ST. LOUIS (KMOX) – Traditionally the United States Golf Association has been thought of as an ‘eastern’ organization. With its headquarters in Far Hills, New Jersey, just outside of New York, it has often stayed close to home with its premier event, the US Open and flown over the Midwest when it hasn’t. In the last 35 years the national championship has been played in the Central Time Zone only four times. But at least for one month this year there has been a distinctly St. Louis tilt to the USGA with a “triple crown” of sorts for our area.
The first crown went to St. Louisan Jim Holgrieve, Captain of the Walker Cup team. Back in his second tenure as captain, Holtgrieve took his ten-man squad back to its historic roots, the National Golf Club, where St. Louis born George Herbert Walker staged the first of the international team event’s competition in 1922.
Holtgrieve had been stung by press criticism in Scotland two years earlier when his talent laden American squad was upset by the team from Great Britain and Ireland. Holtgrieve had spoken consistently then about the values of amateur golf and the tradition of the series, even in the wake of the loss. His critics suggested that his values based approach was in lieu of an urgency to win and argued for a Harbaugh mentality from a Captain.
In early September this year, Holtgrieve reiterated his values approach leading into his last appearance as the head of the American team. He doubled down on the idea by lobbying in the off year for the inclusion of two spots for career amateurs on a team that has become of stepping off point for collegians on their way to professional careers. Unlike the 2011 squad, the expectations this year were a little less presumptive given the absence of a single American in the semifinals of the US Amateur a few weeks earlier.
After a slow start in the opening session, his group rallied for a dominant win and afterwards Holtgrieve held true to his priorities while relishing the added glow of a win. The former US Mid-Amateur champion kept his theme song in place but conducted a more harmonious performance at National Golf. He identified a greater need for “team” among his young charges and even collaborated with the group on a collective approach to game planning how to navigate the course.
In fairness to the writers who took Holtgrieve to task in his earlier loss, they had never had the benefit that we in this area had of seeing Holtgrieve as a competitor. They mistook his deep appreciation for the honor of serving as Captain as a lack of commitment to finish on top. Like all great players Holtgrieve has played the game with a relentless intention of winning, while always bowing to the dignity of a game he reveres.
The second St. Louis crown was a tiara as 2014 Curtis Cup Captain Ellen Port travelled to California attempting to go back to back in the US Women’s Senior Amateur. Well on her way to becoming the greatest ‘age group’ champion in USGA history, the John Burroughs teacher struggled in the stroke play qualifying at CordeValle but was seated comfortably in the 64 players match play field.
In her opening match she got her sternest test needing wins on her final two holes to advance. But once over that hurdle, Port used her usual late summer magnificence in rolling to her sixth national title. In her remaining matches she trailed only briefly once and never in the 3 and 2 final win.
Undefeated in match play in her short Senior Am career, Port sits only two additional titles away from joining Joanne Gunderson Carner for the all time USGA record for wins by a woman and now turns her attention to being a winning Captain at St. Louis Country Club next June.
The last of the three St. Louis crowns was picked up by this area’s Tom O’Toole, and his coronet is of Tower of London proportions and should include a scepter and a throne. On Friday, June 27, the USGA made official what had been anticipated for several months. The St. Louis based lawyer was named the next President of the USGA, with the official installation taking place in February of 2014.
O’Toole becomes the second St. Louisan to headed one’s of golf’s two ruling bodies, joining Horde Hardin in golf’s most powerful position. But O’Toole’s path to the top has been distinctly different from Hardin’s. His first entry into the game was as a teenage caddy at Westborough Country Club not as a member of one this area’s elite clubs.
To be clear O’Toole’s caddy career should not be confused with the impoverished starts of players like Hogan and Nelson. That doesn’t change the fact that slinging a bag on your back, even for a player like Jim Holtgrieve, is not the usual resume material for USGA Presidents. I once asked O’Toole after seeing him sit front row at the awards presentation at the Masters how many of the other dignitaries up front had once donned the white caddy uniform for a week at the Masters.
From his caddy days with Holgrieve, O’Toole transitioned into rules under the tutelage of Stan Grossman. During a long stay at the top of the Metropolitan Golf Association, which he helped create, he also climbed the ranks of the USGA on the merits of his rules reputation. He has now stepped on each rung of the Executive Committee ladder and will serve the usual two-year presidential term administering the game.
The sports calendar always becomes crowded in this area in September, and this year attention has been directed to the Cardinals run to a division title, the Rams stumble into annual disappointment and the Blues faithful dreaming of a Cup. But historically the St. Louis golf calendar will likely never see a month where three of our own have been among the headliners in the world of golf – all with crowning achievements.