Tour and News

Battle For The Amateur

Photo: AP Photo

Palmer poses with the U.S. Amateur trophy.

This article for appeared in the September 6, 1954 issue of Sports Illustrated.

DETROIT—If you wanted to give it a touch of Hollywood coloration—and to do so proved irresistible to a large number of the spectators gathered for the event at the Country Club of Detroit—the final match of the 54th annual United States Amateur championship was a scenario writer's dream come true: it brought together "a graying millionaire playboy who is a celebrity on two continents" and a "tanned, muscular young salesman from Cleveland who literally grew up on a golf course" and pitted them against each other in a "battle of the classes." Actually, there was no need to exaggerate the personalities of the two finalists (or the nature of their duel), for the contrast was a highly dramatic one without gilding one blade of grass.

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On one hand there was Robert Sweeny, 43 (and graying), six foot three and as slim as a one-iron, the son of an investment banker who was educated at Oxford, won the British Amateur in 1937, organized the Eagle Squadron of the R.A.F. in World War II, and whose fairly permanent address is London (where the family business has its headquarters) but who regularly spends about half of each year in the States, most of it around New York and Palm Beach and most of those hours on the courses of the Seminole, Sands Point, Deepdaleand Meadowbrook golf clubs. On the other hand there was Arnold Palmer, 24, a compact five foot eleven, seven months out of the Coast Guard, the son of the professional at the Latrobe Golf Club in Latrobe, Pa., an industrial town 40 miles from Pittsburgh. Palmer had learned to drive the club's tractor when he was seven, grown up with golf, attended Wake Forest College before and after his three-year hitch in the Coast Guard, and earlier this summer had won his first important tournament, the All-American at {C}Tam O'Shanter.

With such a cast of characters and a fine setting—a flat but well-trapped and thoroughly testing course—all that was required to make a 36-hole final a memorable one was good golf. The golf was very good. On the second hole, Sweeny, a magnificent putter, holed a 45-footer for a birdie. On the third, he holed from 18 feet for another birdie. Before anyone had quite digested this, he stepped up to his 20-footer on the fourth green, interlocked his fingers down the shaft, settled himself into his slightly open stance, pumped his right knee half a dozen times, and stroked the ball into the cup for still another birdie. This spree of Sweeny's charged the final right off the reel with excitement it never lost.

ATTACK AND COUNTERATTACK
Three up that soon, Sweeny stopped his own rush on the fifth green when, understandably fired with confidence, he went too boldly for another long putt and eventually three putted. The match then settled down into a dogged duel. Palmer, outdriving Sweeny consistently, sometimes by as much as 40 yards, got back to even by taking the 8th, 9th, and 10th and was on the verge of making it four holes in a row when Sweeny, confronted with holing a difficult 12-footer to halve the 11th, did so. That is the way it went, a tense, deliberate battle of attack and counterattack, Palmer never quite able to stick his nose in front, Sweeny carefully nursing the groove of his fluid, old-style golf swing and rebounding from challenge after challenge—amazingly for a man in his 40s with five gruelling days of match play behind him—to lead two up at the end of 18, to still lead one up after 29.

Then Palmer came on again and this time he made it. Back to even on the 30th. One up for the first time in the long day's chase with a fine iron to the 32nd. Then two up with a great birdie on the 33rd. Though Sweeny fought back to take the 35th with a 15-footer that he had to hole to keep alive and so carried the match right to the home green, in the opinion of both finalists it was the 33rd that was decisive. A short par-4 that measures 365 yards, the 33rd (or 15th) is a fairly sharp dogleg to the left, traps at the angle of the dogleg 230 to 260 yards from the tee, the green plateaued and guarded severely by traps. With no need to take chances, Palmer played his drive cautiously down the right hand side of the fairway and lofted a lovely approach with his pitching wedge seven feet from the pin. Sweeny, who had placed his drive close to the traps at the angle of the dogleg, then played a superb shot 12 feet past the pin. Had he been able to hole his putt, it would have shifted the burden of the pressure to Palmer. He barely failed. The ball caught the right-hand corner of the cup and twisted out. Palmer then holed his seven-footer to go two up with three to play, and that in essence was the match.

