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Not a game for grown-ups
Sarah Pileggi
September 11, 1978
By the semifinal round of the U.S. Amateur, only college kids were left. The best of them turned out to be John Cook, recruited for Ohio State by Jack Nicklaus
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September 11, 1978

Not A Game For Grown-ups

By the semifinal round of the U.S. Amateur, only college kids were left. The best of them turned out to be John Cook, recruited for Ohio State by Jack Nicklaus

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At the beginning of last week's U.S. Amateur the contestants included doctors, lawyers and airline pilots, upholsterers, county judges and hockey players. But at the end all that was left were two fuzzy-cheeked college boys battling across an elegant old Donald Ross golf course for the championship.

John Cook, 20, of Ohio State, and Scott Hoch, 23, of Wake Forest, settled the issue in 32 holes of match play Sunday afternoon at New Jersey's Plainfield Country Club. In the first nine holes the lead changed hands three times. But on the back nine. Cook, who looks and putts like Ben Crenshaw, caught fire. In the space of seven holes he made five birdies, hitting magnificent iron shots and sinking putt after putt. Hoch never quit trying, but as he said afterwards, "A great player played great, and that's tough to beat." They went to lunch with Cook five up.

In the afternoon most of the breaks went to Cook and most of the bad lies and putts that might have dropped but didn't belonged to Hoch. After the first three holes, Cook was leading by eight, but Hoch hung on, allowing Cook only one more hole and taking four himself. But on the 32nd hole, the inevitable happened, Cook winning the match 5 and 4 with two putts from 40 feet for par to become the 78th U.S. Amateur champion. "I've never played this well," he said. "It scared me." The No. 2 amateur said, "I tried the best I could to make a match out of it."

Earlier in the week a middle-aged spectator standing beside the 9th green watching the passing parade of shaggy collegians muttered to no one in particular, "I don't care who wins this. I'd just like to see it be a guy with one gray hair in his head."

Rooting for gray hairs in the U.S. Amateur these days is about as profitable as waiting the return of the gutta-percha ball. Even rooting for grown-ups is getting a little silly. The only full-grown adult with a fighting chance to win at Plainfield was Jay Sigel, a 34-year-old Philadelphia insurance man who has won most of the country's important amateur tournaments at one time or another since 1968, when he graduated from Wake Forest, which he attended on an Arnold Palmer scholarship. Sigel has never won the Amateur, but because he has won two other tournaments and had several high finishes this summer, the more doggedly optimistic amateur watchers thought maybe this was his year. Weekend golfers everywhere will be saddened to learn that Sigel lost to 18-year-old Bob Wrenn, Wake Forest '81, 5 and 4, in the fourth round.

By the quarterfinals only one taxpayer was left—Steve Owen, a 27-year-old real-estate man from Haines City, Fla. Having just beaten Bill Monneyham of the University of Houston in the fifth round, Owen was on top of the world. One more win and he would be in the semifinals, and making the semis in the U.S. Amateur means an automatic invitation to the Masters.

Well, Steve Owen will not be in Augusta come April, but Bob Clampett, the 18-year-old phenom of this year's U.S. Open, will. Clampett, the heavy favorite at Plainfield on the basis of winning the prestigious Western Amateur and the Porter Cup, sent Owen home to Haines City a 6 and 4 loser.

And then there were four. For once, the always exciting but not always reliable match-play format of the Amateur produced four of the best players and likeliest contenders in the 201-man field. And this time there were two extraordinary semifinal matches, each of which went two extra holes.

Clampett, who had lost only once in his last 22 matches, seemed to have his place in the final sewed up on the 18th hole, when Hoch hit a three-wood off the tee that rebounded straight back after hitting a tree trunk in the left rough. The match was even at that point, and Clampett had a clear second shot to the green. But then Hoch hit what he calls "the one lucky shot you need to win in match play." He figured his distance, factored in the wind, which was against him, and hit a knuckleball eight-iron that landed 10 feet from the pin. From there he two-putted for a halve that kept him alive and sent the match to the 19th tee.

Then it was Clampett's turn for a miracle shot. His legs were beginning to tire, and as they did, his shots began going to the right. Clampett is 5'9", weighs 140 pounds and usually loses a few pounds during a tournament. At the 19th hole he hit his tee shot right, onto an adjoining tee, where his route to the green was blocked by a clump of tall fir trees. However, he hit a nearly impossible snap-hook five-iron that landed on the green 35 feet from the pin. After two putts he had a par and a memorable halve.

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