SI Vault
Alfred Wright
October 01, 1962
The most famous names in amateur golf came to grief in the woods of Pinehurst as the national championship was won by an unknown 20-year-old who managed to stick to the fairways
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October 01, 1962

Lost In A Forest Of Needles

The most famous names in amateur golf came to grief in the woods of Pinehurst as the national championship was won by an unknown 20-year-old who managed to stick to the fairways

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The man who is bowing to the needling obstructions in the picture below is finding out what the country's best amateur golfers all learned last week: that the unrelenting and piny confinements of the renowned No. 2 course at the Pinehurst Country Club in North Carolina can destroy one's most sunsteeped dreams. The young man's name is Downing Gray, and at this very moment during the closing hours of the final round in the National Amateur golf championship he is starting to lose a seemingly safe five-hole lead.

When the 36-hole final match started last Saturday morning, even the most dedicated followers of golf had trouble identifying the two strangers who were standing in the positions usually occupied by the more celebrated names of this sport. One was Gray, a thin, 24-year-old insurance salesman from Pensacola, Fla. who had never before entered a national championship. The other was Labron Harris Jr., a lanky youth of 20 who comes from Stillwater, Okla., where he graduated with honors in mathematics from Oklahoma State University.

As these two obscure athletes prepared to tee off on the all-day grind that would determine the winner of the second most prestigious golf title in the U.S., the interest in the outcome was about on a level with the concern over whether it would rain that morning in Nome, Alaska. But by 3 o'clock that afternoon, the solemn Mr. Harris had demolished this indifference, along with his opponent's five-hole lead, by staging one of the most thrilling comebacks in the 62 years of the Amateur.

Gray had spent five exhausting and tension-filled days reaching the finals while beating nobody more famous than one Marion Methvin Jr. of Little Rock, Ark. Harris, on the other hand, had taken a much more spectacular route, beating Public Links Champion Richard Sikes, Homero Blancas of Houston, the runner-up in this year's collegiate championship, and then, in a wildly nerve-racking and seesawing 36-hole semifinal on Friday, Billy Joe Patton himself, the aging Bonnie Prince Charlie of amateur golf. As the afternoon round began, it looked for sure as if Gray's steady, workmanlike style, executed off an admirably compact swing, would get the Carolina gallery back to the clubhouse television set in time to watch home-state Duke play USC in the Blue Devils' opening football game of the season.

Harris had other ideas, however. Refusing to be ruffled by his deep deficit, he began to play nearly faultless golf. His long, lazy swing was moving the ball straight down the fairways for excellent distance; his chipping and putting could have won him a Marine marksman's medal. Playing the first eight holes of the afternoon—the 19th through the 26th of the match—in one under par, he won six, lost one and halved one to draw even. Gray, in the meantime, had lost most of the superb concentration that had served him so well throughout his first six matches of the tournament. He was spraying his drives far into Pinehurst's tall, long-leaf pines that surround the fairways like columns in a Grecian temple. His approaches and his putts refused to obey his will: Perhaps just a bit too soon, he had allowed himself the privilege of picturing a victory that was not yet his.

By the 28th hole Gray lapsed into his fifth bogey out of the 10 holes he had played thus far in the afternoon, and Harris went into the lead, 1 up. With immense determination, Gray regained control of himself and his game and proceeded to dam the flood of trouble. Even the appearance of General Eisenhower, who drove up in a bright-blue golf cart as the players reached the 12th hole, failed to faze Gray's new resolution—or Harris' poise—which is more than can be said for the gallery. For a while it wandered in schizophrenic disorder, attempting to give all its attention to both Ike and what was by now a tough, boiling golf match.

After the two players had hit their tee shots on the 15th, they were asked if they wished to meet Ike, who had to leave at that moment to catch a plane. Gray said he would prefer to wait until after the hole was finished. Harris told the referee, "Well, I might as well get it over with now." As he turned and walked back alone to where Ike was waiting, Harris, who has a most pleasing boyishness about him, muttered to himself: "Getting it over with is not exactly the way I meant to put it."

The gangly, 6-foot-3-inch youth mumbled his thanks as Ike said, "I didn't want to disturb you, but I wanted to congratulate you on the magnificent fight you have made."

Harris hurried back to his golf and salvaged a par out of the hole with a brilliant 80-foot chip shot. He birdied the 16th to go 2 up, then lost the 17th, a 187-yard par 3, to Gray's courageous and completely necessary par.

At the final hole—a longish par 4—Harris needed a four-foot putt for his victory, the kind of putt that makes it exceedingly hard to breathe. He gave it a good long look, and while the nervous crowd and his anguished opponent shifted uneasily under the leaden sky, he tapped it in. A porpoise's grin crossed his round boyish face for one of the first times that day, and he waved his long arms limply in the air.

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