Jim Holtgrieve is back.
Back in the amateur game, reinstated by the United States Golf Association three years ago after what he describes as a regretful stint as a touring pro. And back in the Walker Cup, as captain of the 2011 U.S. squad after playing for the American team a generation ago.
Not surprisingly, the 62-year-old St. Louis native is pretty happy about those developments. For starters, they return him to his golfing roots and the part of the game the winner of the first U.S. Mid-Am ever played always has loved most. “Golf was only about the money when I turned pro,” Holtgrieve says. “It was not the right reason to be playing.”
He also likes the idea of being involved with the Walker Cup again. “Representing my country is very important,” he explains. “I did it three times as a player, and doing it as captain will mean just as much.”
Golf has meant a lot to Holtgrieve ever since his father handed him a club when he was only 4 years old. The youngster was 6 when he competed in his first tournament and came to play the game well enough to be No. 1 on his high school team as a freshman. Holtgrieve went to the University of Missouri on a golf scholarship but only lasted a year. “I was young and immature and didn’t like Saturday classes,” Holtgrieve says ruefully. “I was stupid, and one of my real regrets is never playing college golf.”
He enlisted instead in the Air Force, in the middle of the Vietnam War, mostly because he believed he was about to be drafted. Somehow, Holtgrieve got himself stationed in Hawaii, assigned to the 548th Reconnaissance Technical Squadron. It not only kept him out of combat but also enabled him to tee it up all the time. He played a few tournaments, won the Army Open and then started dreaming of the PGA Tour.
“I thought I might turn pro when I got out,” Holtgrieve says, “but a friend reminded me I hadn’t won a thing back home. He suggested I play a little first.”
So that’s what Holtgrieve did when he returned to Missouri, playing amateur tournaments as he worked for his father, who was a manufacturer’s representative in the steel and rubber business. Young Holtgrieve did well enough to qualify for the 1978 U.S. Open, then won the Missouri Amateur and made the ’79 Walker Cup team.
“Even though I was playing well, any thoughts of turning pro pretty much disappeared,” he recalls. “Sure, I would think of it sometimes, when I saw amateurs I had competed against, like Davis Love and Fred Couples, turning pro. But I was working in a family business and having a lot of fun with amateur golf.”
Holtgrieve kept having fun as an amateur. He made it to the final of the 1980 U.S. Am; won his Mid-Am the following year; played in two more Walker Cups, in ’81 and ’83; and nearly won the 1983 British Amateur, finishing second. He also competed in five Masters, making the cut in three of them.
Then visions of turning pro once again cropped up when he hit his late 40s. Part of that was born from an understandable desire finally to test his game against the best. But it was also a result of financial issues with the family business that made the potential riches of professional golf pretty tempting. His marriage also was falling apart. “I thought turning pro would help both situations,” he says.
Holtgrieve received a sponsor’s exemption for his first Champions Tour event, finishing 13th and wining $22,000. “I thought, ‘Hey, this is pretty good,’” he says. “But it turned out to be a mistake. All of a sudden, I was playing golf for money, not for fun. I forgot the significance of the game, the enjoyment. I loved playing in the pro-ams. But I was nervous by Friday because I was thinking of the money I needed to make.”
Holtgrieve competed on the Champions Tour from 1998-2005. He finished second in one event, the 1999 Home Depot Invitational, but came in dead last in his final one. “I looked up to the sky when I made my last putt and told the Lord I had gotten the message,” he recalls. “I was done.”
Done as far as professional golf was concerned. But not at all finished with the amateur game that had meant so much to him. No longer worried about making tournament cuts, he finds himself happily preparing instead for the 2011 Walker Cup, which will be held at the Royal Aberdeen Golf Club in Scotland.
“I’ll mostly lay low this year,” he says. “I’ll meet with past players and captains and keep tabs on those who might be part of the team. I’ll play Royal Aberdeen this summer to get acclimated to it. But I won’t really start going to tournaments and scouting players until next January.”
One of the biggest challenges any Walker Cup captain faces is convincing those who seemed destined to join the PGA Tour from doing so before the matches.
“I know some of them will be thinking of the money they can make, but I’d like them to see that golf is about more than that,” he says. “It’s also about playing for your country, and being a part of the Walker Cup team is something they will remember, and appreciate, the rest of their lives.”
That is a sentiment Holtgrieve understands better than most.