Published May/June 2001FEATURES Chasing the Dream At midlife, some amateurs still have the game to keep big-time fantasies alive By Jeff Williams
The gathering begins each spring, an instinctive flocking of middle-aged golfers who hang on to the dreams of their youth. They gather at some of the nation's best golf clubs -- Seminole, Country Club of Charleston, Garden City Golf Club, Merion -- to renew old acquaintances, to rekindle old rivalries. Typically, they are businessmen. Typically, they are family men. Typically, they carry the handicap of a single man. These are the Mid-Ams, a disparate group of accomplished individuals united by a single attribute -- they can beat the living daylights out of virtually any amateur players their age in the world.
You might recognize some of the names -- David Eger, John Harris, Buddy Marucci, Tom McKnight -- and then wonder why you did. This group of men is largely anonymous outside of the elite competitive golf community. But then you start to think. Didn't David Eger, at age 48, make it to the semifinals of the U.S. Amateur last summer? Didn't John Harris, at age 41, win the 1993 Amateur? Didn't Buddy Marucci take Tiger Woods to the limit in the 1995 Amateur?
Didn't Tom McKnight, at 44, lose in the final of the 1998 Amateur? Haven't you seen a bite of these guys on television, read a blurb about them in the golf magazines?
The spotlight seldom focuses on the Mid-Ams, and to a large extent that's just the way they want it. Though every one of them would trade his own fine game for that of Woods, they wouldn't be eager to jump into the autograph frenzy and media morass in which Woods must conduct both his professional and personal life. Playing to win the best amateur tournaments at the best clubs is satisfaction enough. Being part of an elite group of players is a kick. Being able to play on Walker Cup or World Amateur teams is a thrill. And the Mid-Ams have something going for them that is unique in sports, a sort of side door entry for a middle-aged athlete into one of the world's most prestigious sporting events, the Masters golf tournament.
That door is opened to the winner of the United States Golf Association's Mid-Amateur Championship, held each fall for players more than 25 years of age (read: "out of college, didn't make it as a pro"). The Masters, as founded by that paragon of amateur golf Bobby Jones at his Augusta National Golf Club, gives exemptions to the U.S. Amateur champion (and runner-up), the U.S. Public Links champion and the U.S. Mid-Amateur champion.
In some cases these high-flying Mid-Ams were once professionals who early on realized that they didn't have quite enough game to compete in a sport that requires razor sharpness. Just a little dulling of the blade and you can't cut it. Then they sit out of pro golf for several years and get their amateur status back while also developing a business or acquiring a job that allows them to keep playing regularly. These repentant pros, along with some former collegiate stars and some self-taught wonders, hit the Mid-Am circuit sometime in their late 20s or early 30s. They start by beating up on the players at their clubs, expand into regional competitions, and gain reputations that get them invited into prestigious events like the Travis Invitational at Garden City Golf, the Coleman Invitational at Seminole, or the Crump Cup at Pine Valley. They qualify for U.S. Amateur and Mid-Amateur championships and over time they become members of a loosely organized but greatly admired group that plays for the sheer enjoyment of competition.
The tournaments they play in are sometimes referred to as the "cocktail circuit." Fierce though the competition may be, these longtime competitors still share war stories in the clubhouse afterward. "The matches are pretty intense, but that doesn't mean we don't build up friendships over time," says Eger. "I would say that the 19th hole is special after a day's round, but it's not like it's a big party. We socialize, then we go out and try to beat somebody again the next day. Everybody knows everybody. It's a tight little fraternity. There are probably a dozen or so players who play like I do on a national level. We're trying to beat each other but if we can't win, we pull for each other."
"The competition is tough but the evenings are great," says Marucci. "We share our experiences and a lot of our lives with each other. I don't think it's an exclusive club. If somebody has the talent and time to devote to playing at a high level, they can get in. I guess it helps to be a good guy, too, but we all respect people who can really play the game."
These players are so good that they carry plus handicaps at their home clubs, meaning that they break par regularly. They are so good that they win multiple club championships. They are so good that some of them don't play in their club championships because the members just don't provide enough competition.
