"I'm kinda happy all right," he said self-consciously when they gave him the fussy gold trophy. "It's kinda hard to believe I was fortunate enough to win. I can hardly believe it."
A lot of other people felt the same way, for Labron Harris Jr.'s name is recognizable only because of his father, a sometime touring pro who coaches golf at Oklahoma State. Labron Jr.'s record contains nothing but such modest entries as Western Junior champion in 1960, and Oklahoma State champion in 1962. But his victory brought smiles to the faces of USGA officials as well as his own, for unlike so many of the best young golfers in the Southwest, Labron has not been using college golf as a kind of free, four-year prep school for the professional circuit. This week, as he celebrates his 21st birthday, he also will begin to study for his master's degree in statistics. Golf will now delay his education a bit. He has been named to the four-man U.S. team that will compete in the World Amateur in Japan this October. But then it is back to school for the new champ.
Those who have never followed the arduous six-day ordeal of the Amateur Championship of the U.S. Golf Association (as it is formally labeled) find it difficult to comprehend some of the qualities besides golfing skill that are needed for victory: the endurance to swim the English Channel underwater and the nerves to let your life savings ride on the double zero at Las Vegas would both be a help. Momentarily lacking one or another of these gifts, some of the best amateur golfers of this or any other generation were eliminated so early in last week's tournament that by Thursday morning's fifth round only two of the 16 golfers still in contention seemed very familiar.
One of these was Homero Blancas, a swarthy, black-haired, black-eyed Mexican-American who only five weeks ago had scored an unbelievable 55 in a tournament in Texas (SI, Sept. 3). Blancas had survived to the quarter-finals only by reason of a razor-thin victory on the previous day over Deane Beman, the 1960 Amateur champion, in the longest, wildest match of the week. Ten times in the first 18 holes the match seesawed back and forth—Beman 1 up, even, Beman 1 up, even, Beman 1 up, even, Blancas 1 up and so on until Blancas missed a tiny two-foot putt on the 18th green to send the players into extra holes. At this point, Beman's putter, widely respected as one of the most effective weapons in all golf, became as useless as a broomstick. As they halved hole after extra hole, Beman missed one short putt after another, any of which would have won the match. Finally, at the 24th hole, Blancas sank a 15-footer to win. Twenty-four hours later Harris put an end to Blancas' title bid.
Beman had plenty of company in this dour week for noted amateurs. Charlie Coe, who had twice won the tournament (in 1949 and 1958) and was runner-up by a stroke to Gary Player in the 1961 Masters, lost 3 and 2 to young Bill Gerringer of Newport News, Va. in his opening match. A similar misfortune struck Bill Hyndman, who has been one of our leading amateurs for more than a decade. Others who failed to get beyond the second round included former Walker Cuppers Ward Wettlaufer, Bill Campbell and Bob Gardner as well as Dudley Wysong, runner-up to Jack Nicklaus in last year's championship.
The finality of losing a match at the Amateur contains a poignancy that is absent from stroke-play tournaments, where even a golfer who is hopelessly out of contention can at least carry on as if all were well and perhaps even redeem his pride with a remarkable score the next day. In tennis this week's loser has next week's tournament to look forward to, or possibly a victory in one of the doubles events. But at the Amateur there is nothing left but the heavy burden of defeat and the long trip home. Convention requires the defeated to get out of the way, to remove their anguish from the clear and happy joy of the victor, and the all-week exodus of players from Pinehurst was a melancholy thing. The ways of the Amateur are harsh, but they add enormous drama to a great golf event. And if the memory is vivid of how a crestfallen Downing Gray lost a trophy in the pines, the winning smile of young Labron Harris is more vivid still.