Memories For A Lifetime

The national championship for junior golfers will be held in Georgia from July 23 through July 27. The 55th playing of the U.S. Junior Amateur will be conducted by the United States Golf Association at the Atlanta Athletic Club in Duluth, Ga., home of The Highlands Course, where just last August, the world’s top professionals competed for the PGA Championship.

The USGA created the U.S. Junior Amateur in 1948 to determine the best junior golfer in the United States and to help junior golfers learn to realize the most from the game, winning or losing. The first U.S. Junior was won by Dean Lind, who defeated Ken Venturi, a future U.S. Open champion.

More than 4,000 entries are received each year from male amateur golfers who have not reached their 18th birthday and have a USGA handicap index not exceeding 6.4. Sectional qualifying at 36 holes of stroke play determines the field of 156 players. Sixty-six locations throughout the United States were required this year to handle the qualifying rounds.

The 156 qualifiers then play two rounds of stroke play at the Atlanta Athletic Club on July 23 and 24, with the low 64 scorers advancing to match play. After five rounds, the final 18-hole match is on July 27.

The Junior Amateur is one of the most difficult of all USGA championships to win because of the age limit, as well as the tremendous number of highly-skilled young players who enter each year. Tiger Woods won the Junior Amateur in three consecutive years, beginning in 1991, and remains the youngest champion when he won at 15 years, 6 months and 28 days old. The Junior Amateur is the only USGA championship for which Jack Nicklaus was eligible that he did not win, although he qualified for the event five times.

In last year’s championship at Oak Hills Country Club in San Antonio, Texas, Henry Liaw, 15, (just 4 months older than Tiger Woods when Woods became the youngest champion), captured the title in his first time to qualify. He has two more years of eligibility and could tie Woods’ record of three victories.

Matthew Pierce, Jr., at 12 years, 2 months old, was the youngest player ever to compete in the championship. It is a long week for the players who advance to match play after 36 holes of stroke play and continue to be victorious in the 6 rounds of match play. Liaw played 104 holes in his 6 matches, including his second round victory at 22 holes.

The Atlanta Athletic Club has truly been a host to history in championship golf. In addition to state events and many USGA qualifiers over the years, the club has hosted at Duluth the 1976 U.S. Open; the 1990 U.S. Women’s Open; the 1981 and 2001 PGA Championship; the 1984 U.S. Mid-Amateur; the 1982 Junior World Cup; the 1996 and 1997 Men’s and Women’s Eastern Amateurs; the 1999 Hayter Cup and the 2000 Southern Amateur.

Ken Mangum, the Atlanta Athletic Club’s Director of Golf Courses and Grounds, expects The Highlands Course to be set up and play to the same exacting standards for the 2002 Junior Amateur as the 2001 PGA Championship. The yardage will be approximately 7,008 yards at par 70, with fast and firm Crenshaw bentgrass putting greens and 419 Bermuda grass rough.

An important goal of the USGA in conducting the Junior Amateur is the educational opportunity for juniors as well as a national competitive championship. This year should provide a special inspiration to the juniors who earn participation since the Atlanta Athletic Club is the home club of golf immortal, Bobby Jones. This year marks the centennial anniversary of his birth in 1902.

The U.S. Junior Amateur has been played in Georgia on only one other occasion, in 1970, at Athens Country Club. There, Gary Koch, who would go on to a winning career as a professional on the PGA Tour and now as a golf commentator for NBC-TV’s golf broadcasts, won by 8 and 6, the largest winning margin in the final match. Former Tour player, Charlie Rymer, who now lives in Athens, was the victor in 1985 at Brookfield Country Club in New York.

A Special Championship
Georgia has always enjoyed a special connection with the U.S. Junior Amateur. Henry Cobb, GSGA’s President from 1970-74, was a member of the USGA Junior Committee and arranged for the championship to be played at Athens in 1970. Walker Cup captain Danny Yates also served on the Junior Committee for many years, along with GSGA Past President John Reynolds and Joe Hamilton of Augusta.

In 1976, Madden Hatcher, III of Columbus defeated Doug Clarke, 3 and 2, at the Hiwan Golf Club in Evergreen, Colo. Then in 1979, Jack Larkin of Atlanta defeated Billy Tuten, 1 up, at Moss Creek Golf Club in Hilton Head Island, S.C.

Hatcher is now an active GSGA committeeman.

“At the Player’s Banquet, I looked around at all those players and suddenly thought, 'Somebody here is going to win this thing,'" he said. "And I didn’t even think it would be me. Bobby Clampett was the favorite along with Doug Clarke, who had just won the big Trans-Miss Amateur. I just kept thinking how fortunate I was to be there.

“In one match, I was four down to future PGA Tour winner Robert Wren after eight holes, but I managed to win that match on the 20th hole. Then I played Steve Jones, who would later be a Tour winner and the 1996 U.S. Open champion, in a semifinal match. Both of us were surprised to have made it that far, and I said to Steve, ‘Can you believe it – one of us is going to the final.'

"Then I won and had to face heavy favorite, Doug Clarke, in the final. The pressure was all on him, and I won 3 and 2. What a memory! I still keep up with all those players and with others. Some have remained my best friends. Golf has made it possible for me to meet so many wonderful people.”

Three years later, it was Larkin who triumphed. Larkin continues to play competitively and has won the GSGA’s Public Links Championship in 1996 and 2001.

“Winning the Junior was always my goal,” said Larkin. “A family friend told me about it and that became my quest from age 13 on. Every day I worked to achieve my goal, and when I practiced, it was always for the Junior."

“I hope the players today can enjoy what I have enjoyed, setting a goal, working hard, and doing everything to execute that plan. Golf is the opposite of everything coming easy to you and the reward is so great in attempting to achieve something as great as that championship. Huge parts of golf for me are the life lessons, more than just winning."

This year’s Junior Amateur will be a time for special memories, but not just for those who compete. It is surely an opportunity for other young golfers who see this special championship to think of their own goals and excitement about the game – a time for all to make memories for a lifetime.

Story written by Gene McClure. McClure is a member of the United States Golf Association’s Sectional Affairs Committee and a Past-President of the Georgia State Golf Association. Portions of this article have appeared in Golf Georgia magazine.