The Mid-Ams play at such a high level while balancing work, family and the game. The pull of business or family is often overwhelming, and it takes an understanding spouse for a Mid-Am family man to continue to pursue a golfing passion. "All these guys understand what it takes to play at this level," says John Harris, a Minnesota insurance man whose 1993 Amateur victory got him into the 1994 Masters. "I have an extremely understanding wife and family who are supportive, and without that I couldn't be doing this. That's a common bond that [the players] have. Everybody respects the sacrifices that have to be made."
So here-in follows a selection of Mid-Ams from coast to coast, players you may not know; or do you? But this much is sure: you'll be envious of their swings, envious of their accomplishments, and envious of their invitations, i.e. "The Garden City Golf Club would like to invite you to play in the Walter Travis Memorial Golf Tournament…"
John Harris, insurance executive
Home club: Hazeltine National, Minnesota
John Harris had every intention of becoming a professional hockey player when he graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1974. That year the school won the NCAA championship with John and younger brother Robbie as linemates. He also played a mean game of golf, good enough to win the 1974 Minnesota State Amateur.
A brief stint with the New England Whalers' minor league team told Harris that hockey wasn't for him. Golf, once a competitive sideline, then became a professional pursuit. He played minitours in Florida in 1977 and 1978 and played the Asian Tour in 1978. But by the early '80s Harris realized that golf at a professional level wasn't going to get him where he wanted to go, either. So by 1983 he got his amateur status back, went into business, started raising a family, and put golf on the back burner.
"Then I made the mistake of playing a couple of [amateur] tournaments," says Harris. "I got caught up in the competitive nature of the game again. I had missed that feeling. You know, in hockey I probably wasn't aggressive enough. In [professional] golf I was probably too aggressive. It seems like amateur golf was probably made for me."
And what a career he has built. He won the 1993 U.S. Amateur (beating PGA Tour star Justin Leonard on the way), which got him into the 1994 Masters. He played on three Walker Cup teams (the American squads that compete biennially against teams from Great Britain and Ireland). He's qualified for two U.S. Opens. He gets invited to all the special amateur tournaments like the Coleman and the Crump.
David Eger, golf consultant
Home club: TPC at Sawgrass, Florida
You probably recognize Eger's name both for his accomplishments in golf and the positions he's held within the game. Eger is another reinstated amateur, but instead of starting a business after he left professional competition, he went to work for the game. From 1982 to 1991 he officiated for the PGA Tour. From 1992 to 1995 he was the senior director of rules and competitions for the United States Golf Association. After briefly returning to the PGA Tour, Eger has rigorously pursued an amateur career.
Though he won the 1988 Mid-Amateur, it wasn't until he qualified to play in the 1998 U.S. Open that he started to work harder at his game. "I was playing a few events, but that kind of jump-started me," says Eger.
Eger has one of the most perfectly simple, perfectly powerful swings in the game. When his putter is working, he's very difficult to beat. He's won three of the last four Travis Memorials at Garden City Golf Club. He's won the Coleman twice, the Azalea at Country Club of Charleston twice, the North and South Amateur at Pinehurst No. 2 twice. At age 48 he made it to the semifinals of the U.S. Amateur last summer.
Now, he's thinking about following the path of the man who set the standard for Mid-Ams, Jay Sigel. Sigel was a U.S. Amateur and Mid-Amateur champion who turned pro at age 50 and won on the Senior PGA Tour. Eger will be 50 in early 2002. "I'll have to see how I'm playing going into the last quarter of 2001," says Eger. "It's something I'll be considering. Jay showed us the way, but it's not that easy. You really have to be playing well to get through the qualifying school."
Tim Jackson, automobile leasing executive
Home club: Colonial Country Club, Tennessee
Tim Jackson is one of those players who just make you crazy. Here's a guy who seldom plays any casual golf, either with family, friends or customers, because it just doesn't interest him. He likes to play only when he competes. And man, does he compete.
