association when he was 10.

As a testament to the tough junior competition in the area – 1973 U.S. Junior Amateur champion Jack Renner was a contemporary – Simpson never won SDJGA Player of the Year honors, but was a two-time NCAA champion for USC and a member of the victorious 1977 USA Walker Cup Team. His amateur success set the stage for a fruitful professional career.

A seven-time PGA Tour winner, Simpson, the runner-up in the 1972 U.S. Junior Amateur, achieved his career highlight in the 1987 U.S. Open at The Olympic Club, where he birdied three of the last five holes in the final round to defeat 1982 U.S. Open champion Tom Watson by one stroke, joining Casper as San Diego natives to win the U.S. Open at Olympic

Four years later, Simpson lost an 18-hole playoff to Payne Stewart at Hazeltine National Golf Club.

In 19 U.S. Open starts, Simpson had four top-10 and eight top-15 finishes.  

San Diego native Phil Mickelson beat his former high school teammate Manny Zerman in the 1990 U.S. Amateur championship match. (USGA Museum)

Phil Mickelson

The most prolific winner to come out of San Diego since Wright and Casper, Mickelson, who turned 47 in June, was a star junior and amateur after being introduced to golf by his father, Phil Sr., a commercial airline pilot. Mickelson’s father built a short-game practice area in the family backyard, and the younger Phil became known for his wizardry with a wedge.

In 1990, Mickelson made history as the first left-handed golfer to win the U.S. Amateur, defeating his former University of San Diego High School teammate Manny Zerman in the championship match. A year later while a student at Arizona State, Mickelson won his first PGA Tour event, the Northern Telecom Open in Tucson, Ariz., becoming at the time only the sixth amateur – and second San Diegan (Littler) to win a PGA Tour event.

Mickelson turned pro in 1992, and his first professional victory came early the next season in his hometown at the Buick Invitational of California at Torrey Pines. The five-time major champion has 42 PGA Tour wins, ninth on the all-time list. Mickelson’s only missing link is a U.S. Open title, where he has a record-six runner-up finishes.

The jovial Tiffany Joh claimed a pair of U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links titles in 2006 and 2008. (USGA/Steven Gibbons)

Tiffany Joh

One of the livelier members of the LPGA Tour who is known for her humor and YouTube videos, Joh, 30, is still seeking her first tour victory. Born in Philadelphia, Joh’s family relocated to San Diego when she was a young girl. Joh gravited to golf at the age of 12, and eventually became an All-American at UCLA.

Before graduating from college in 2009, Joh was a two-time winner of the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links (2006, ’08) and a member of the victorious 2008 USA Curtis Cup Team, and the 2008 USA World Amateur Team. Her second WAPL triumph came at Erin Hills, site of this year’s U.S. Open.

Earlier this year, Joh was diagnosed with a melanoma on her scalp, but returned to the tour after being successfully treated.

Becky Lucidi McDaid

The 2002 U.S. Women’s Amateur champion at Sleepy Hollow Country Club in Scarborough, N.Y., McDaid, 36, has traded one coast for another.

The former Poway, Calif., resident lives on Long Island in New York, and has become a teaching pro at Friars Head Golf Club, where her husband, Adam, is the head golf professional.

A two-time All-America at USC, McDaid played professionally on the Futures and LPGA Tours in the 2000s, but was troubled by heart arrhymia, eventually having a pacemaker implanted in 2008.

Now a mother, when she isn’t giving lessons McDaid competes in the Metropolitan New York area.

Bill Fields is a Connecticut-based freelance writer whose work appears frequently on USGA websites.

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