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The History of the Sunnehanna Amateur Golf Tournament for Champions

 

In July of 1954, championship golf returned to Sunnehanna Country Club after a three year hiatus. The Sunnehanna Amateur, a medal play tournament, was started to fill the competitive void left at the club with the termination of its match play predecessor, the Sunnehanna Invitational, which was played from 1936 through 1951.

The Invitational began as a way to find additional income for the club during the Depression. The match-play tournament grew from a field of mostly local players to attracting some of the nation’s finest amateurs from the East coast. Part of the event’s success was tied to the Calcutta. Held the night before play began, members bid on the players in the championship bracket.

The owner of the winning player was the winner of the pool. As the tournament grew so did the pool and with it unintentional consequences arose. The interest of Johnstown’s gambling fraternity was piqued as word spread of the payoff for the winning “owner.”

Two weeks after the completion of the 1949 Invitational, the USGA expressed concerns about Calcutta’s and declared that “Organized auction pools would almost certainly run into large figures and lead to commercializing the game to a high degree and might well be the means for professional gamblers to take over and influence players, just as they have done in other sports.” Coincidentally that year the Sunnehanna Invitational’s Calcutta had finally been compromised when professional gamblers managed to infiltrate and indirectly participate. The pool exceeded $35,000 and a single bid on Buddy Lutz, “The Reading Rocket”, exceeded $20,000.

The Board realized this was neither good for the club, its members or the players. It promptly ended the Calcutta. While the Invitational continued for two additional year’s interest waned among players and members. To make matters worse the club lost money when it was intended to do the opposite. After the conclusion of the 1951 Invitational, the Board of Governors terminated the tournament.

Charles Kunkle Jr. with Arnold PalmerIn late 1953, then club President, Charles Kunkle, Jr., and fellow members interested in amateur golf, proposed a new tournament format. After a three-year hiatus, the Board granted permission to sponsor the Sunnehanna Amateur.

The tournament became the first 72-hole stroke play competition for amateurs in the United States. Until then, the format adhered to had been match play. The success of the rapidly growing professional tour, which was mainly 72 holes of stroke play, with the exception being the annual match play championship of the National Professional Golf Association (PGA), provided greater public interest and acceptance of stroke play tournaments.

As with its predecessor, the Sunnehanna Invitational, every effort was made to include the best amateur golfers in the East. The committee made attracting one or more members of the United States Walker Cup Team to the tournament a priority.  This was considered critical to legitimize the tournaments aspirations of becoming a national event. The first player to enter with the reputation and the background the committee desired was Don Cherry of Wichita Falls, Texas.

A member of the United States Walker Cup Team and the 1953 Canadian Amateur Champion, Cherry was a noted cabaret singer in the casinos of Las Vegas. After completing a six-week engagement at The Sands, Cherry traveled east. As part of his agreement to play in Johnstown, he was hired to perform for the members and contestants. After four days of golf and singing, Don Cherry captured the inaugural tournament.

The next year, Cherry returned to defend his title and once again, to entertain. His success on the links had been usurped by his hit record “Band of Gold”, which had sold over a million copies. The reputation of the tournament was enhanced by the entry of Richard “Dick” Chapman, who was one of the few golfers to win both the U.S. Amateur (1940) and the British Amateur (1944). He also won the Canadian Amateur in 1949.

By its third year, the Sunnehanna Amateur began to receive notable national acclaim. The tournament’s invitation process was updated as the committee attempted to replicate the format used by The Masters to invite players. Invitations were coveted by the countries best golfers as the field was limited to those who had won major amateur tournaments or state-sanctioned championships.

Two major television networks provided coverage of the event The National Broadcasting Company’s (NBC) allotted time on its weekend programs for on-the-spot developments and highlights and included a wrap-up of the tournament. The Columbia Broadcasting Company (CBS) also provided national news coverage.

In three short years, the tournament had gone from a largely regional field to one that was recognized nationally. Among the prominent contestants were Dr. Ed Updegraff, the three-time Arizona Amateur Champion and two-time Southwest Amateur Champion. From the Deep South LSU teammates, Eddie Merrins, the Western Amateur Champion from Meridian, Mississippi was joined by Johnny Pott, an All- American golfer from Eunice, Louisiana.