Jackson won the 1994 U.S. Mid-Amateur, which got him into the 1995 Masters. He's reached the quarterfinals in two U.S. Amateurs, has made two Walker Cup teams, has won such prestigious events as the 1998 North and South, and has been runner-up at the Azalea and the Porter Cup at Niagara Falls Country Club. He's also won the Memphis City Championship seven times.
Jerry Courville Jr., another elite Mid-Am, was sharing a motel room with Jackson at a tournament. Channel surfing on the television, Courville came upon a professional wrestling show in which one of the combatants had the nickname Total Package. He applied that to Jackson, who is now known as TP to his competitors. "He's just got every aspect of the game and he's very consistent," says Courville.
TP is an ultimate competitor. "I compete at golf, I really don't play golf," says Jackson. "I'll play with my dad once in a while. I was competitive at baseball early, then I got into golf late. I immediately fell into it and was basically self-taught. I like the competitive aspect, one individual against another. But I just like being around the guys, too. It's a tight little fraternity."
Ken Bakst, real estate developer
Home club: Sunningdale, New York
When Ken Bakst won the 1997 U.S. Mid-Amateur, he felt like every PGA Tour professional who had won a tournament: "My gosh, I'm going to the Masters." And in April 1998, Bakst did just that. He may have ended up missing the cut at Augusta, but he didn't miss the opportunity to smell the roses.
For Bakst, winning the Mid-Am and playing in the Masters was the culmination of an amateur career that, as with most Mid-Am players, was a tug of war between family, job and clock-hungry game. Family and job have recently claimed victory, keeping Bakst from playing in his usual complement of local tournaments. "I've reached a stage where golf has to take a back seat."
But his job has drawn him closer to the game in another way. He is the managing partner of a private club development on the East End of Long Island in New York, known as Friar's Head. The course, designed by Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore, is being built not far from legendary Shinnecock Hills Golf Club. Some of the holes will play through extraordinary coastal dune land that begins and ends at a stretch of bluffs overlooking Long Island Sound.
"It's funny, but I wasn't pursuing a career as an amateur golfer to augment my business career," says Bakst. "But it has worked out that way now that I'm into golf course development. I'm enjoying the game in a different way. I think we are creating a really special club and there is a lot of fulfillment in that, too."
Jerry Courville Jr., company coordinator, Pitney Bowes
Home club: Shorehaven Golf Club, Connecticut
Jerry Courville Jr. was born to the game, not with a silver spoon in his mouth, but with that golden ability that comes about genetically. His talent and his inspiration came from his late father, Jerry Sr., a dominant amateur player in the New York metropolitan area for years. The son has followed in his father's footsteps, and has won the Metropolitan Golf Association's player of the year award, which is named after the senior Courville.
Courville has been a head-to-head competitor with Ken Bakst (as well as other top area Mid-Ams like Ed Gibstein) in all the best tournaments around New York. Courville won the Mid-Amateur in 1995 and made the trip to the Masters in 1996. He is also a two-time Walker Cup player and made the quarterfinals of the U.S. Amateur last summer.
Courville took a down-to-earth attitude at the Masters. "I went in knowing that the deck was stacked against a working amateur," he says. "There wasn't any way I was going to compete against the pros. You would have to make a whole bunch of trips down there to practice, which I couldn't afford to do. So I just wanted to play my best and enjoy everything about it, which is what most of the amateurs do, anyway." The best thing was that his father got to see him play at Augusta just before he died.
George (Buddy) Marucci Jr., automobile executive
Home club: Pine Valley, New Jersey (among several)
Buddy Marucci violates the 14-club rule. At least that's what his competitors jokingly say. No, it's not about the rule that limits a player to 14 clubs in his bag during a competitive round. It's about the number of golf clubs to which Marucci, who hails from Delaware, belongs. He doesn't give a number but says it doesn't top 14 clubs; nevertheless, he sure does belong to some of the best, such as Merion, Pine Valley and Seminole.
