Just when it seemed that the 88th U.S. Amateur championship might be remembered as an ode to the weekend golfer, Eric Meeks, a 23-year-old pro-in-waiting, rained the Cascades course in Hot Springs, Va., with birdies to beat Danny Yates, 7 and 6, in the 36-hole final on Sunday.
Meeks was 4 up after the morning round, having won the first four holes and making six birdies for a five-under-par 65, one of the best final-day performances ever in an Amateur. Yates, 38, lost five of the first six holes in the afternoon as Meeks shot even par to close out the match on the 12th hole.
"I felt that I was going to do something great," the mild-mannered Meeks confidently revealed afterward. "I've just kept improving."
Meeks and Yates made it to the final on the strength of their short games, guts and some luck. But like the rich mineral water that pours from the nearby springs, serendipity seems to percolate out of the ground at the Cascades. The greatest natural in the history of golf, Sam Snead, emerged from the Allegheny backcountry only three miles away, and the Slammer, now 76, still lives within hollering distance of the Cascades, perhaps the best mountain course in the U.S.
Meeks, who played collegiate golf at the University of Arizona, started the week auspiciously with his own trophies—two 11-inch rainbow trout he caught on Wednesday in a stream next to the course. On Friday, in the third round, he reeled in an even bigger fish when he beat two-time Amateur champion Jay Sigel on the 21st hole.
In the quarterfinal he defeated a former Arizona teammate, Robert Gamez, 2 up, in what Meeks described as a "friendly grudge match." Then he outlasted LSU junior David Toms, one up, in the semi. "I'm kind of shocked," said Meeks.
At Arizona, Meeks was fourth man on the team and a third-team All-America for 1988. His father, Bob, a real estate appraiser in Walnut, Calif., is an avid golfer who tried to get Eric and his twin brother, Aaron, to take up the game when they were three, but the pair resisted for nine years. "T was too busy chasing squirrels and catching polliwogs," explained Eric. The brothers played together at Arizona, and Aaron recently turned pro.
Yates also learned the game at the urging of his father, Dan, an Atlanta insurance agent, whom he joined in business after graduating from the University of Georgia in 1974. In his semi he barely got by 21-year-old Doug Martin, a senior at Oklahoma. "I know people are going to say, 'Who is this old guy?' " said Yates. "I haven't played any big-time golf. Nobody knows me."
Before Yates and Meeks teed off for the final, they shared the jubilation of having qualified for the Masters, which invites the finalists of the previous year's Amateur, provided they are still amateurs. Yates has attended the Masters as a spectator every year since 1962; his father is a member of Augusta National and helps conduct postround press conferences with the contestants. Meeks, meanwhile, postponed his plans to turn professional this year so that he can participate in the classic next April. "When you've got one real shot at playing in the Masters, you've got to take it," he said. "I can turn pro any time."
Meeks was 10 up after 25 holes on Sunday, but he lost three of the next four holes. "I started thinking about playing with Curtis [Strange] and Seve [Ballesteros] at the Open." he said of the traditional pairing of the U.S. Open, British Open and U.S. Amateur champions. "That's pretty good, but I had to forget about it." When he did, Meeks inherited the berth.
After 26 years as a spectator, Yates at last will get a chance to play in the Masters.
Even Meeks was "kind of shocked" at his high level of play.