Jack NicklausThe most notable player not to participate in 1956 was Bill Campbell, the playing captain of the United States Walker Cup team. While unable to compete, he was responsible for a notable addition to the field which had a significant influence on the tournament. He recommended in glowing terms to the committee an outstanding young talent from Columbus, Ohio by the name of Jackie Nicklaus. The fifteen-year-old quickly attracted everyone’s attention as he made six birdies and an eagle during his practice round. His remarkable skills, unusual maturity, and the introduction of plumb-bobbing created a significant amount of interest. Throughout the week he attracted large galleries and the notice of the assembled writers with his exceptional play. He shot 72- 72-72-70 to finish fifth overall, ten strokes behind winner Gene Dahlbender

The performance of the previously unheralded youngster marked a significant chapter in the tournament’s history as he later eclipsed the records of golf’s greatest players. It was a significant chapter in his own career; the Sunnehanna Amateur was the first major amateur tournament for Jack Nicklaus.

In late 1957, Charles Kunkle received a letter of inquiry from the USGA regarding the operation of the tournament. The prior year a few members objected to housing players due to a conflict that arose with a player’s wife. In response, a few players were housed at a local hotel. The expense was covered by the tournament. The USGA ruled that it was a violation of the amateur rules and that the $20 entry fee was deemed to be “unrealistic”. They emphasized that meals

caddie, and lodging should not be included in the entry fee. The issue was resolved after the players reimbursed the tournament for their hotel bill and an ongoing dialogue with the USGA ensued.

While this may seem trivial to many, Tommy Aaron, then a star player at the University of Florida, was disinclined to return because of ongoing rumors and the formidable reputation of the USGA. Golf’s taciturn and inscrutable ruling body had a well earned reputation for its unyielding enforcement of the rules pertaining to amateur golf. The rumors were taken seriously by all involved. The committee reached out to potential contestants to clarify and explain the situation and the remedies the tournament had put in place to pacify the USGA. After eliminating the Calcutta, the goal of a clean tournament was imperative to the club, the contestants and the future of the Sunnehanna Amateur.

This was not the last time the tournament heard from the P.J Boatwright and the USGA. In 1962, the entire University of Houston team participated. It was a first in the tournament’s brief history. At that time, the Cougars had won the National Intercollegiate title five of previous six years. Members of an eight player contingent, all of whom won a variety of championships, included Homero Blancas, the second-ranked 1956, Jackie Nicklaus, age 15, on the first tee. The Sunnehanna Amateur was his first major amateur tournament.

Later that summer, the Sunnehanna Amateur received another letter of inquiry from the USGA regarding the team’s participation. Boatwright wanted to know who had paid their entry fees, lodging, and travel expenses. They even questioned the actual invitations! Again, Charles Kunkle handled the issue with his usual aplomb providing detailed explanations and facts. The correspondence covered their invitations and went on to explain in minutia that Homero Blancas drove from Texas in his father’s car with two other teammates, then drove to Kentucky to pick up a fourth. The USGA was sufficiently satisfied, and the issue died.

In spite of the aggravating issues beyond the course, the Sunnehanna Amateur’s status continued to grow in the 60’s. Gene Dahlbender and Bill Hyndman both won second titles, Dahlbender in 1960, Hyndman in 1967. Other champions included Dick Siderowf, Dr. Ed Updegraff, Roger McManus and Canadian Gary Cowan. All had impressive amateur careers. Siderowf, who won in 1961, later won two British Amateur titles in 1973 and 1976, as well as the Canadian and Northeast Amateur.

Updegraff, the 1962 Sunnehanna Amateur champion, was among the most respected and well-liked players in the tournament’s history. A participant in 17 US Amateurs, his amateur record included victories in the Southwestern, Pacific Coast and Western Amateurs.

Tennessean Bobby Greenwood provided the tournament with one of its most compelling stories. Greenwood made getting an invitation to the Sunnehanna Amateur a personal mission. Driven by a rejection letter from the tournament in 1964, he hung the offending note on the wall next to his bedroom desk. In 1965, Greenwood arrived in Johnstown having earned his invitation by winning the 1964 Tennessee Open. Unfortunately, his clothes and clubs did not. While his fellow competitors played practice rounds and worked on their games, Greenwood lounged at the pool. When play began, his clubs and clothes had still not arrived! Forced to cobble together a set of clubs, he found what he needed from a variety of sources. The second day, he was reunited with his clubs on the seventh tee but elected to use the putter he had borrowed from course superintendent Joe Harlow. Greenwood promptly birdied six of the next eleven holes to shoot a course record 63! Two rounds later, Bobby Greenwood had won the Sunnehanna Amateur defeating Oklahoma States Dick Canon by five-strokes and set a new tournament record.

Bad luck followed Greenwood the next two years. In 1966, he opened with a round of 81 after being penalized four strokes for having too many clubs in his bag and in 1967 he remained in Tennessee as he struggled to recover from a broken wrist.

