When Brandon Knight, 17, of Denton, Texas, walked off the steamy Yale University golf course Saturday afternoon at the conclusion of the U.S. Junior Amateur championship, he was smiling, his head was high, and his handshake was firm. Which is to say Knight was demonstrating that the way to be a good loser is to act like a winner. Many athletes never learn that lesson, responding to defeat by sulking and making lewd hand gestures and hollow excuses. So it was worth noting that Knight's first words about his victorious opponent, Jason Widener, 17, of Greensboro, N.C., were generous and cheerful: "I feel like he beat me. I don't feel I gave it to him. I'll be back." Knight was three times right.
And there was, happily, a whole lot of this good-sport stuff going on last week among the best junior golfers in the U.S. More than 2,000 players, all under 18, entered 58 regional tournaments to qualify for the Junior Amateur, and the 156 who played in New Haven were lean, strong and talented young men who said "neat" a lot. The championship—the field is cut to 64 after 36 holes of medal play, and then switches to six 18-hole rounds of match play—was a summer celebration of extraordinary golfing aptitude and attitude.
Indeed, there were many swings at Yale that evidently came from the same place as those of, say, Curtis Strange, Greg Norman, Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus. Even more impressive was the display of nerves—evidently coming from the same place as Eskimo Pies. A perfect example occurred on the 497-yard, par-5 16th on the narrow, hilly, exasperating and wonderful vintage 1926 Charles B. Macdonald course. There, in the final, Knight, two down to Widener with only three holes to play, hit a tee shot that started wandering left. "Stay on the fairway," suggested Knight to the ball, which appeared not to be listening. "Oh, no. Please stay in the first cut. Well, O.K., second cut." Walking up to his wayward ball, which had landed in the tall grass, he promptly summoned his driver again and smote the ball another 250 yards—12 feet past the pin. "Neat," Knight said. That bold stroke, when anyone with good sense would have been thinking iron, won him the hole and preserved his chance to win the national title. That he ultimately did not is beside the point; the shot documented the blazing can-do spirit of the week.
It was a week of welcome decorum as well. The United States Golf Association gets good manners from the young players, in part, because the rules of the game demand them. But these fellows took it upon themselves to call adults Mr. or Mrs. (or Miss or Ms., for that matter), to say thank you and to help old folks across the fairways. There might be a message in all this for the likes of tennis, hockey and, increasingly, football, basketball and baseball. Rule proposal for athletes in those sports: Behave or you can't play.
Make no mistake, Widener can do both. None of his five matches before the final went past the 16th hole. In the final he hit 15 greens in regulation, including the last 12. "That made it easy," he said. Hardly. Widener hit his tee shot on the 4th into a lake on the right of the fairway, amid most of the 170 Canada geese that live on the course. In response the birds honked and flapped and made great sport of him. But Widener recovered quickly, going two up with birdies on the 8th and 9th holes. The 9th is a splendid 211-yard par 3 with a six-foot-deep gully that splits the huge green. Scores there in official competition have reached as high as 28; Widener had a 2.
The Waterloo for Knight seemingly came on the par-4 12th when he hit his drive fat. The ball went only 175 yards, ending on a steep upslope. On his next shot, Knight's club hit some hidden rocks—remember, as Knight did not, this is the rocky New England shore—and the ball popped straight up and went, well, who knows where. Mostly it went backward. That made it three up for Widener. But Knight righted himself, hitting his tee shot on the 13th to within six inches of the pin, and his birdie brought him back to two holes down. They halved 14 and 15, and then came Knight's extraordinary two drives on the 16th, which closed the gap to one hole with two left.
A half at 17 brought the match to the 18th, Widener one up. He drove poorly into tall rough on the left, and the ball was all but buried. "All I did was hit it as hard as I could," he said, describing the six-iron shot he used to get out of trouble. After a sickly approach putt left him six feet short, he knocked his second putt in, calmly of course, to halve the hole for the win.
Widener has lived all of his life within a wedge shot of a golf course, his first eight years on the 11th fairway at Weymouth Valley Golf Club in Medina, Ohio, and his last nine next to Cardinal Golf and Country Club in Greensboro. He is used to victory, having won more than 50 tournaments since he started competing at age seven. He led his golf team at Northwest Guilford High, where he'll be a senior this fall, to the state 3-A title last spring, and also won the individual championship. What's more, he is third academically in his class of 250. That bothers Widener a little, because until this year he had been first; now his best friend, Pam Weather-ford, is No. 1. "I haven't had any big disappointments in my life," he says. Someday he would like to play the PGA Tour, but first there's college; he's leaning toward Wake Forest. "All of us here have the same dreams, the same goals," he says. "The only difference is some work harder than others." It usually comes down to who wants to practice putting and who wants to practice partying. Says Widener, "This is wonderful, but I hope it's not the best thing that ever happens to me."
Among the players who have won the Junior Amateur and gone on to distinguish themselves are Gay Brewer, who beat Mason Rudolph in 1949 (the next year Rudolph won), and Johnny Miller, who won in 1964. But Knight should find solace in some of those who have finished second: Ken Venturi, in 1948, the first year of the championship; Andy North, in 1967; and Scott Simpson, in 1972. All went on to win the U.S. Open.
After the match was over, runner-up Knight continued to ooze confidence: "When I was three down with six holes to play," he said, "I felt like I could do it." Meanwhile, Widener was saying, "The best player doesn't always win in match play." But he did on Saturday in Connecticut. Just ask Brandon Knight, who strolled away from the clubhouse looking like a winner and responding to a question concerning what goes on in Denton: "I haven't found out yet. I play golf. I think we have fairs." He was looking forward to practicing. Neat.
An honor student, Widener has always lived just a hop, skip and jump from a golf course.
Knight (above) forced the match to the 18th, where Widener (right) sank this putt to win.