Maybe it wasn’t meant to be. Maybe it would never be meant to be. Jeff Wilson was playing in his 34th USGA championship at this week’s U.S. Senior Amateur. During his decorated career, the 55-year-old car dealer from Fairfield, Calif., has been one of just two golfers ever to claim low-amateur honors in both the U.S. Open and the U.S. Senior Open. Six times in USGA events was the medalist in stroke-play qualifying, the first to do it at the U.S. Amateur, Mid-Amateur and Senior Amateur.
And yet standing on the 13th tee at Oregon’s Eugene Country Club on Thursday, 1 down in the 18-hole final against defending champion Sean Knapp after squandering an early 2-up lead, would you have blamed Wilson if doubt was setting in?
“Every time I’m listed, the only thing missing is a win,” Wilson noted after winning his semifinal match the previous day. “You know, I’ve enjoyed playing [USGA championships] and I've had some success, but bottom line is I don’t have one.”
Until now, that is.
With two birdies and a par over the next three holes, Wilson flipped the match around, winning each to retake a 2-up lead. It was an edge he would keep this time, halving the last two holes with a birdie and par to close out a 2-and-1 victory and grab the prize he’d wait for for so long.
“How is this his first win?” a USGA official overhead Knapp ask near the 17th green. “Anybody that’s played amateur golf at a high level has known Jeff Wilson. He’s a superstar. You did not see a senior golfer out there. You saw one of the best amateur golfers in the country.”
Knapp had claimed his own elusive first USGA win a year earlier at The Minikhada Club in Minneapolis (after 41 starts) and was hoping to become the first repeat winner of the Senior Amateur since William C. Campbell in 1978-’79. But Wilson wouldn’t make way, shooting the equivalent of four under par with the usual match-play concessions in the championship match to become the first medalist in 31 years to win the Senior Amateur title.
“I think Sean said it best, it’s really hard to win one of these things,” Wilson said. “First you’ve got to get over yourself and then you have to beat the guy playing with you. And it’s difficult.
“I always thought I was good enough to be a USGA champion, but I never put the work in. And that shows up when the matches are on the line. This year, I put the work in.”
It was Wilson’s first try at the Senior Amateur, open to players 55 and older. At 55 years, 2 months and 16 days, he’s the third-youngest to win the title in its 64 playings.
Wilson’s USGA career began at the U.S. Junior Amateur in the late 1970s. He qualified four times to play in the U.S. Open, including 2000 when he won low amateur honors at his all-time favorite course, Pebble Beach. He matched that feat this summer during the U.S. Senior Open at The Broadmoor,
Twice Wilson reached the semifinals of the U.S. Mid-Amateur (2001 and 2002), but that was the farthest he’d ever come in match play until beating Chip Lutz in the semifinals on Wednesday in Eugene.
Wilson’s length off the tee proved the difference in the finals against the 56-year-old Knapp, a Oakmont, Pa., native, who became the fifth champion to fall in the final the following year. Wilson nearly reached the par-5 13th in two to set up the birdie that squared the match. A three-putt bogey on the 14th from Knapp gave Wilson a 1-up lead with his par. Wilson then birdied the 15th to go 2 up.
When Knapp’s approach on the par-5 16th settled four feet from the hole, Wilson, using a putter from five yards off the green rolled his third shot to nine feet. It was a disappointingly leave, but Wilson didn’t let it bother him as he rolled in the birdie putt to maintain the 2-up advantage.
With one more par on the 17th hole to close out the match, Wilson had gotten his answer. It was meant to be after all.