Now healthy and his game again sharp, the former All- American at North Texas birdied three of the final five holes, including a dramatic birdie on 18, to defeat 1966 champion Jack Lewis and 1962 champion Dr. Ed Updegraff by a single stroke.

Tommy Aaron, the 1958 Sunnehanna Amateur champion, with runner-up Dr. Ed Updegraff and third place finisher Roger McManus. Both would later win the title, Updegraff in 1962 and McManus in 1963.

In 1968, Wake Forest arrived with its entire starting five which included 1966 champion, Jack Lewis, Lanny Wadkins, the tournament runner-up in 1967, and Leonard Thompson.

A year later, Thompson defeated Wadkins and Florida State standout Hubert Green. Presenting the champions trophy was William V. Price. After being co-chairman the previous two years, Price became the tournament’s chairman. His tenure lasted almost 30 years. Under his watchful eye, the tournament grew in quality and prestige while he maintained the highest standards to receive an invitation to Sunnehanna.

He, and his wife Carlyn, worked tirelessly as the tournament’s ambassadors. “You’d be somewhere else playing, and the next thing you know, Mr. Price was there and saying hello”, said Ben Crenshaw. “He spread a lot of goodwill for the Sunnehanna Amateur that way, and it was passed along by the players by word of mouth.” His efforts were recognized throughout golf. In July of 1996, a story in Golf Journal, the publication of the USGA, recognized his commitment as well as other tournament chairman’s efforts on behalf of amateur golf.

Almost simultaneously, collegiate players began to dominate the Sunnehanna Amateur winning 15 of the next 18 titles. Only Bob Zender’s playoff victory in 1971 and Jay Sigel’s championships in 1976 and 1978 interrupted their control.

The arrival of teams from the University of Houston, Wake Forest and later the University of Florida, Brigham Young, Ohio State and Oklahoma State marked the beginning of a new era. Fields, which previously had been kept small to help foster relationships between participants and members, gave way to a larger numbers of contestants. The vast majority came from colleges.

Arizona State All-American Howard Twitty’s victory in 1970 continued the trend of collegiate champions. He defeated Bob Clark, the reigning NCAA champion, and Lanny Wadkins, who made a final day charge. It was the third time the Wake Forest All-American and Walker Cupper finished runner-up in the tournament.

Mark Hayes, a two-time first team All-American from Oklahoma State, defeated University of North Carolina golfer, Marty West, and University of Florida All-American, Gary Koch, to capture the title in 1972. A noteworthy participant that year was Butler, Pennsylvania native, Jim Simons. In 1971, Simons was named NCAA Player of the Year at Wake Forest, reached the finals of the British Amateur and, several weeks later, lead the US Open at Merion by two strokes after 54- holes. He eventually finished fifth.

Possibly the most prominent champion of the 1970’s was Ben Crenshaw, golf’s next “Golden Boy.” In 1972 the Texan won the Eastern Amateur, Ben Crenshawthe Porter Cup and Trans-Miss’ Championships and had tied fellow University of Texas teammate, Tom Kite for the NCAA championship. His only blemish: a loss in the finals of the United States Amateur.

Four years later, the next great amateur star arrived. While his credentials as a junior golfer may not have matched those of John Cook, Scott Verplank’s amateur career was certainly as remarkable. In 1983, Verplank, upon the conclusion of his freshman year at Oklahoma State, competed in his first Sunnehanna Amateur after being named a second team All- American. Later that summer, The Dallas native won the Porter Cup.

In 1984, he arrived in Johnstown as a pre-tournament favorite having won the Big Eight Championship and been named first team All- American. After 36 holes the Texan stood at seven under par, two strokes ahead of University of Houston star Steve Elkington. At the end of 72 holes, Verplank held off a final day charge of Dave Tolley, who’s final round 66 fell one stroke short of catching the eventual champion. That summer, Scott Verplank added the Texas, Western and the United States Amateur titles to his resume and established himself as the nation’s top amateur golfer.

The following year Verplank returned and became the first champion to successfully defend his title winning by seven strokes. Several weeks later, he added to his formidable reputation winning the 1985 Western Open, the first amateur in 29 years to capture a PGA tour event. He finished the summer by helping the United States defeat Great Britain and Ireland in the Walker Cup at Pine Valley.                                                                                                                                                                                           

In the spring of 1986, Scott Verplank’s amateur career came to a fitting end. After almost winning a second PGA event, finishing runner-up in the Tournament of Champions, he lead the Oklahoma State Cowboys to their fifth team title while capturing the NCAA individual title.