The highlight of Marucci's career was reaching the final of the 1995 U.S. Amateur at the Newport Country Club in Rhode Island, where he lost to Tiger Woods 2-up. "He hit the ball so much farther than I did that we didn't see much of each other until we got to the greens," says Marucci, who played in the 1996 Masters where he missed the cut. Marucci is also a two-time Walker Cup player, a four-time Pennsylvania Amateur champion and a regular on the cocktail circuit, winning the Coleman in 1997 and finishing second four times at the Crump.
"I'm fortunate I have the means to be able to play as much as I do," says Marucci. "I'm looking at a very full schedule for this year and I always try to plan for the U.S. Amateur and the Mid-Amateur, the Coleman and the Crump. I go through the exercise of trying to qualify for the U.S. Open every year and I hope to make it one day."
When he's not on the golf fast track, Marucci enjoys fast cars. He's the co-owner of three luxury automobile dealerships in Delaware and Pennsylvania that sell Mercedes and Porsches. Though he has won multiple club championships at Seminole and Pine Valley, he regrets that he can't play in all his club championships, especially Merion's. And sometimes he can't even play with his friends. "One of the problems with playing all these tournaments is that you don't play at your own club enough," says Marucci. Which club do you mean, Buddy?
Danny Green, individual investor
Home club: The Tennessean, Tennessee
Danny Green basically just plays golf now. Maybe 30 tournaments a year. A former All-American tennis player at Tennessee-Martin University, he gave up the racquets and took up a new racket -- golf. He has a self-styled swing that may strike many as peculiar, but he sure strikes the ball well. So well that he won the 1999 Mid-Amateur Championship for a second trip to the Masters in 2000, having first gone in 1990 after he finished runner-up in the 1989 Amateur.
He didn't continue with tennis because it just didn't give him the kick he was looking for. "I started playing golf a little bit when I was in college and you got to wager a little bit on it, you know," says Green. "Tennis is not much of a sporting thing, if you know what I mean."
Green developed his game around a swing that's so flat he might be scything hay. His custom clubs are about five degrees flat, meaning that he's hunkered down quite a bit. "I didn't realize that I swung like I did until I saw myself on TV one time," says Green. "I thought I stood up over the ball and swung at it just like other people do."
Most people, most amateurs anyway, don't get anywhere near the results out of their swings that Green gets out of his. He plays so many tournaments that he doesn't regularly play at a club. You're likely to find him out west at the Western Amateur, which he won in 1997, or as far south as Venezuela, where he teamed with David Eger in 1999 to win the Simon Bolivar Cup. He also lost to eventual champion Sergio Garcia in the third round of the U.S. Amateur in 1998. And you might even find him in a pro event. He made the cut in the 1998 Motorola Western Open.
Randy Haag, Internet entreprenuer
Home club: Olympic Club, California
Randy Haag beat Tiger Woods once. It was in the ballot box, not on the golf course. In 1993, Woods won the U.S. Junior Amateur Championship, but Haag won the Northern California Amateur and reached the quarterfinals of the Mid-Amateur. Sportswriters voted him California player of the year over Woods.
Haag took special satisfaction last fall when he won the Crump Cup at Pine Valley. He doesn't think that West Coast amateur golf gets the respect it deserves. "Being on the West Coast, the frustrating thing is that it seems like you have to play in the East Coast tournaments to get considered for the Walker Cup," says Haag. "There certainly is a concentration of great tournaments on the East Coast. They all have wonderful reputations, and I'm glad that I've won one. Maybe it will catch the USGA's attention."
His home course, the Olympic Club in San Francisco, has hosted the U.S. Open several times. Haag has won the club championship four times, once at match play and three times at stroke play. He holds the tournament course record for a member from the championship tees at 67.
Haag is now looking to win one of the big tournaments, specifically the Mid-Amateur, which not only would get him into the Masters but probably earn him a spot on the Walker Cup team and earn some respect for West Coast players, the Rodney Dangerfields of the Mid-Ams.
Sean Knapp, financial sales, Fuhrer's Inc.
