The course is wedged between an industrial park, a small airport and Pepe's Tacos. There is no grass on the tees, just AstroTurf mats. The fairways are burnt out, and the greens, well, putting on them is like putting on the Santa Monica Freeway. The few players who aren't beginners wish they were, so at least they would have an excuse. The roar of landing planes is interrupted only by the steady serenade of police sirens. Van Nuys Golf Course, in a depressed and depressing part of Los Angeles's San Fernando Valley, is 18 holes of par-54 hell, but to Tim Hogarth, who was crowned the 71st U.S. Amateur Public Links champion last weekend, it is the little slice of heaven he has called home since his first round there when he was 11. "That course—chewed up, packed with a bunch of chops, in the middle of a slum—that course is who I am," he says.
Hogarth's victory, which was capped by an 8 and 7 win over Jeff Thomas of South Plainfield, N.J., in a 36-hole final match, struck a blow for every muni-playing weekend warrior born with a plastic spoon in his mouth. Despite being played in a most incongruous place—Wailua Golf Course in Kauai, Hawaii—the Publinks hosted the same motley crew you always find at the tournament that bills itself as America's blue-collar national championship. The competitors, their ages ranging from 16 to 52, came from 46 states plus Puerto Rico and Canada. Some had tattoos, others liver spots. Sure, there was an army of college kids, but there was also a bellman, a fireman, a repo man, a high school basketball coach, a carpenter, a cop, an elementary school teacher, an insurance salesman, a C.P.A., an asphalt machinist and even an "auto body technician," code words for grease monkey.
Hogarth, a 30-year-old health food salesman, had to play 151 holes over six days to secure the title. The first two days were each 18 holes of stroke play, after which the 156-man field was cut to 64. (Taggart Ridings, a senior at Arkansas, was the medalist with an eight-under-par 136.) Six rounds of match play followed. "A golf stressfest," says Hogarth, who bumped off the defending champ, Chris Wollmann, and last year's runner-up, Bill Camping, on his way to the title. Though his ball striking was shaky all week—during the final he hit two wormburners off the tee—Hogarth survived on grit and a magic putter. Van Nuys ought to get credit for both.
As a kid Hogarth would take on the old men at the muni's practice putting green for spare change. Now that he's a 40-hour-a-week working stiff, Hogarth still sneaks out at lunch hour a couple of times a week for skins games with the self-styled Rat Pack, a group of a dozen regulars. The only thing Hogarth didn't pick up at the Van Nuys course is a snooty private club 'tude, but he'll get the chance to experience that soon enough. For winning the Publinks, he earned a tee time at the 1997 Masters. "It's going to be like visiting another universe," Hogarth says. "I won't even be able to pull the club back. I'm going to shoot 90." But he adds, "I could win the par-3 tournament...if they let me use a mat on the tee."
The Masters exemption has always made the Publinks one of the most coveted amateur titles, and through the years it has been won by eventual PGA Tour players Billy Mayfair, Jodie Mudd and Dan Sikes Jr. But it was the chance for a free flight to Hawaii that inflated the number of players entering the 36-hole local qualifiers to 6,200, the second-highest total in the event's history. With a nod to the financial realities of the contestants, the Publinks is the only championship in which the USGA helps players with expenses. The association even kicked in $30 a day in meal money and got cut-rate hotel rooms.
Experiencing the islands was quite a trip for some of these guys. The less-traveled competitors were taken aback by the natives. "These Hawaiians, they don't look like the folks back home in Louisiana," said Frank Wright, the pride of Bossier City. There were new culinary discoveries as well. "At the luau they dug up this pig and called it dinner," said a cringing Michael Hasibar of Cathedral City, Calif. "There were all these teeth, and an eyeball hanging out. It was sick." The beautiful waters of the Pacific also offered plenty of adventure. "I was boogie boarding and got caught in a riptide, and next thing I know I was halfway to Japan," said Kyle Dobbs of Saline, Mich., who was reeled in by the Coast Guard after drifting for some 20 minutes. There was also a certain fascination with the local culture. "Hula dancers, man," said Ridings. "I'm all for that."
There was a spring break atmosphere to the proceedings, but while easily half the field were college players, the kids were all business. It was the older crowd, the thirty-something guys with wives and mortgages and 9-to-5 jobs, who did the carousing, a turn of events best explained by Cameron Azarri, a third-year law student playing in his first USGA event. "I'm the fringe element," he said. "All these college players are trying to make a career out of golf. This is like life or death for them. For the older guys, we're more relaxed and probably just happy to be here."
"I'm here to do a job, not screw around," confirmed Camping, a recent graduate of Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, La., who plans to turn pro at the end of the summer. "It's not about a free trip to Hawaii, it's about collecting the hardware. The only reason I'm here is to hold up the winner's trophy." Jeff Burns, a senior at Houston, sounded a more urgent note. "A tournament like this is a great way to build your r�sum�," he said. It was that kind of crazed fervor, as well as their robotic practice routines and buzz cuts, that led one bemused older competitor to tab the college players the Hitler Youth.
As for the old slackers, Thomas Lapcevic would have to be their poster boy. "I'm so happy right now," he said moments after missing the cut. "This is absolutely the best thing that could have happened." Lapcevic is a 37-year-old fifth-grade teacher from Florida who had never been west of the Mississippi, so his enthusiasm was understandable. By missing the cut, he freed up three days to enjoy Kauai, which he did by snorkeling, sunbathing, frolicking in waterfalls and hiking in the lush countryside.
This lack of motivation and hedonistic lifestyle were held in low regard by the whippersnappers. The Senior tour, they called it, and derisively referred to their, shall we say, more experienced competitors as the old guys. As in, "You don't want to lose to one of the old guys," Burns said. "It's pretty embarrassing." Meanwhile, there was much snickering at the earnestness of the flat bellies, as the undergraduates were commonly called. While 33 of the 64 players who made the cut were in college or had recently graduated, only two made it to the quarterfinals. Said runner-up Thomas, 37, "Tell all those kids they got whipped by a former clam digger."