Pinehurst Lookback: 1962 U.S. Amateur
By Ron Driscoll, USGA
This is the first in a weekly series of notable championships played on Pinehurst Resort & Country Club’s Course No. 2 in the Village of Pinehurst, N.C. Pinehurst No. 2 is the site of the 2014 U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open, which will be played in back-to-back weeks in June on the same course for the first time.
The 1962 U.S. Amateur Championship was notable for two occurrences: it was the first USGA championship conducted on Pinehurst Resort & Country Club’s Course No. 2, and it signaled the coming dominance of college-age players over the career amateurs who had ruled the championship for most of its first six decades.
This passing of the baton was further demonstrated on the eve of the 62nd Amateur, when Charles “Chick” Evans addressed the competitors at the players’ dinner. Not only had Evans won two U.S. Amateurs and a U.S. Open, he was competing that week in his 50th and final U.S. Amateur. A three-time runner-up who had earned a record 57 match-play victories in the championship, the 72-year-old told the audience at Pinehurst, “I have always thought that golf is like a sleigh which has two equal runners – professionals and amateurs, and if one is destroyed, the sleigh cannot run… But with the possible fantastic earnings of a golf professional today, it is difficult to see how an individual could remain an amateur if he had unusual ability.”
Labron Harris Jr., 20, of Enid, Okla., had never seen Pinehurst No. 2, which was set up at 7,051 yards, the longest course in USGA championship history to that date. Though it was hosting its first USGA event, it was the longtime site of the prestigious North & South Amateur for men and women, and it had hosted a professional event, the North & South Open, for five decades.
“That was a different time for amateur golf,” Harris recalled in a phone interview. “Most of the Eastern players played in the North & South, while players from my area played in the Trans-Miss; an event in Memphis; one in Fort Smith, Ark. … It wasn’t until about 10 years later that players began to travel around the country to play on the amateur circuit.”
Chick Evans was dispatched in the first round that year, 8 and 7, by Dick Siderowf, who would go on to win a British Amateur and play on four USA Walker Cup Teams, though he would lose in Round 2 at Pinehurst. Other standout career amateurs such as two-time U.S. Amateur winner Charles Coe, William Hyndman, William Campbell and Robert Gardner – along with Dudley Wysong, runner-up in the previous year’s Amateur to Jack Nicklaus – were ousted early. The late Frank Hannigan of the USGA, who covered the championship for the USGA Journal, overheard one person describe it as “the slaughter of the ancients.”
The lone player over age 30 to reach the quarterfinals was Billy Joe Patton, 40, of Morganton, N.C., another celebrated amateur who was in the midst of his run of five Walker Cup Team appearances for the USA, and who had also won three North & South Amateurs. Patton would go on to captain two Walker Cup Teams and earn the USGA’s Bob Jones Award in 1982, but he would never win the U.S. Amateur, and he would never come closer than in 1962 at Pinehurst, where he fell, 3 and 1, to Harris in the semifinals.
One of the noteworthy matches of the championship was between two players who would go on to PGA Tour success. Deane Beman, 24, had already won a British Amateur and a U.S. Amateur and would become best known as the Tour’s longtime commissioner after earning four Tour victories. Beman was ousted in 24 holes by Homero Blancas, then a college star at the University of Houston who would also go on to capture four Tour events in a long career.
Like Patton, Blancas was eliminated by Harris, who played for his father, Labron Harris Sr., at Oklahoma State. Harris Sr. had founded the OSU golf program and coached 27 All-America players in nearly three decades as the Cowboys’ coach, including his son.
Harris Jr. was a strong student as well, having just graduated with a 3.5 GPA. He would go on to earn a master’s degree in statistics, and his game featured similar precision. According to Hannigan, “Harris is a long but not overpowering hitter, is very accurate with all his iron shots, and is exceptionally deft around the greens.”
“Pinehurst was a different type of golf course than I had ever played,” Harris recalled. “When you missed the green, it would just roll off onto the grass. I had very good feel in my hands, so I would putt from everywhere. I would putt out of bunkers.”
Having defeated Patton in the semifinals, Harris faced A. Downing Gray, 24, an insurance salesman from Warrington, Fla., in the championship match. Gray had ousted Charles Coody (who would go on to win the 1971 Masters), 3 and 2, in the semifinal round.
“That was an incredible week,” said Harris, who entered the final having won four of his six matches by identical 2-and-1 scores. He prevailed in 21 holes over two-time reigning U.S. Amateur Public Links champion R.H. Sikes in the fifth round. “If I didn’t have my best game, my opponent was off a little bit, too. If my opponent played well, I managed to have a good round. That’s the beauty of match play.”
In the 36-hole championship match, Gray leaped to a 5-up lead by the end of the morning 18 holes.
Harris spoke to his father, who was playing in a tournament in West Texas, during the lunch break.
“I told him, Dad, I’m 5 down,” Harris recalled. “He said, ‘You have it in you to come back from that.’ And I said, I know I have it in me, but can I get it out of me?”
He did, reeling off five straight winning holes to square the match before the turn, and going ahead on the 28th hole, the par-5 10th, when Gray’s ball ended up against a clump of lovegrass and he couldn’t advance it. Harris sealed a 1-up victory by making a testing 4-footer for par on the final hole.
“Winning the U.S. Amateur changed my life,” said Harris. “I had been a good player, but I had never thought of going on and making a livelihood out of golf.”
Hannigan neatly characterized the first USGA championship at Pinehurst: “In all, Harris played 174 holes and was credited with scores totaling 19 over par. If these statistics seem ordinary, it should be noted that the definition of par is rigidly defended by the No. 2 Course.”
Again, the dichotomy between the professional and the career amateur was played out by the 1962 Amateur finalists.
Harris went on to the PGA Tour, notching one victory, defeating Bert Yancey in a playoff at the 1971 Robbins Classic. After his playing career, Harris worked for the Tour in Bethesda, Md., and in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., and later for a sports management group. For five years, he was the executive director of the Kemper Open, and he also directed the 1983 Ryder Cup Matches in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.
Harris, 72, lives in Bethesda and spends much of his time as a professional stamp collector. He is proud of the fact that he played in eight USGA-affiliated championships in his career: the Junior Amateur, the APL, the Amateur, the Walker Cup, the Americas Cup, the World Amateur Team, the U.S. Open and the U.S. Senior Open. “I hit golf balls every day,” Harris said. “I’m a ball beater. I still dream of hitting it better.”
Gray would compete in 19 U.S. Amateurs and play on three Walker Cup Teams (1963, 1965, 1967), and he captained the 1995 and 1997 USA Teams. He played in seven Masters and was twice the low amateur. He served as the director of the Southern Golf Association, and The First Tee facility in Pensacola, Fla., bears his name.
Ron Driscoll is the USGA’s manager of editorial services. Email him at email@example.com.