The late 80’s marked the rebirth of the mid-amateurs started by Jay Sigel who won his third and final championship in 1988 making him the Sunnehanna Amateur’s first three-time champion.

The following year, Allen Doyle began a new era. He dominated the tournament like none other winning four Sunnehanna Amateurs over the next six years. Over a six-year span, Doyle defeated a who’s who in golf. In 1989, among those he defeated were Steve Stricker, who finished third, the next year he bested three-time champion Jay Sigel, who was runner-up, and Phil Mickelson, who had just won the second of his back-to-back NCAA titles.

His most remarkable performance came in 1992 winning the tournament by a record 13 strokes. With the course playing firm and fast, Doyle traversed the Sunnehanna links with near perfection displaying bump-and-run shots that A. W. Tillinghast envisioned when he designed the course. His total of 266, 14 under par, established a new tournament record. It is the single greatest performance in the tournament’s history. Among those he left in the distance in was Justin Leonard, who finished third and later that summer won the United States Amateur, and 16-year old Tiger Woods, the reigning United States Junior Champion, who finished fifth. They finished 14 and 17 strokes behind, respectively!!

The only thing to end Allen Doyle’s control of the Sunnehanna Amateur was Allen Doyle. His decision to turn professional in 1995 ended a remarkable six years. He gratefully acknowledged the tournament’s influence on his career. Before his success in Johnstown, he had dominated events in his adopted home state of the Georgia. The Sunnehanna Amateur gave him the confidence to know he could defeat the best in the game. He continued his success as a professional winning three times on the NIKE, now Nationwide tour, then became the oldest PGA Tour rookie at 47 where he played for two years. As a member of the Champions Tour he has won 11 times and became only the fifth player to win two US Senior Opens joining Miller Barber, Gary Player, Hale Irwin, and Jack Nicklaus. Like many players before him, the Sunnehanna Amateur was a catalyst for greater golf success.

The loss of Jay Sigel and Allen Doyle to professional golf left an immeasurable void in the Sunnehanna Amateur. Their departures ended the long chapter, and most importantly tradition, of the “career” amateur. The lure of money and the inability to be consistently competitive against younger players gave aging players options that previously hadn’t existed and sadly changed the landscape of amateur golf.

While the presence of both was missed, it also opened the door for other mid-amateurs to take their place. Over the next four years, four different “mid-ams”, John Harris, Jeff Thomas, Duke Delcher and Steve Sheehan won the Sunnehanna Amateur. Sheehans victory in 1998 was matched throughout that summer by other mid-ams. Tim Jackson won the North & South Amateur, Gene Elliott the Porter Cup, and Bert Atkinson the Rice Planters. It hasn’t been duplicated since as college players soon again reasserted their dominance

Edward Loar returned to Johnstown in 1999 with a handful of college players hoping to end the middle-am domination of amateur golf. A three-time All- American at Oklahoma State, Loar had won the 1997 Southwestern Amateur and 1998 Southern Amateur titles. His game was ideally suited for Sunnehanna’s golf course as the long hitting left-hander hit a sweeping hook which worked perfectly on the numerous dogleg rights. His deft touch around the greens was later equally important; during the third round he saved par six straight holes after missing the greens in regulation. Loar opened the tournament with 30 on the front nine and never looked back defeating close friend and Cowboy teammate Charles Howell by five-strokes.

The next year, Loar returned to defend his title as well as nine of the top ten finishers from the prior year. His principle competition was expected to come from Charles Howell who was the hottest player in college golf having won the Big 12 Conference and NCAA titles by record margins. On the final day, the defending champion struggled and late birdies by Eger and Compton lead to a playoff. In spite of missing the final green three straight times, the Texan held off the challengers to win back-to-back titles. It marked the second straight playoff championship for Loar. A week earlier Oklahoma State had defeated Georgia Tech in a playoff to win the NCAA team Title. It was a fitting end to a fine collegiate and amateur career.

The following year, Lucas Glover began a new tradition with his victory in 2001 as a Clemson Tiger would win the Sunnehanna Amateur the next four years.

Dillard Pruitt, who won the title in 1983, added a second tournament title in 2002. The recently reinstated amateur, who had won on the PGA tour, was aided by the back nine collapse of Hunter Mahan and three consecutive bogeys coming in by Tripp Davis, who Pruitt defeated in a playoff.

In 2003, Clemson won the NCAA team title. Three integral members of that team Matt Hendrix, Greg Jones and Jack Ferguson were considered to be among the top contenders for the title. Four days later, Hendrix defeated University of Minnesota All-American and Moon Township, Pennsylvania native, Justin Smith, by two strokes followed by Greg Jones. The next year, Jack Ferguson added his name to the tournament trophy holding off Matt Rosenfeld to become the fourth Clemson Tiger to win the Sunnehanna Amateur.

