The Latin phrase sui generis, which means “in a class by itself,” accurately describes the National Senior-Junior Championship, being played this week at the Dye Preserve Golf Club in Jupiter, Fla.
The name of the tournament clearly conveys what this event is all about. One skilled senior amateur, age 50 or older, partners with a junior, defined as a mid-amateur (25 or older). It is a 54-hole tournament at scratch that begins with a four-ball round, followed by a Chapman round and then a scramble.
Famed Winged Foot Golf Club professional Tom Nieporte and Jim Hoffer started the tournament in 1991. Pennsylvanian John Birmingham took it over in the early 2000s and has run it – his way – ever since. He is a tournament committee of one, and all who have had the chance to compete in the event appreciate him for that fact.
Limited to 56 teams, the tournament is one of the more popular events on the elite amateur circuit, and is unlike anything else in the nation. Birmingham starts hearing from interested players in late August, and the event is always sold out and has a lengthy waiting list. He labors for hours over the invitation list and the pairings each year.
Birmingham oversees the tournament in an effort to give back to a game that has been very good to him for seven decades. Introduced to the game as a 6-year-old, Birmingham grew up at Oakmont, the legendary Pittsburgh club that has a disproportionate number of really good amateurs.
He played golf in high school in addition to basketball and soccer, and then went to Duke University, where he played soccer and golf. He captained the 1960 Duke soccer team and was a member of the Duke University men’s golf team that won the ACC Championship in 1959 and 1961, and was runner-up in 1960.
He returned home to Pittsburgh after college to join the family business and to play competitive golf. He would enjoy an illustrious amateur career, locally and nationally, one that landed him in the Western Pennsylvania Golf Hall of Fame in 2016.
Birmingham won three straight West Penn Amateurs from 1966-68, the 1964 and 1972 West Penn Opens, and the Tri-State Open in 1966. He also won the Pennsylvania Amateur in 1961 and 1965. He finished second six times in the West Penn Amateur and three times in the Pennsylvania Amateur.
Birmingham qualified for 15 U.S. Amateur Championships, once finishing 10th during its stroke-play era, and one U.S. Open. Nationally, he won the 1970 Dixie Amateur, the United States Pro-Am and he was a part of a winning team in the John R. Williams Four-Ball at Oak Hill. In 1977, he won both the Fred Brand Foursomes and Four-Ball championships with Frank Fuhrer III, a fellow Western Pennsylvania Golf Hall of Fame inductee. Birmingham and Fuhrer also won the Anderson Memorial Four-Ball at Winged Foot and the Eastern Four-Ball.
Another fellow Western Pennsylvania Hall inductee, Bob Ford, grew close to Birmingham during his time as the head pro at Oakmont.
“He had no weakness,” Ford said. “He was long, with a long swing.”
Birmingham developed that long swing after reading Ben Hogan’s first book, Ben Hogan’s Power Golf. “I modeled my swing on Hogan’s,” he told me recently.
Birmingham befriended, and learned from, some great names in the game. He became close friends with Henry Picard, a two-time major champion and legendary club pro to whom Hogan dedicated Power Golf. Birmingham took lessons from Picard and learned at his foot.
“Pic had fun telling stories about Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen. And he loved to talk about the technical aspects of the swing,” Birmingham recalled.
Others who influenced Birmingham include longtime Oakmont pro and 1947 U.S. Open champion Lew Worsham, as well as Sam Parks Jr., who won the U.S. Open at Oakmont in 1935.
Since taking over the National Senior-Junior Championship, Birmingham has built it from a largely social gathering into a championship with a top-flight field. This year’s turnout included the winners of more than a dozen USGA championships and several state amateurs, collectively.
Birmingham is quick to credit the Dye Preserve and its owners, Joe Webster and Charles Bradshaw, for their role in making the tournament stand out. “Without a great course, you cannot have a great tournament,” Birmingham said. “There would be no tournament without Joe and Charlie’s support.”
“I play every year,” veteran competitor Mike McCoy told me as he prepared to compete alongside his son Nate, a recently reinstated amateur. “It’s the perfect way to start the season. The format is fun but highly competitive. John is friend to everyone and does a marvelous job of assembling the field and organizing the pairings.”
In Monday’s first round, the McCoys teamed to shoot 6-under 66, tied for second with two other teams and one shot off the pace set by Steve Johnson and Blair Miller. Paul Quigley and Bob Rotella shot 3-under 69 to take a one-shot lead in the Legends Division.
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