Too many golfers today think the game began when Earl Woods brought his son Eldrick to hit golf balls into a net on the nationally broadcast Mike Douglas Show in 1978.
In truth, there was a lot of golf played before that and it wasn’t just professional golf either. For more years than you can count amateur golf was at least the equal of the play-for-pay game. In Florida that meant Downing Gray.
His resume is world-class. In 1962, he was the runner-up to Labron Harris Jr. in the U.S. Amateur played at Pinehurst, and he played in 19 in all. While at Florida State University, he won seven consecutive NCAA tournaments. He played on three Walker Cup Teams (1963, ’65, ’67) and captained the 1995 and 1997 squads as well. He played in seven Masters, 1963 through 1968 as well as 1974 and was the low amateur in 1965 and 1967. He played on the U.S. side of the America’s Cup team in 1965 and 1967 and the U.S. World Cup team in 1966.
In addition to being the 2011 inductee into the Florida State Golf Association Hall of Fame, he was inducted into the FSU Hall of Fame in 1979 as well as that of the Southern Golf Association. He’s served as the director of the SGA and was named director emeritus of the association in 1996. In 1997 he was given a commendation from the city of Pensacola for Outstanding Contributions to the Pensacola Community, and the First Tee facility in Pensacola bears his name.
You’re extremely unlikely to ever read as strong an amateur resume again from this point forward.
“I think it would be surprising,” Gray admitted of the possibility. “I’d be delighted if more people would remain an amateur, but there’s so much economic pressure and I surely understand. I don’t think it would be smart not to turn pro. Look at Rickie Fowler, Rory McIlroy and Luke Donald. I’d love to see great amateur golf again, but the odds are slim.”
It’s not as if Gray didn’t have a choice. He could have given it a shot, but back then, the numbers just didn’t compute.
“I remember when Arnie (Palmer), Jack (Nicklaus), Gary (Player), Billy Casper and those guys would play in the Pensacola Open,” he recalled. “Some weeks they might win $500 and have to pay for their rooms and everything. I figured that if I couldn’t do better than that, I’d wasted four years in college. Also, I was married and we had a baby. Remember diapers weren’t disposable back then. And you had to drive everywhere. I was better off staying amateur.
“Jay Sigel and John Harris remained amateurs until they were 50, then they turned pro just to be able to keep competing at a high level with players on the Senior Tour. If I’d had that opportunity, I think I would have done the same thing.”
Back in the ’60s, it was an easier call to make. Gray believes it would be an easy call today as well, but the answer would be different.
“Fast forward to today and I’m playing as well as I was in 1963-64 and confronted with the decision?” he asked, “I’d be foolish not to give it a shot. Today is the complete reverse. The 125th guy on the money list is making a bazillion dollars. The worst thing that could happen is you don’t make it, but at age 30, you have plenty of time to move on to something else.”
Back in the ’60s, those who moved to the pro ranks at least had a solid amateur background as a training ground. Today? Not so much. Or do they?
“In a sense the college golf is the stage of amateur golf,” said Gray. “Back when I played in my first U.S. Amateur in 1962, 90 percent of the field was north of (age) 25. Today the Top 25 amateurs are mostly college players.”
What competing at the high-end amateur level has given Gray has been a perspective of both life and definitely golf that today’s younger players don’t have.
“I think they have fun in their own way,” Gray offered, “but it’s not like we had. Golf is so much more than the four hours on the course. There were always dinners that we went to, the fun we had during the practice rounds and after the tournament we got to go home to a different life. The young amateurs today don’t have that.”
Golf was different 50 years ago, equipment-wise. Otherwise, the game remains pretty much the same. Which was better? The days of having an option to compete at a high level as an amateur or pro? Or, today’s money grab? It’s hard to say, but it’s always nice to have options.