Professional golf and amateur golf differ in many ways. For Jeff Wilson, though, there is one key distinction.
“I wasn’t very good at the professional thing,” he says.
And yet for eight full seasons, from 1986 to ’94, Wilson did it well enough to pay his bills, scratching out a living on the Web.com tour while appearing periodically on golf’s main stage. His top PGA Tour showing was a fourth-place finish in the 1990 Buick Southern Open.
Wilson wasn’t shy on grit. What he lacked was a love for the grind of Tour life — the rental cars and hotels and required hours on the range. In 1995, his first child just born, Wilson gave up the grueling regimen and went back to the kind of golf that suits him best. Now 55, he earns his keep these days as a car salesman in Vallejo, Calif., and hones his game with relaxed morning range sessions at nearby Green Valley Country Club, under the non-judgmental gaze of his Australian shepherd, Herman.
“As a pro, I practiced because I had to,” Wilson says. “Now I practice because I want to. I just enjoy watching the ball fly.” He has a lot to like about the way his ball’s been flying. Early this summer, Wilson was the low amateur at the U.S. Senior Open, joining amateur icon Vinny Giles as one of just two players to have earned that honor at both the U.S. Senior Open and the U.S. Open (Wilson achieved the latter at the 2000 U.S. Open).
This summer’s feat afforded Wilson more than bragging rights. It gained him an exemption into the biggest amateur event of all.
It’s that time of year again. The U.S. Amateur Championship is back. It kicks off Monday at Pebble Beach Golf Links, with Wilson in the field, a middle-age contender in this country’s oldest national golf championship. First held in 1895, the event predates the U.S. Open by one day.
Wilson is no stranger to the U.S Amateur (this is the 10th time he has qualified for it), and neither, of course, is the venerable links, which has hosted four prior iterations of the event.
The first of those — in 1929 — also marked the first time a USGA championship was staged out West.
Harrison Johnston went on to win. But the headline news that week centered on Bobby Jones. Already a four-time U.S. Amateur champ, Jones was beaten in the first round of match-play.
“We were sorry to see Bobby knocked out,” Johnston said, “but were relieved because we knew he was a better golfer than any of us.”
In 1947, when the U.S. Amateur returned to Pebble, the Havemeyer Trophy went to Skee Riegel, a multi-sport star who didn’t take up golf until age 23.
Fast-forward to 1961. Another U.S. Amateur at Pebble, and another star turn for another stud athlete. At 21, a baby-faced Jack Nicklaus outdrove his opponents by an average of 40 to 50 yards, and waltzed off with the trophy with a 9 and 8 trouncing of Dudley Wysong in the final match.
That same lopsided score repeated the finals in 1999, the last time the U.S. Amateur played out at Pebble. David Gossett was the winner, though he almost failed to make it to the match-play sessions after opening with 80 in the stroke-play qualifying phase.
Jeff Wilson has his own history at Pebble, including the ’99 U.S. Amateur, where he fell shy of match-play, and the 2000 U.S. Open, where he finished as low-amateur, in 59th place, 32 shots behind Tiger Woods.
Wilson’s first look at Pebble came as a 16-year-old. What he remembers mostly is how big the course looked and much fun he had driving the cart.
The layout looks more manageable to him now. He’s familiar with its wrinkles, and knows that it favors precision over power, an upside for a guy who doesn’t fly it with the bombers.
“It’s really all about positioning,” Wilson says. “If I can get through the stroke-play stage and into match-play, it’s the kind of course where I think I stand a chance.”
Standing in his way will be an eclectic range of talents, highlighted by 43 of the 50 top-ranked amateurs in the world. Among the notable exemptions are Jovan Rebula, nephew of four-time major winner, Ernie Els; Hurly Long, who carded a course-record 61 at Pebble Beach in last year’s Carmel Cup; and Matt Parziale, a firefighter from Brockton, Mass., who earned his invite by winning the U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship.
The first two rounds of stroke-play will be held at Pebble Beach and neighboring Spyglass, followed by match-play at Pebble. It’s elite golf, but it’s not pro golf. Here’s another big-time difference: spectators get to walk inside the ropes.
For tickets and more information, visit usga.org.