Skip to main content
Original Issue

Big amateur shoot-out at Generation Gap

Young Lanny Wadkins won the U.S. championship over a field that showed as little respect for its elders as it did for the record book. Meanwhile, the seniors at Waverley could always fall back on Spiro and Red

Youth came to ferocious grips with the Establishment again last week as the American Legion, the People's Army Jamboree, the Vortex I rock festival, Spiro Agnew, Ross Perot, Red Skelton, the National Guard and, of all things, the United States Golf Association assembled on assorted fronts in Portland, Ore. in a continuing effort to stay as far as possible on their own side of age 30.

While the rock patrons blew grass out on the Clackamas River and the legionnaires listened to Ross, Red and Spiro making jokes about doves and unwashed people, and the National Guard applied distant scrutiny to a "Victory to the Vietnamese People" parade, hardly anybody paid attention to the nation's finest amateur golfers.

Too bad, this annual sparse crowd at the country's biggest no-dollar tournament, because the Amateur championship, staged for the 70th time, is more deserving, more important and certainly more fun than the average weekly pro tour affair. Considering, too, that the tournament at the Waverley Country Club gave to America a 19-year-old champion and 20-year-old runner-up on the one hand, and the usual flock of silver-haired ancients running the event like a starched collar on the other, the Amateur was worth seeing if only because it seems to be the last sanctuary where young longhairs and old button-downs can stare at each other without opening up the grenades.

This Pacific-Northwest version of the Amateur was won by a blond, pocket-size Virginian named Lanny Wadkins, who wandered through the glistening pines and firs of Waverley in 67-73-69-70—279 (one under par) and came from behind on the last four holes to defeat Texas' Tom Kite by one shot.

Wadkins' victory did not come as a shock to his peers, who remembered his attaining Walker Cup eminence last year at a tender 18 and then watched him win the Western, Southern and Virginia State Amateur this summer. The Wake Forest junior had also thrown away the Porter Cup and the NCAA Championships with shaky final rounds that belied the sarcastic nickname Boy Wonder given to him by some of his Walker Cup teammates. These same peers claim Lanny is petulant, abrasive and has some maturing to do. (He was nearly ejected from the Virginia Amateur for blowing up over an official's ruling.) "Boy Wonder needs a personality transplant," says one amateur. "The only thing he knows is golf. Ask him about anything else and all he can say is, 'Ah changed mah grip and ah hit it flat supuh.' "

Wadkins fashioned his victory among a group of gentlemen whose collective occupations and life-styles are as diverse as may be found under one clubhouse roof in any sport, amateur or professional. For instance, in attendance at Waverley last week were an Army private, an automation engineer, a former state representative from Ohio, a candidate for the state senate in West Virginia, a dairy executive, the world open court tennis champion, the former owner of the Chicago Playboy Club, a professional hockey executive, an airline pilot on strike, the Israeli Open champion, a cheese company executive, a guy from Alabama named Elvis, and one named Bubba and—beat this, Bubba—a doctor of psychology who raises orchids, is a brown belt in judo and once won the Luxembourg International, whatever that may be.

If there were any way the USGA could keep its graying, venerable stars, its Charlie Goes, Bill Campbells and Ed Updegraffs on top and winning, it might try. But it can't, and so the older men and their still-sound games are fading under the sheer weight of numbers: 50% of the golfers in the field this year were 22 and under; 14% were teen-agers. "It used to be that we got two or three good youngsters in a five-year span," said 46-year-old Coe. "Now they're under every rock. They play more in four or five years than I played in 20. They don't even know that this game is supposed to be hard."

By the end of the tournament, the percentages had been borne out. Sixteen of the top 20 finishers were under 30. Thirteen of the 17 under-par rounds were scored by men 23 or younger. "This is nothing but a children's tournament," said Vinny Giles, a ripe 27. "If you don't wear bell-bottoms, you can't make the cut." In perhaps the most flagrant accommodation made to the young crowd all week, USGA President Phil Strubing, resplendent in rep tie and blazer, just gave up. He used the word "uptight" at least three times.

What gave Waverley's Amateur an extra dimension were the fruits that would come to its titlist and those who came close—namely, high consideration for the four-man World Amateur Team Championship in Madrid, and for the Walker Cup in St. Andrews next May. The glamorous trips and opportunities for international competition have kept some of the youngsters—those over 12—from turning pro this summer. Or even admitting their intentions.

Though Waverley was a departure from the classic Amateur courses of the past few years and, in fact, is the shortest course (6,496 yards) ever to host the event, scores were kept respectable by two of the finishing holes, the 206-yard 16th, which calls for a blind, downhill tee shot to a green on the rim of the Willamette River, and the 448-yard, par-4, dogleg 17th, which bends with the river and is normally a par-5. Steve Melnyk, the defending champion, called the 16th "the worst hole west of the Mississippi," while the 17th, though fairer, yielded only three birdies during the entire tournament.

Melnyk and Giles, the pretournament favorites, have had their troubles off the course this summer. The rotund, balding Melnyk was embarrassed by a personal diary containing unkind observations of some pros at the British Open that got printed in a Jacksonville newspaper. Giles had his amateur status taken away for two months after he admitted "thoughtlessly" accepting six dozen balls from a manufacturer. Reinstated July 20, he was thus able to try for a rare, if flawed, grand slam—four consecutive second places in the Amateur. It didn't work out. As it was, he never made his customary late charge and wound up in sixth place.

Melnyk did have a chance after plodding around in the morning rain and mud of the second round for a magnificent 68. If it had kept raining he might have lapped the field, but that afternoon the sun came out for a while, the fairways dried and the leaders pulled away.

By that time, the Amateur had suffered an assault on most of its medal play records—the low first-round score (Wadkins' 67), low 36-hole score (Kite's four-under 136), low cut (148) and a tie for the lowest 18-hole round ever, a second-day 65 by Texan Kurt Cox.

By late in the third day it seemed to be down to a one-man tournament. Kite stood at the 17th Friday with a six-stroke margin on the field. Moments later, in a sequence of events that was to turn the tournament completely around, Kite bogeyed 17, Wadkins lofted a wedge 60 yards into the cup on 18 for an eagle, and then Kite bogeyed 18 to reduce his lead to two shots.

Wadkins had defeated Kite in the semifinals of the Western Amateur, had beaten him by eight shots in the Southern and just a day before had told a friend, "Kite doesn't want to win. He might be scared of it. He'll have to lead by six shots to hold up."

And so it was. On a final day of nipping cold and buffeting winds that only a fur trapper could love, Wadkins caught Kite early, and the two were tied after 12 holes. The Texan got the lead back with a two-foot birdie putt at the 13th but lost it two holes later when he double-bogeyed. Play on the final three holes bordered on lunacy, as both collegians birdied 16, butchered 17 with twin double-bogeys, then birdied 18—Wadkins with a 20-footer that clinched it and gave the wonderful old Amateur a Boy Wonder champion.