The Amateur Championship , or, as many people call it, the British Amateur, has been on this week at the Royal Cinque Ports and Prince’s links in Deal, England. The Amateur started in 1885 and it’s long been one of the most cherished titles in the game. The 36-hole final match will be played Saturday.
Bobby Jones won the Amateur in his Grand Slam year of 1930, which he closed by winning the U.S. Amateur at the Merion Golf Club. Jose-Maria Olazabal won the championship in 1984 at the Formby Golf Club. Sergio Garcia won in 1998 at the Muirfield Golf Club in Gullane, Scotland, venue for next month’s Open Championship. Matteo Manassero won in 2009 at Formby and has gone on to become one of the game’s top young professionals.
There are many reasons I like to follow the Amateur. Like the Open, it’s played almost exclusively on a links rather than an inland course. The championship is held not only on links that host the Open, such as the Old Course and Carnoustie, but on courses that don’t have the room to host a modern-day Open.
Look down the list of venues and you’ll find the following memorable courses, among others: Royal Porthcawl in Wales, where Canadian great Marlene Streit won the 1953 British Ladies Amateur; Royal Portrush and Royal County Down in Northern Ireland; Portmarnock in Dublin; Royal Dornoch in the Scottish Highlands. Golfers who have visited these links know they’re worthy of a national championship. The same thing goes for Royal Cinque Ports and Prince’s. I’ve been fortunate enough to play each of these links, and wouldn’t mind tele-transporting myself to watch the Amateur Championship.
Meanwhile, the week of the Amateur is also special to me for a personal reason. I played the 1977 Amateur at the Ganton Golf Club in Scarborough, England. Ganton isn’t a links, but it played like one–firm and fast and with those gathering or collection bunkers into which a slightly errant shot scampers. Ganton is one of only three courses to have hosted the Walker Cup, Curtis Cup, and Ryder Cup. Royal Birkdale and Muirfield are the others. Harry Vardon was the pro from 1896-1903. The Englishman won six Opens–more than any other player.
I loved everything about playing the Amateur at Ganton. I was taken with the championship’s and the club’s rich history. There was something about teeing it up in the match-play event. I met Jim Nelford on the first tee and we played a practice round. I remember a stinging one-iron he hit to a par-five that I couldn’t get near. We became close friends and I caddied a few times a year for the two-time Canadian Amateur champion after he turned pro. He’ll be inducted into the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame next month during the RBC Canadian Open at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ont., when I’ll have the chance to say a few words about him.
Nelford advanced to the fifth round of match play at Ganton. I played my first round against Huw Evans. He’d represented Wales in international competitions. I was two-up with three holes to go. Newspapers of the day, including the Globe and Mail, usually carried the results of Canadians playing international tournaments. It occurred to me on the 16th tee that even if I lost the last three holes to Evans, I’d still lose only one-down. Not embarrassing. My friends would read the result and think, “He did okay.”
My thought process didn’t exactly define a winner’s mental state. I ripped my drive on the 16th some 40 yards past Evans. He hit a long iron on the green. I missed the green with a 7-iron and lost the hole. I hit my drive out of bounds on the short par-four 17th hole and so now we were all square with one hole to play. I found a greenside bunker with a 9-iron and lost the hole and match.
A fellow who sometimes caddied for the late Miller Barber in the Open Championship was caddying for me during the Amateur. He asked, “Did we really lose?” We did. I did. I was meant to be a golf writer, not a competitive golfer.
That was 36 years ago this week. I still have the draw sheet for the first round of the Amateur. I moved recently, and in the process misplaced a cricket bat that some of the competitors signed for me. It was a nice souvenir all these years. The Amateur Championship remains one of my favourite events in golf. I just need to return to Ganton, and relive the round again in person. I’d like another shot at the final three holes, perhaps in a casual match against a friend.
But whether or not I return there, I know I’ll always follow the Amateur Championship. It’s a special event on the calendar, year after year after year.
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Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association’s first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada’s Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round’s on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf’s Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at email@example.com. You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein