Amateurs take U.S. Open centre stage
Johnny Goodman is the subject of a good golf trivia question. As in, who’s the last amateur to win a major? Many suggest Bobby Jones as the answer, but Goodman won the 1933 U.S. Open Championship three years after Jones retired.
Of course, Goodman wasn't the last amateur to win a major. Catherine Lacoste was. The French player won the 1967 U.S. Women’s Open at the Cascades Course of The Homestead, in Hot Springs, Virginia. At 22, she became the tournament’s then youngest winner. She is still the only woman to win one of the blue-chip tournaments compared to seven men who’ve earned major titles. (Goodman, Jones, John Ball Jr, Harold Hilton, Francis Ouimet, Jerome Travers and Chick Evans.)
Fifty three years later and we’re still waiting for another amateur to join the major club. Could this be the year that happens?
Wait, I hear you say, that’s impossible: the major season finished with the conclusion of the Masters. Not quite, we still have a U.S. Women’s Open to decide December 10-13 at the Champions Club in Houston Texas. Twenty four amateurs are included in the 156-player field. Ireland’s Olivia Mehaffey (above) makes her second appearance in America’s national championship. The Arizona State player missed the cut in 2018 on her U.S. Women’s Open debut.
The chances of an amateur winning a major championship are growing stronger with each passing year down to the sheer professionalism of the amateur game. True, it would take a special individual of the nature of Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Lydia Ko, Inbee Park or even a Rose Zhang, the number one player on the World Amateur Golf Ranking, to pull off the feat. However, I still believe it will happen in my lifetime.
Zhang, the reigning U.S. Women’s Amateur champion, spearheads the amateur challenge in Texas. She was in contention after 54 holes of the ANA inspiration. She finished 11th to take low amateur honours. Who’s to say the 17 year old can’t go 10 spots better in the U.S. Women’s Open and do what Lacoste did all those years ago?
Lacoste’s victory belongs to a different era, an age when amateurs lived up to their name. The French player was fortunate to come from a rich family – her father was the famous French tennis player René Lacoste who would go on to create the eponymous clothing company – who could afford to send her to tournaments like the U.S. Women’s Open.
Lacoste travelled to Virginia on her own. (That would be unheard of these days since even amateur stars seem to come with a backroom team.) She made herself unpopular with her French teammates since they were competing in the European Team Championships.
The French star played well over the first two rounds to take a five-shot lead into the last 36 holes. Rather than falter as many expected her to do, she prevailed by two shots in what is one of the greatest feats in golf, one not totally recognised in this male dominated game.
In an interview a few years ago with Jane Filing, Lacoste said:
“I think that they were surprised to see an amateur win even though I had won the World Championship three years before and had finished 14th, two years before that. For them, it was important to have an Open Champion from the U.S. to play in their other tournaments in order to attract more fans and sponsors. My victory probably hurt them.”
“Surprised” because there was a huge gap between amateurs and professionals in Lacoste’s day. Not now. Today’s players are more like semi-pros than out and out amateurs. That’s why there’s such a fine line in both the women’s and men’s amateur game. Whether that line will be crossed in the U.S. Women’s Open remains to be seen. Don’t be surprised if it is.
#JustSaying: “If I didn’t have these (breasts) I’d hit it twenty yards further.” Babe Zaharias
Photograph courtesy of the Ladies European Tour