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It was a warm, slightly muggy June day in Winston-Salem, N.C. The spring semester at Wake Forest was over and the summer session had not yet begun. Jay Sigel (rhymes with wiggle), the best player on the Wake Forest golf team, was on his way out of the Kappa Alpha fraternity house to play nine holes with Jesse Haddock, the golf coach.
As Sigel approached the swinging glass-paneled door separating the second-floor stairwell landing from the interior corridor, a fraternity brother, going through the door ahead of him, slammed it shut. Sigel reached out to stop it; suddenly his left hand was through the glass and blood from a severed artery was hitting the ceiling.
That was 19 years ago. Until that day Sigel had been headed for the pro tour. He had reached the finals of the USGA junior championship; he had received the first Arnold Palmer scholarship at Wake Forest; he had made All-America twice. His prospects were bright and his confidence high. Then, for the first time in his young life, Sigel found himself unable to play golf.
After 10 days Sigel emerged from the hospital with his hand pieced together—tendons tied, nerves spliced, skin grafted, with 72 stitches and a cast holding all the parts in place. When he next played golf, a year later, he had only 50% of the feeling in the hand, and the cushion of muscle that ordinarily absorbs the shock of the club head striking the ground was gone.
By all odds, Sigel should be a disappointed man. Instead, at 39, he is on top of the world, the world in which golfers play for fun, not to pay the bills. He is a solid citizen of Philadelphia's Main Line, a successful businessman, family man and, for the past year, the reigning U.S. Amateur champion. On a sideboard in the dining room of his comfortable suburban home in Berwyn, Pa. was an ornate silver loving cup that declared Sigel the best part-time golfer in America, the champion of all club champions. At one time or another the trophy has decorated the homes of Bobby Jones, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. Sigel won it last Labor Day weekend at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass. over a field whose median age was 22, and he will try to win it back next week at North Shore Country Club in Glenview, Ill. Sigel is the oldest Amateur champion since Bill Campbell, who was 41 when he won in 1964, and one of only three non-collegians to win since then, the others being Canada's Gary Cowan in 1966 and 1971 and Vinnie Giles in 1972.
The typical Amateur champion of the last two decades is a Jay Sigel, circa 1962. He is a golf-team hotshot who attends a Sunbelt college and plays the game the year around. His education is subsidized by his golf, and his golf by a full-ride athletic scholarship. His major is business, the better to handle the wads of money he expects to win on the pro tour. In other words, since colleges replaced caddie yards as the spawning grounds of touring professionals, the Amateur champion has tended to be amateur in name only. For the last 20 years true amateurs, like Campbell and Sigel, have been the exceptions. Pros-in-training, such as Jerry Pate, Lanny Wadkins, Craig Stadler, John Cook and Hal Sutton, have been the rule.
Sigel's home course is Aronimink, seven minutes from his home and five minutes from his insurance-agency office in Wayne. Aronimink's stone clubhouse is turn-of-the-century English Tudor, and the towering oaks and pines that line its winding drive have a grandeur that only time can buy. Its membership is comfortable and conservative too—but when Sigel won the Amateur, Aronimink was as proud as a small-town Lions Club chapter. The members even hung a big white banner between two trees that read CONGRATULATIONS JAY SIGEL, U.S. AMATEUR CHAMPION 1982.
Sigel plays at Aronimink about twice a week. His companions are an informal group of 10 or 12 low-to-middle-handicap members whom Sigel calls The Usuals. For some of The Usuals, Sigel has his own handicapping system. Whenever he beats one of them he adjusts the loser's handicap up a stroke. Two years ago Bill Burns, 47, started at six and went all the way to 13 before he broke out of his slump. "It's a fair way of handicapping," says Sigel, "and at least it keeps your friends coming back."
The Usuals spend almost as much time needling as they do playing golf. They kid Sigel about his weight, which, at 200 pounds, borders on being a problem; his size-13 feet ("His father told him to take care of those feet," says a Usual. "They'd carry him farther than his head would"); his tightfistedness ("He shakes, he sweats, he stammers, he blacks out"); and his business ("If you lose, you get to buy an insurance policy. If Burnsie goes down, it's all over for Jay's company"). But The Usuals are also very competitive. "The Usual game is critical to keeping my game in shape," says Sigel.
Insurance supports his amateur status, buying him the luxury of playing golf when he wants to and the even greater luxury of not playing when he doesn't. He chose insurance when he looked out the window one day and noticed that the only people playing were salesmen. "It wasn't the doctors. They play Wednesday afternoon, if they're lucky. It wasn't the attorneys or the stockbrokers. It was the salesmen. My direction was clear."