Home clubs: Longue Vue Club, St. Jude Golf Club, Pennsylvania
Sean Knapp had one special day at the 1995 U.S. Amateur. In the morning round he beat heralded Stanford University player Notah Begay, then in the afternoon he lost to Begay's more heralded roommate, Tiger Woods. Knapp likes to point out that just after losing to Woods, he predicted that Tiger would become a great player.
Knapp was a multisport star in the Pittsburgh area and played basketball at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. As good as he was, he wasn't that good. Not pro good. "I realized that sports wasn't going to be my life's work," he says. "I decided to diversify into golf from hoops after college. I'm a very competitive person. Golf was an attempt to fill that void. I live in the Oakmont area [near U.S. Open site Oakmont Country Club], and it has a high number of competitive golfers. That sort of inspired me to work on my game so that I could beat them."
While he's still waiting for that big national tournament victory, Knapp's been a terror around Pittsburgh. He's won the Pittsburgh Open, a $100,000 tournament that includes all the area's best professionals, three times. He's been the Pennsylvania State Amateur champion, capturing that title in 1997, and the 1996 and 1997 winner of the Pennsylvania Mid-Amateur. And he's won a bunch of club championships at Longue Vue (eight) and St. Jude (11). "I dream of taking a run at a national championship," says Knapp. "To be quite candid, it's pretty special to be able to play alongside a lot of these great players."
Ernest (Trip) Kuehne, hedge fund analyst
Home club: Sports Club at Las Colinas, Texas
Trip Kuehne did something that few golfers do. He was an All-American at Oklahoma State University in 1994, 1995 and 1996, then did not try to become a PGA Tour player. "It takes a special person with a special mentality to be successful at professional golf," says Kuehne. "I wasn't interested in all the traveling and I was interested in starting a family. I like to play golf for the fun of it."
Kuehne is a young Mid-Am, at age 28. He is another of those players who have lost to Tiger Woods, in the final of the 1994 U.S. Amateur. His brother Hank won the 1998 U.S. Amateur and has turned pro, but has been unable to get his PGA Tour card. Trip caddied for his brother during the Amateur victory and at the Masters. His sister Kelli won the 1995 and 1996 U.S. Women's Amateur and is now an LPGA player.
Golf in the Kuehne family is contagious, but the professional bug never infected Trip. It was wonderful to play in the 1995 Masters, by benefit of his Amateur runner-up finish, he says, and it was wonderful to play in the 1996 U.S. Open by virtue of sectional qualifying. But Kuehne still finds wonder in the pure competitive aspect of the game, and especially now that he can compete in the Mid-Am events. "The competition is intense, but the camaraderie is tremendous," says Kuehne. "I like to start at the Coleman in April and end with the Mid-Amateur in October. They kind of bookend my season. After the Mid-Am I just hang up the clubs for a few months."
Then he starts playing well all over again. Doesn't that make you envious?
Tom McKnight, real estate broker
Home club: Belfair Club, South Carolina
After he graduated from the University of Virginia in 1976, Tom McKnight turned professional and tried to get his PGA Tour card. He failed eight times at the qualifying school. Then he broke his arm.
That may have been the biggest break of his life. After doctors told him that he might never reproduce the swing he had, he decided to give up the professional game and settle in on a business. He went on to own a petroleum distributorship and a chain of convenience stores. He accumulated the wherewithal to play a lot of golf, and reestablished his competitive instincts.
In 1998 he lost in the U.S. Amateur final, earning a trip to the 1999 Masters. He could have played at Augusta National on an invitation from a member, but he chose not to. He didn't want to play Augusta unless he could play in the Masters, which he did at the age of 44. "The Masters week was one of the best weeks of my life," says McKnight. "I wasn't going to go to Augusta unless I could play in the tournament. All the players, all the members made me feel at home."
There is a certain comfort level, an at-home atmosphere, about playing Mid-Am golf. The cocktail circuit is a transient fraternity house where the members gather to be with each other as much as they do to beat each other. And if they aren't rewarded by large endorsement contracts and front-page headlines, they have the satisfaction of knowing they are the best of their age.
Jeff Williams, who is a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado, writes on golf for Newsday.