Dublin, Ohio — One of the nice touches at the Memorial Tournament is that tournament host Jack Nicklaus honors the top college golfers and brings them to the tournament Sunday morning for a press conference, a meet-and-greet session and photos. Each player receives a trophy — a statuette — as the Jack Nicklaus Award winner.
This year’s winners arrived Sunday morning, all wearing blue blazers and ties. The were Matt Hill of North Carolina State, the NCAA Division I champion; Brent Witcher of Valdosta State, Division II champ; Mitchell Fedorka of La Verne, Division III; and Sam Cyr of Point Loma, the NAIA champ for the second straight year.
Nicklaus handed out the awards personally and sat with the players during a press conference with writers. One of the questions led Nicklaus to talk about how he beat Charlie Coe in the 1959 U.S. Amateur, and he mentioned that he had to make an eight-foot birdie putt on the final hole to beat Coe and take the title. He made it, he said, and “that was probably the most important stroke of my career.”
The collegians were asked to pick out their most important shots, and came up with some good stories.
Cyr took a five-shot lead into the final round of the NAIA Championship, but lost his lead by the turn and actually fell behind. He rallied with a couple of birdies and knew where he stood at the 71st hole, where he had a downhill 30-footer for birdie. “I knew I had to make it,” Cyr said, “and I did.” Then he promptly drove into the trees on the final hole and had to chip out. “Then I hit a 70-yard wedge shot to eight inches for par and I won by three.”
When a writer suggested that would be a tough story to top, Fedorka quipped, “I might be able to top it,” drawing laughter from the room.
At his conference championship, Fedorka was in a playoff for the individual title. He and his opponent tied the first hole. The players were using carts and Fedorka had several of his teammates loaded and hanging onto the cart when he turned the wheel a little too sharply and gravity took over. “I went flying out of the cart,” Fedorka said. Nobody was hurt, Fedorka got up and hit a shot to nine feet and made it to win the title. “It definitely took the pressure off me a little,” he said of the accident.
Witcher won the Division II national junior college title with a record-low score, which he said gave him a lot of confidence and validation. Hill remembered a tournament back home in Canada in which he and his older brother were playing. His brother was three up with three holes to go when Matt made a pair of birdies while his brother made a bogey. They were tied going to the 18th. Matt hit a shot to 30 feet, his brother to nine feet. Matt made his putt, his brother missed. “So that was pretty big,” said Matt.
Asked if he brings that episode up in conversation with his brother, Matt grinned and said, “Yeah, it’s come up a couple of times.”
Hill, by the way, is the only player besides Tiger Woods who has ever won his conference championship, the regional championship and the NCAA Championship in the same season.