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Bill Campbell: Consummate Amateur

As we ponder the sweetest shots hit during this year’s U.S. Amateur and replay the most compelling matches, let us also take a moment to consider one of the greatest golfers ever to compete in this great event – William Cammack Campbell, better known as Bill.

I suggest this pause because it is easy to forget the smooth-swinging sensation of yesteryear – and important to be reminded of how completely the 87-year-old Campbell played the game. I’m afraid it’s also necessary to introduce him to young golfers, as I doubt more than a few in this year’s field know a thing about the man.

Born in his parents’ house in Huntington, West Virginia in 1923, Campbell qualified for his first U.S. Amateur as a 15-year-old. He topped his first drive after being introduced on the first tee at Oakmont Country Club by then USGA executive director Joe Dey. And things did not get any better after that. “There were huge rain storms, and I didn’t have a towel, umbrella or extra golf glove,” Campbell says. “I had a terrible day.”

But that terrible day kicked off what turned out to be a terrific career during which he qualified for 37 U.S. Amateurs. Only Chick Evans, with 50, competed in more. Just as impressive is Campbell’s run of playing in 33 consecutive U.S. Ams, a record that is as unlikely to be broken as Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game consecutive hitting streak in baseball. And then, of course, there was Campbell’s lone U.S. Amateur win, in 1964, and at age 41.

To be sure, there were golfers like Campbell’s idol Bobby Jones who won more national championships. Some hit the ball farther, and others were flashier. But very few could match Campbell in terms of longevity and consistency, or surpass his sense of sportsmanship and embodiment of the amateur ideal.

“I rarely played golf during the week or never for business,” says Campbell, who still lives in Huntington and sells insurance out of the same office he has occupied for 62 years. “I didn’t compete in a lot of tournaments either. But I did like the big events.” 

Campbell never wanted to turn pro or make the game a bigger part of his life. Golf was a deep love, but only one of many. There was also his prosperous insurance business and politics, which led him to serve in his state’s legislature and make unsuccessful runs for both the U.S. Congress and Senate. There was his flying, which he learned on the GI Bill after World War II, and his family, which included his wife Joan, his four stepchildren and the two kids they had of their own. He was also very civic-minded, serving as head of the local Chamber of Commerce, for example, and as president of the YMCA. 

Campbell is modest about his playing abilities. Abilities, by the way, that got him elected to the World Golf Hall of Fame. “I was good, not great,” he explains. “But I could rise to the occasion.”

Indeed, he could. Like the time at the 1947 U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach when Campbell hit two balls out of bounds off the first tee but nonetheless halved the hole after chipping in. Not surprisingly, he went on to win the match.

And it wasn’t only in the U.S. Amateur where he displayed such competitive mettle. Campbell never lost a singles match in eight Walker Cups he played from 1951 to 1975, compiling a 7-0-1 record. He also took 15 West Virginia Amateur titles, won the North and South Amateur four times and came out on top in the 1979 and 1980 U.S. Senior Amateurs.

Oh, and he also played in 15 U.S. Opens, 18 Masters, 11 British Amateurs and finished second in the first U.S. Senior Open ever played, in 1980.

Campbell was already an accomplished player when he headed off to prep school at the Philips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. Upon graduation, he entered Princeton. But World War II interrupted both college and golf, and Campbell went to war, fighting in France and Germany with the 100th Infantry. The U.S. Army awarded him a Bronze Star for valor, and he returned to Princeton, graduating in 1947 with a degree in history. Then he got back to playing golf.

For the next three decades, Bill Campbell played as well and consistently as any amateur in the game as he showed what being a golfer was all about. “You just try to be your best self when you compete,” he says. “To be the best person you can be. That is the spirit of the game.”

Campbell witnessed the evolution of competitive golf in America, and from a very good seat. He played with and against several generations of amateur golfing icons, from Willie Turnesa to Arnold Palmer, from Jack Nicklaus to Ben Crenshaw – and competed with pros like Ben Hogan and fellow West Virginian Sam Snead. Campbell also became an administrator of note, spending two years as president of the USGA and one as captain of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews. He remains the only person ever to have headed both associations.

We should remember all this whenever the U.S. Amateur is held. We should do that so we may better appreciate Bill Campbell.


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