Thoughts From Torrey Pines
Amateurs had their moments in the Southern California sun, but Johnny Goodman's place in golf history was never challenged
There might not be a more romantic idea in golf than that of an amateur winning the U.S. Open. It has only happened eight times, and four of those titles were seized by one of the game's iconic figures, Bobby Jones, from 1923-1930, the final one constituting a leg in Jones' historic Grand Slam. Perhaps only Jones' last U.S. Open triumph resonated as far and wide as Francis Ouimet's in 1913, when the 20-year-old former caddie defeated British titan professionals Harry Vardon and Ted Ray in a playoff at The Country Club in Massachusetts. Between Ouimet and Jones there was Jerry Travers in 1915 at Baltusrol and Chick Evans in 1916 at Minikahda Club in Minneapolis.
The fifth and final amateur to claim the championship was Johnny Goodman at North Shore CC in Glenview, Ill., in 1933. The clock is at 75 years and counting; the notion of an amateur Open champion not only is fanciful, it is as antique as anything in the game, right up there with shirts without logos and tournament golfers without yardage books.
Of the 11 amateurs in the field at last week's U.S. Open at Torrey Pines' South course in La Jolla, Calif., a couple of the fresh-faced collegians and those who had recently departed campus said they were in it to win it, but the words had the hollow ring of a politician trying to keep up appearances on a night when most of the precincts aren't going his way. There is no shame in setting one's sights high, but reality usually sets in early for amateurs at the Open, especially if they had bothered to study the recent results of their brethren.
In the last two decades only three amateurs (Billy Mayfair, T-25, 1988; Matt Kuchar, T-14, 1998; Spencer Levin, T-13, 2004) have finished in the top 25 at an Open. At Winged Foot in 2006 and Oakmont last year, not a single amateur survived the 36-hole cut. The drought made Kuchar's run at the Olympic Club—which followed a stirring challenge at the '98 Masters—seem as if it was tucked away deep in a time capsule. Kuchar competed at Torrey Pines, but the memory of his week in the sun in San Francisco, with his father, Peter, as his caddie, is still fresh.
"We have some photos back at my mom and dad's house that are some of my favorites," said Kuchar, not looking much older than he did a decade ago. "In one of the pictures, I'm playing a shot to the 18th hole, and there are thousands of fans on the hillside. I had a pretty magical ride there. That final Sunday was my 20th birthday. With it being Father's Day and having my dad on the bag, it was like a fairy-tale story for me."
Just a few years before Kuchar's captivating performance, a player with glossier credentials didn't fare so well in his two U.S. Open appearances as an amateur. Tiger Woods withdrew during the 1995 championship at Shinnecock Hills after spraining his wrist hitting a shot out of deep rough, and he was T-82 the next year at Oakland Hills. It is the only place, in fact, where Woods comes up short to Jack Nicklaus at a comparable juncture in their competitive chronologies. In an intersection of stars past, present and future at Cherry Hills in 1960 (Arnold Palmer won and Ben Hogan was T-9), Nicklaus finished second while paired with Hogan for the double-round final day.
"I played 36 holes today with a kid who should have won this thing by 10 strokes," Hogan said of Nicklaus, who played similarly strong during a T-4 at Oakland Hills in the 1961 Open before winning his first U.S. Open as a rookie professional in 1962.
"I think it could happen, but they'd have to play pretty darn good," said 23-year-old Michael Thompson, who won low-amateur honors last week with a T-29 finish at eight-over 292, nine strokes out of the Woods-Rocco Mediate playoff. "If anybody was going to do it as an amateur, it would've been Tiger. Maybe some day it will happen, but I don't know about in my lifetime."
The last amateur to win the U.S. Open, to do what even Woods could not, was not on anybody's short list of favorites heading into the 1933 championship despite his runner-up finish in the 1932 U.S. Amateur and T-14 in the 1932 U.S. Open. It was a miracle Goodman even became interested in golf, much less good enough to contend on the national stage. He was the eighth of 12 children from a poor Lithuanian family in Omaha, and many of his relatives scraped out a living in the grim environment of the city's slaughterhouses. Goodman's mother, Rose, died when he was 14, and his father, William, soon left the family, orphaning the large brood.