One of the unwritten rules of golf is that there is no putter like a young putter. Play long enough and you wind up like Sam Snead, turned around sideways, bent over and putting with a jerk and a guess, trying to get the darn thing in the hole the best way you can.
Consider Willie Wood, a 16-year-old from Lake Charles, La., who will be a high school junior this fall. Although he downs four meals a day, he stands only 5'5" and weighs but 120 pounds, yet he played the perilous Scarlet Course at Ohio State University during last week's USGA Junior Amateur Championship as if the greens were carpeted and studded with windmills and loop-the-loops. In two days of practice, two rounds of qualifying and six grueling rounds of match play. Wood three-putted only three times. Asked for the magic-formula he uses to sink putts from everywhere but the ball washers, Wood shrugged and said, "I think of the ball going in the hole."
Throughout the week, people marveled at Willie's ability to turn an apparent two putts into one. Hardly would they recover from one remarkable putt than another would disappear into the cup. And another. And another. Until Wood had won the title with a four and three victory over David Games of Bellflower, Calif. Besides being a gifted putter, Wood is a straight driver. Against Games he missed only one fairway, made six birdies and used a mere 20 putts in 15 holes. "He plays computer golf," moaned Games.
This sort of performance was further proof that kid golfers are better than ever. In fact, the USGA has noted such an improvement in the caliber of play since it inaugurated the junior tournament for those under 18 in 1948, that it felt secure in staging this year's event on the Scarlet Course, which can be as dangerous as a dark alley at midnight. It was designed by the renowned golf architect Alister MacKenzie and has served as the site of some spirited twilight golf. Ohio Staters such as Jack Nicklaus, Tom Weiskopf, Ed Sneed or Jerry McGee might duck out for a quick nine before dinner.
Nicklaus, incidentally, played in the Juniors five times but never made it past the semifinals, which could explain why it is not considered a major championship, although Gay Brewer, Mason Rudolph, Tommy Jacobs and Johnny Miller all won, and Ken Venturi and Al Geiberger were runners-up.
Over the years the character, as well as the quality, of the Junior field has changed. The tournament once was the domain of those born with silver putters in their hands and raised on country-club diets. Now a number of publinx golfers and players from clubs where the sprinkling system is a garden hose are in the field. Wood is the son of a golf pro at a municipal course and Games practices at a driving range and hits shag balls in an open field at a high school. Two other contestants used to modest layouts, the Allenspach brothers, Mitch and Mark, from Oxford, Ohio, made it through the first day of match play. In fact, 16-year-old Mitch tied a tournament record with a nine and eight victory over Michael Frey. The brothers play on a small, arid nine-hole course that Mark describes as a "drive and wedge course, sometimes a drive and putt."
Defending champion Madden Hatcher III was trying to become the first player to win the tournament twice. Mike Brannan came closest when he won in 1971 at 15, but two years later missed a short putt on the 18th hole of his final match with Jack Renner, then lost on the 2nd hole of a sudden-death playoff. Hatcher got off to a shaky start, shooting 80-82—162 on Tuesday and Wednesday and qualifying by a mere stroke for match play, although the Columbus, Ga. youth was good enough to make it to the fourth round of this year's British Amateur. "These other guys never miss a fairway," said Hatcher. "And if they do it's only by 10 feet."
Wood, talking nicely to his putter, led the 64 qualifiers with 73-68—141 over the par 36-36—72 course, then said he was more excited about getting his picture taken with Nicklaus, who showed up Wednesday to watch his 15-year-old son Jack II. The younger Nicklaus triple-bogeyed the 16th hole, however, and went back to the practice tee with rounds of 84-83—167.
Madden Hatcher III was a first-day casualty, winning his opening match, then dropping a three and two afternoon decision to Charles Dickinson Jr., thanks to a lost ball, an out-of-bounds and too much intimacy with the course's evergreens. Dickinson, from Modesto, was one of 16 Californians in the tournament and one of 12 who qualified for match play. California has a renowned junior golf program. "This is almost relaxing for us," said Bill Corbett of San Rafael, who tied for fourth in qualifying before losing to Mitch Allenspach in the morning round Friday. "There are kids back home who can beat half the kids here."
Californians had won the Junior title four of the last six years so it was not surprising that three of the four semifinalists were from the Golden State. Wood, who was four under par in destroying Mitch Allenspach seven and five on Friday, joined Games, Corey Pavin, the Oxnard golfer who was the youngest (17) ever to win the Los Angeles city championship, and Eric Evans of Thousand Oaks.
It rained Friday, but Saturday was clear and dry and both semifinal matches had the same script. Pavin got off to a three-up lead over Wood, and Evans had Games four down, but the matches went to the final hole. Wood won one up when Pavin hooked a five-iron into deep rough and double-bogeyed the hole. "I thought about Arnold Palmer and Gary Player," said Willie, describing his comeback. "Palmer would hitch up his pants and Player would grit his teeth, so I hitched up my pants and gritted my teeth." Meanwhile, Games won four of fives holes on the back nine, two with birdies, and held on for a one-up victory over Evans.
Like many of the players, Wood was carrying his own bag. "It costs $7 for a caddy," he said. "I can't afford it. Whew, that plane ticket killed me." Although Wood was shaky in the semifinals, it was a different scorecard in the afternoon. He one-putted four of the first five holes, two for birdies, took a two-up lead, and when he birdied the 9th hole from 18 feet, Games, who was within five feet of the cup, just shook his head. Games missed his birdie and made the turn three down.
Games is a very determined kid. He was raised by his grandparents, plays golf in order to pursue a college education and throughout the week he had rallied from behind. On Friday against Greg Ladehoff, of Clinton, Iowa, he was two down with two holes left, but he won on the 19th. But Willie Wood was a different opponent. He just kept driving the ball in the fairway, shouldering his clubs and knocking his approaches close to the hole. When he one-putted the 12th through 15th holes, using a hickory-shafted putter he estimates is 60 years old, it was all over.
That left Willie with only one problem: how to buy pants. You see, he has a 28-inch waist. "I'm not big enough for a man and I'm too big for a boy," he drawled. Right now, he is just about junior size, championship category.