In 2006, Australian, Michael Sim became the tournaments third international champion joining Brazilian, Jamie Gonzalez, and Canadian, Gary Cowan. The native of Perth, who tied the course with 63 in the second round, needed a birdie on the 72nd-hole to join a playoff with Georgia Tech All-American Nicholas Thompson and fellow countryman Jamie Arnold. After the three-hole aggregate playoff, additional holes were required after Sim and Thompson remained tied. The Australian then promptly birdied the first hole to become the 40th player to win the Sunnehanna Amateur.

Sim’s victory was emblematic of the changing nature of competitive amateur golf. Greater numbers of foreign players attended colleges in the United States and amateur golf federations and associations looked across the ocean for venues to develop their best players. Australian Nick Flanagan’s victory at Oakmont in the 2003 US Amateur and Michael Sims triumph assured that more would follow.

In 2007, Rickie Fowler received his initial invitation to the Sunnehanna Amateur as a highly acclaimed junior golfer, much like Jack Nicklaus, Rickie FowlerJohn Cook, Scott Verplank and others before him. Unlike the others, Fowler came to Johnstown not looking for the experience. He came to win. His goal at the beginning of the summer of 2007: earn a coveted spot on that years US Walker Cup team. The nation’s second ranked junior, Fowler, who had signed with Oklahoma State, lead after three rounds following back-to- back scores of 67. He led future teammate Peter Uihlein by three strokes and Bud Cauley by five. It was the youngest leader board in the tournaments history with no player in the final threesome over the age of 18. The final day, the leader played solid golf saving par at critical times during the round to hold off Uihlein, whose final round of 68 fell one shot short of catching the eventual champion. With his victory, Rickie Fowler became the youngest champion in the tournaments history previously held by Greg Lesher. It was also a sign of things to come as Fowler later that summer added a second victory at the Players Amateur. More importantly, he succeeded in achieving his personal goal; being named to the US Walker Cup team.

The success enjoyed that summer continued through the fall 2007 and into the spring of 2008 as Rickie continued to establish new records and new standards. His freshman year at Oklahoma State, the native of Murrieta, California was named first team All-American and became the first freshman to win the Ben Hogan Award. He won two tournaments, including the Big 12 title, and finished in the top ten in his first ten collegiate events.

In 2008, he returned to defend his title, his game in fine form having finished fourth the week before at the NCAA tournament. Unlike the previous year, Fowler gave little hope to the rest of the field after an opening round of 66. Subsequent rounds of 69-68-69 gave him a five stroke victory over Dan Woltman and six strokes ahead of former US Mid-Amateur champion Nathan Smith.  With the victory, he joined Verplank, Loar and Doyle as the only champions to successfully defend their Sunnehanna Amateur titles.

In his last amateur stroke play tournament Rickie Fowler attempted to establish a new standard: to become the first player to win three straight titles. An opening round 61 by Penn State’s Kevin Foley, which tied the course record established the year before by Zach Sucher, left Fowler six strokes behind. It was a margin he could never erase. He ultimately finished in third place and capped as good a three year record as any player in the tournaments history.

The combined histories of the Sunnehanna Invitational and Sunnehanna Amateur have spanned eight decades of amateur golf. Only one other amateur tournament in the United States can list the likes of Chick Evans, Arnold Palmer, Julius Boros, Art Wall, Jack Nicklaus, Deane Beman, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods as contestants: the United States Amateur. Its medal play format has been emulated by countless amateur tournaments across the country.

In 1956, then tournament chairman A. Hugh Wagner, speaking on behalf of the committee, stated: “We hope to see not only hundreds of people we know to be interested in golf, but many other people who like competitive sports of any kind. We are sure they will find this caliber of golf stimulating and worth their time.” Those words remain true today.

The foresight of tournament founder, Charles Kunkle, Jr. the dedication of longtime chairman, William V. Price, numerous committee members and most importantly the generous support of the members of Sunnehanna Country Club have continued a great golfing tradition. A commitment to the simple tenants established when the tournament began has given its members - new and old - and the greater Johnstown community, the opportunity to enjoy and appreciate the skills of the best amateur golfers from all 50 states and 19 foreign countries for 59 years.

Tiger WoodsWritten by John Yerger, III

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Sunnehanna Country Club, 1000 Sunnehanna Drive, Johnstown, PA 15905 committee@sunnehanna.com