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A not-so-perfect match

Amid mounting criticism of the match-play format by most players, 23-year-old Fred Ridley beat Keith Fergus to win the U.S. Amateur

It was so hot in Virginia's James River valley on the first day of the 75th National Amateur that the officials of the U.S. Golf Association concluded, after due consideration, that amateur golf would not be placed in jeopardy if they took off their blue coats. They did not remove their striped ties, however, or roll up the sleeves of their starched white shirts, despite the suffocating humidity, because someone has to maintain standards.

That was Tuesday. On Sunday the heat had relented a little, the blue coats were back in place and by late afternoon, of the 200 original participants, only Fred Ridley, a law student from Florida's Stetson University, remained. Ridley, 23, defeated Keith Fergus, 21, 2 up, to prove he is the best—or the luckiest—amateur golfer in the country, depending on how one feels about match play.

The last time the Amateur was played on the James River Course of the Country Club of Virginia in Richmond was in 1955 when Harvie Ward won, beating Bill Hyndman 9 and 8. This time Ward was a gray-haired spectator, Hyndman, at 59, was competing for the 20th time and the heavy favorite—sentimental, local and otherwise—was Vinny Giles, the 32-year-old Richmond attorney and former champion, who is exactly what the USGA has in mind when it thinks "amateur."

Marvin Giles III won his Amateur title at stroke play in 1972, edging Ben Crenshaw and Mark Hayes, but his freckled face was already an amateur landmark. He had been runner-up in 1967 to Bob Dickson, in 1968 to Bruce Fleisher and in 1969 to Steve Melnyk. He has been on four Walker Cup teams and in June of this year he won the British Amateur, even though he had played very seldom all spring. If Giles could pull it off again on his home course, he would be the fifth golfer to win both titles in the same year. (Bob Dickson did it in 1967, Lawson Little in 1934 and '35, Bobby Jones in 1930 and Englishman Harold Hilton in 1911.)

But by the quarterfinals, not only was Vinny Giles gone, the victim of an aching back, a serious case of ennui and the good play of a 23-year-old from Pittsburgh, Stan Price, but so was everybody else anybody had ever heard of. The Old Guard, the Walker Cup team, the NCAA champion and the winners of the Eastern Amateur, the North and South and the Porter Cup had all been eliminated. Even Wake Forest, that golfing bastion, was unrepresented past the fifth round. Only the closest followers of collegiate golf would have known that Andy Bean, the 22-year-old giant from the University of Florida, had won the Western Amateur earlier in the summer and has bitten the covers off two golf balls.

Match play was the villain. The Richmond golf fan who could not get out to the west end of town until the weekend could be forgiven for feeling a little cheated. In losing his second-round match to Price, Giles shot a 72, approximately, which at stroke play would have left him in contention instead of back at his desk in the offices of his newly formed management firm, Pros Inc.

"I don't like it," Giles said the morning after his defeat. "I've said it winning and losing. I love match-play golf, but I don't like it to determine a national championship. Whichever format they use, the winner is going to be a good player, maybe not a great player, but good at least that week. But anybody who wins two big match-play championships in one year has to be lucky as the devil. Anything can happen in match play."

To the USGA, golf is match play. The game was founded on match play. A. F. MacFie and Horace Hutchinson settled the first British Amateur in 1885 between them, by holes, not strokes. Stroke play, in the view of the USGA, is a 19th-century British aberration designed to end a competition as fast as possible. When the USGA was founded in late 1894, the Amateur became the national championship and the Open was tacked on, according to a USGA official, "to give the pros something to do. It was held at stroke play because it wasn't very important, and nobody wanted to hang around Newport too long."

As the professional game surpassed the amateur, stroke play came to be regarded as the fairest way to determine golfing skill. But the USGA stuck to its guns, mostly. In 1965, wanting television coverage for its Amateur championship, and perhaps feeling somewhat old-fogeyish, the USGA changed to stroke play. In 1973 it switched back.

"The reason they gave," says Giles, "was that the Amateur was losing its identity and becoming just another tournament on the summer circuit. But that argument doesn't hold water. The North and South in May is straight match play, the Trans-Miss in July is straight match play and the Western is 72 holes of stroke play with the low 16 going on to match play."

A more important reason for reverting to match play was that by 1973 control of the 15-man USGA executive committee had fallen to a group of relatively young traditionalists such as 55-year-old Frank D. (Sandy) Tatum Jr., of whom an associate says fondly, "In Tatum's mind, Bob Jones is going to rise again." To Tatum golf is a calling, as to the priesthood, and the preservation of its traditions is more important than public opinion or the size of any gallery.

"We are aware," says Frank Hannigan, the USGA's assistant director, "that if you polled the field now, 175 out of 200 players would vote for stroke play. They don't want to lose in an early round. But that doesn't mean the inmates should run the asylum. We say that for the purpose of naming a national champion, match play is just as valid as stroke play. Does match play identify the best 16? Probably not. The top 16 at stroke play would probably beat the final 16 from match play. But naming the best 16 is not our goal. Naming a champion is. Match play is very personal and terribly hard on some psyches. It's hard to flat-out lose. In stroke play if you finish 10th you don't lose."

Andy Bean is the kind of golfer who is very much on the minds of the USGA's blue coats these days, the kind of college player who has dominated the amateur ranks in recent years, helped by the growth of scholarship programs. For nine months of the year, as members of college teams, they play every day and compete every couple of weeks, all expenses paid. They are not pros. They do not win prize money or give lessons for money. They pay their own way to the big amateur events. But they fall somewhere between the letter and the spirit of the USGA's rigid amateur code. As Bean says, "I couldn't do it if my father didn't finance me. You can't work and play golf."

If the whole point of segregating amateurs and pros is to provide fair competition for people who work for a living and play golf for fun, where does the 6'4" Bean belong right now? Before long he and the rest of this year's crop will probably have turned pro. But meanwhile they are changing the face of the hoary U.S. Amateur. The average age of the field at Richmond was 21½. Fifteen percent of the golfers were teen-agers. There was no defending champion because Jerry Pate turned pro in July. In fact, Vinny Giles and Gary Cowan are the only champions in 10 years who have not turned pro. The USGA is dismayed but it has no remedy. Former USGA President Phil Strubing suggested, facetiously, that no one be allowed to be an amateur until he is out of college. Hannigan puts the blame on college presidents who, he feels, exploit golf as a cheap method for placating athletically ambitious alumni.

"It's our conundrum," says Hannigan, "and it's beyond us. We are hoping that Title IX and college economics in general will slow the trend and pull us out. The kids have developed mannerisms that appall us Peter Pans in the USGA. At the Walker Cup, which is really a lovely thing, a kid missed a putt and the jerk threw his putter off the green. At the British Amateur a caddie dropped another kid's bag and said, 'I've had enough of you.' I put that caddie on my Christmas card list."

Whatever way the wind blows in college golf, the U.S. Amateur will go on and the real amateurs will continue to play. Golf is, after all, a game for dreamers and there is no discouraging dreamers.