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Battle For The Amateur

Arnold Palmer wins 1954 U.S. Amateur
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.

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.

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.

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