FALL OF THE FAVORITES
This taut, exhausting final—along with the equally stirring semifinal match which Palmer pried away from Ed Meister in the gloaming on Friday with a birdie on the long 39th—changed the whole aspect of the 1954 Amateur which had been building rapidly downhill from Wednesday morning on and at several moments threatened to disappear entirely from view. On that Wednesday morning, when the third-round matches were played, the tournament lost Harvie Ward and Billy Joe Patton, the top favorites and two vital personalities who were expected to "make" the tournament. Patently overgolfed from two arduous weeks of competition (during which he won the Canadian Amateur), Ward came up against Frank Stranahan. Harvie trailed most of the way and, when he finally staged a last-ditch rally to take the 16th and 17th and square the match, he proceeded to toss it away by pushing his iron to the 18th into the bunker before the green.

Patton's third-round match with Don Doe, a pudgy young man from Granby, Quebec, who was a finalist in the 1953 Canadian Amateur, had much the same pattern to it as Ward's. It was a pursuit that failed just when success seemed possible if not assured. Spraying his tee-shots with his usual impartiality to the rough on both sides of the fairway, Billy Joe fell behind at the ninth, then caught his man on the 14th. They halved the 15th in fours. On the short 16th, Patton pulled his six-iron into the trap at the left of the green. Doe put his iron well on, about 30 feet from the hole. Through years of experience, Patton probably plays trap shots better than any other amateur, and here he played a beauty that sat down quickly and ran dead for the cup, struck the back of the rim, and bobbled two inches away. Such a shot at such a critical stage should have shaken Doe. He putted, almost too quickly it seemed, and dropped it for a deuce. On to the 17th, and if it hadn't been a Patton match in which anything is probable, what happened on the 17th would have been incredible. The 17th is a straightaway hole 460 yards long; the members of the Country Club of Detroit play it as a par five, but it was rated a four for the Amateur since it can be reached with two very good shots. Patton hit them. He lay two, 50 feet from the cup, in an excellent position to pick up this important hole. Doe, feeling the pressure, had half-missed his fairway wood and was faced with a fairly tough pitch over a trap to the pin some 60 yards away. Doe went with his wedge. It looked as if he bellied the shot a bit, for the ball flew low and fast and struck the green only two yards in front of the pin. On its first fast bounce, it hit the base of the pin, head-on, and went—smacko—into the cup. Now, to keep the match alive, Patton had to hole his 50-footer for a half in threes. It was too much to expect even of a person of Patton's courage. He holed it. Both slightly shell-shocked, Patton and Doe moved on to the 18th. Billy Joe played it very humanly and very badly. He was short on his approach with a punched eight-iron. He was 12 feet short with his chip. He was a foot short with his putt. He had plain run out of miracles.

So Patton went out, and so ended one of the most remarkable chapters in the entire history of golf. It was the first time over a stretch of four and a half months—since his sudden emergence in the Masters—that Patton had been outscored by any golfer he had been paired with, and he had been paired in the Masters with Byron Nelson, Lloyd Mangrum, and Jimmy Demaret and in the Open with Claude Harmon, Lew Worsham, and Ben Hogan. "It was just one of those things, that streak, and nobody knew it any better than I did," Patton remarked as he packed up his bags. "I could practically feel that little man riding right on my shoulder. Well, now it's over and my feet are back on the ground, just where they were before this all started." Then Billy Joe Patton, the best thing that has happened to American golf since the invention of the wooden tee, headed home to Morganton, N.C.

The loss of Patton and Ward, so early in the week, was one of the hardest blows, gate-wise and otherwise, inflicted on the Amateur since 1929 when Bobby Jones was eliminated in the first round at Pebble Beach. It was doubly calamitous since so many other "name players" had already been defeated over the hazardous 18-hole route. Charley Coe, Sam Urzetta and Ted Bishop, all former champions, went out in the first round. So did Rex Baxter, without a doubt the most impressive young golfer in the country; through the vagaries of the blind draw, Baxter had the misfortune to meet Patton and lost on the first extra-hole. Willie Turnesa, Bruce Cudd and Joe Conrad were eliminated in the second round, Jimmy Jackson and Hobart Manley in the third, and Doe, Patton's conqueror, in the fourth. On Thursday morning, when the wreckage had been cleared away and the fifth round got underway, Frank Stranahan, who has taken 8 unsuccessful cracks at the Amateur, was installed as the sentimental favorite. That morning Frank was outplayed by Palmer and lost 3 and 1. Then perhaps it could be Bill Campbell's tournament, and that would be popular; Bill, who is getting to be the Craig Wood of amateur golf, had lost in the final of both the British and Canadian championships earlier this year. No, not Campbell either. Out he went in the fifth round, too, soon to be joined after the sixth by Dale Morey, last year's runner-up, and the last of the Walker Cup players, Don Cherry, the crooner. Cherry's stamina in lasting that long was rather wondrous in itself. Don makes it a habit to parlay night club appearances with his tournament appearances—a nice habit it is, too, at around $850 a week—and each morning, at 12:45 a.m., when the other competitors were sleeping, or trying to, Don was playing a floor show at one of Dearborn's smarter clubs. In any event, Don was eliminated by Palmer on Thursday afternoon, and this ruined any chances of a meeting between him and Ed Meister which could have been billed as the Meister-singer engagement. Things had come to such a pass by this time that, in the groggy atmosphere of the locker room, this was received as a fairly bon mot.

THE PALMER METHOD
Then, just when the tournament seemed most formless, it began to take shape. Arnold Palmer, who had started the week as the leading dark horse, logically became the favorite on Friday, morning of the semifinals. Palmer had been killing giants all week in very tight matches; 1 up over Frank Strafaci in the first round; 3 and 1 over Stranahan; 1 up over Cherry after standing two down with seven to play. A medal player by disposition who even in the throes of a match gauges himself by the number of strokes he is above or below par, Palmer is a puzzling golfer to assess. There is no faulting him as a striker of the ball, but his swing is definitely on the flat side, and he compensates for a tendency to come into the ball with a slightly closed face by riding his right-hand grip well on top of the shaft. Throughout the tournament, Palmer would play four or five holes in a row with great authority. Then he would erase the impression that he is almost as finished a shot-maker as Gene Littler was a year ago by smothering a drive or bumbling unsurely with an explosion shot. He is a sound putter and above all a player of tremendous determination.

On Thursday night when the word that he had gained the semifinals reached Palmer's parents in Latrobe, they climbed into their auto and headed for Detroit. They stopped at a motel in Lodi, Ohio for three quick hours of sleep, then resumed their all-night drive and arrived at the course just as their son was teeing off on his 39-hole marathon with Ed Meister, a solid golfer who captained the Yale golf team in 1940 and now, at 38, publishes trade papers for the fruit industry in Cleveland. Four times—on the 35th, 36th, 37th, and 38th greens—Meister had victory at the tips of his fingers, but failed to hole successive putts of 10, 14, 5 and 16 feet. On the long 39th, after these multiple close calls, Palmer was in a mood to appreciate an opportunity and to seize it. He played one of his best shots, two-iron to the back edge of the green, and was down in two safe putts, and the longest semifinal in Amateur history was over.

SWEENY'S VICTORY
In the meantime, in the other semifinal, Sweeny had taken care, 5 and 4, of Ted Lenczyk, the brother of Grace Lenczyk, the 1948 national women's champion. No one seemed precisely certain just how Lenczyk had ghosted his way to the semis and, for that matter, no one had paid much attention to Sweeny. Round by round, he was expected to fall, and round by round he had advanced, defeating first-rate men like Eddie Merrins and Dale Morey, putting beautifully and stroking his shots from tee to green with a lyrical swing that has altered very little if at all since his days at Oxford and his first attempts in the British Amateur. Reaching the final and playing so well in it was a heartening accomplishment for Sweeny. He has never managed to play nearly so well in American tournaments as in Britain and has been extremely well aware that he has always been regarded in this country as slightly less than a topnotch golfer. That should bother him no longer.

On top of this, Bob Sweeny scored another sizable victory. Since the life he leads is quite remote from most Americans—few of whom have the wherewithal to harden themselves for competition in $500 Nassau matches at Seminole—and since his David Niven manner embodies distance as well as charm, American golfers and golf fans have never warmed up to him. They did at Detroit, and one of his staunchest admirers was Arnold Palmer. After the final was over and Palmer had been piped to the clubhouse to the strains of To the Victor—supplied by that Detroit institution, Mr. Finzel's 12-piece military band—a friend inquired what Sweeny had said to him in the morning when he had thrown his arm over Palmer's shoulder as they walked off the fourth green, the scene of Sweeny's third consecutive birdie putt. "Oh," Palmer recollected with a smile. "He told me, 'Arnie, you know there's one consolation. You know I can't keep doing this.' "

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