Looking Back: 1966 U.S. Amateur
By David Shefter, USGA
This is the 10th in a series of 18 articles looking back at every USGA championship and international team competition held at 2013 U.S. Open host Merion Golf Club, which was known as Merion Cricket Club until 1942.
Golf’s global explosion – especially in the Far East and South America – in the last quarter-century has created such diversity that it’s not at all unusual to see foreign-born USGA champions.
Look no further than the U.S. Open, with seven foreign-born champions since 2000. Twelve of the last 18 winners of the U.S. Women’s Open have been international players, including six from Korea.
The two premier national amateur championships also reflect the fact that the USGA typically receives entries from more than 80 countries for its 13 championships. Five U.S. Women’s Amateur champions since 1995 were born outside the U.S., and a sixth (2009 winner Jennifer Song) spent most of her childhood in Asia, though she was born in Michigan to Korean parents.
On the men’s side, the U.S. Amateur has produced five foreign-born champions over the past decade.
But it wasn’t always this way. In fact, before the recent 5-in-10-years run for foreign-born players, only six players from outside the U.S. had won the U.S. Amateur in its first 102 years (a total of 10 victories in all).
When the U.S. Amateur came to Merion Golf Club in 1966, Americans owned the championship. The dominance was so great that before the 1966 victory by Gary Cowan of Canada, there had been a 29-championship drought between foreign-born winners – C. Ross Somerville of Canada won in 1932 – and only five internationals had ever had their name inscribed on the Havemeyer Trophy.
Besides Somerville, H.G. Whigham of Scotland won in 1896 and 1897, Findlay S. Douglas of Scotland won in 1898, Harold Hilton of England won in 1911, and Australian-born Walter Travis collected victories in 1900, 1901 and 1903, although Travis had become a naturalized U.S. citizen shortly after moving to America in 1895.
The 1966 U.S. Amateur was the second of eight consecutive championships that were conducted solely at stroke play (1965-72), and just three international players survived the 36-hole cut – reigning British Amateur champion Bobby Cole, of South Africa, and two Canadians (Cowan and Nick Weslock).
“I like stroke play because there is more time to win a tournament,” Cowan later said for a feature in the 1989 U.S. Amateur program. “In match play you can have one mediocre round against somebody and you’re gone. In stroke play, you can shoot a 74 and still win the tournament.”Cowan, 27, of Kitchener, Ontario, certainly had credentials to win in any format, having captured the 1961 Canadian Amateur and finishing as low individual at the 1962 World Amateur Team Championship in Japan. However, he was not mentioned as a pre-championship favorite along with Cole, two-time champion Deane Beman (1960 and 1963), of Bethesda, Md.; 1964 champion William C. Campbell, of Huntington, W.Va.; and defending champion Bob Murphy, of Lakeland, Fla.
Through the first two rounds, Cowan had been nearly anonymous. He had posted respectable scores of 74-72, but trailed the front-running Beman, who hit 33 of 36 greens in shooting 71-67 on the challenging East Course, by a whopping eight strokes.
Merion’s devilish setup, which required precision and patience, was clearly winning. Beman was the only golfer to better par (140) over the first 36 holes.
“It’s got me playing scared,” said Marty Fleckman in Golf World magazine. “I’m always on the defensive.”
Added Murphy: “I like to charge a course, but you can’t charge this one.”
Cowan came into the Amateur with reservations about the host site. Six years earlier at the World Amateur at Merion, he had posted rounds of 78-80-72-80 to finish 41 strokes behind Jack Nicklaus’ jaw-dropping performance.
From the time he stepped on the grounds in 1966, however, Cowan gradually began to get more comfortable with Merion’s personality and nuances.
Nevertheless, he still had to catch Beman, who was threatening to run away with the championship. In Friday’s third round, Beman played his first 14 holes in two under par and held a five-shot advantage. But one swing changed everything. On the par-4 15th hole, Beman hooked his tee shot out of bounds onto Golf House Road, leading to a triple-bogey 7 that brought many competitors back into the mix. Bogeys at 16 and 18 left Beman with a 6-over 76 and a share of the 54-hole lead with A. Downing Gray, of Pensacola, Fla. Cowan stood four off the pace.
In the final round, Cowan caught fire on Merion’s second nine. Birdies at 12, 14, 16 and 17 positioned him for the week’s best score. A bogey at 18 gave him a 3-under 67 and 5-over 285 total.
With ABC televising the U.S. Amateur live for the first time, Cowan took a seat in the clubhouse and watched the drama unfold.
Ron Cerrudo, of San Francisco, had a chance to post 284, but his 20-foot birdie try on 18 came up 2 feet short. Disappointed by the miss, Cerrudo nonchalantly moved to tap in his par putt one-handed. The momentary loss of focus led to an astonishing miss that would cost the 1966 USA World Amateur Team member a shot at the title.
Beman seemingly had his third U.S. Amateur title wrapped up, leading by three strokes with two to play. His tee shot on the 234-yard, par-3 17th hole found a greenside bunker. Despite skulling his bunker shot over the green, Beman recovered to hole an 8-foot bogey putt.
“I quit thinking on the tee,” Beman told Golf World.
At the challenging par-4 18th hole, Beman found the fairway off the tee, but his 2-iron approach landed in a greenside bunker.
By now, Cowan had resigned himself to finishing second.
“I went to my car to get my jacket for the presentation ceremonies,” he told Golf World. “I thought it was over.”
Much to the surprise of everyone at Merion and the national TV audience, Beman again struggled with his bunker play. His third shot found greenside rough and his fourth came up 20 feet from the hole. He missed the bogey putt. Incredibly, he was now deadlocked with Cowan at 5-over 285, forcing an 18-hole playoff on Sunday.
Beman had played Merion’s final four holes in a combined eight over par for the final two rounds. Those same holes would again prove to be pivotal in the playoff.
Through 14 holes of the playoff, Cowan held a one-stroke lead. At No. 15, he drained a 10-foot birdie putt for a two-stroke lead, only to give it all back on No. 16 with a triple-bogey 7 after his approach shot found the quarry. Beman pulled into a tie despite making a bogey 5.
At the par-3 17th, Beman looked in solid position to take the lead after hitting his tee shot 12 feet from the flagstick. Cowan was just off the putting surface, more than 30 feet away. He got up and down for par, while Beman improbably three-putted.
When both players made routine pars at 18, the title belonged to Cowan. Five years later at Wilmington (Del.) Country Club, Cowan won again at stroke play. He finished off his three-stroke victory over 1968 U.S. Junior Amateur champion Eddie Pearce by holing a 9-iron approach for an eagle 2 at the 72nd hole. He remains the last Canadian male to have won a USGA title.
Beman turned professional in 1967 and won four PGA Tour events before becoming the Tour’s second commissioner, where his legacy includes creating The Players Championship and forming what is now the Champions Tour. He was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2000.
Cowan turned pro at age 52, but he will always be linked to Merion, and the U.S. Amateur. When the club celebrated the 75th anniversary of the East Course in 1987, it extended an invited to Cowan, who had not set foot on the property since his 1966 win.
“It was a great experience for me to go back and renew acquaintances and see the golf course again,” Cowan said. “It was really quite nostalgic for me… Merion is very high on my list.”
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA.