Duke Delcher is a working man’s golfer.
That’s certainly evident in the 27 USGA championships he has competed in across more than five decades, the Walker Cup he played as a 41-year-old and the extraordinary effort he put into launching the Players Amateur tournament alongside Tom McKnight.
But accomplishments are only a small window to understanding Delcher. His career in golf, whether on the course or not, could be described as similar to a player who got out of position off the tee but creatively found a way to salvage par — rarely has it been textbook, but it’s constantly brimming with soul and determination.
That passion came honestly through his upbringing. Delcher grew up just north of Philadelphia in Fort Washington, Pennsylvania, playing his golf at Sandy Run Country Club where his grandfather was the general manager and his grandmother ran the kitchen.
Unlike other kids, Delcher found one passion and stuck with it.
“I don’t remember anything else besides golf, honestly,” Delcher said. “I didn’t play other sports, so I concentrated on golf. It’s funny, when you get to be good playing at a little club, everybody tells you how good you are, but I just stayed at it and kept wanting to get better.”
Within that sole focus, golf served as a safe harbor from pain Delcher dealt with elsewhere in his life. In modern times we take for granted that talented junior golfers routinely attend college, get the experience of playing for a team and slowly mature to where taking on professional golf is feasible. Delcher, however, felt the path was not for him.
“I struggled with school a little bit and I was overweight, and kids gave me a really hard time, so I wasn’t a big fan of school,” Delcher said. “Back then, scholarships were not particularly prevalent, not what they are today. So I didn’t go to college. My father gave me the money that it would cost to go to college, and I used it to play amateur golf and turned pro.”
Delcher did that in 1979 and embarked on a five-year career. He traveled throughout Europe, Asia and the United States, earning conditional status on what we now call the Korn Ferry Tour and grinding on various mini-tours.
“By the time I got to Medinah, I pretty much knew I didn’t want to play professionally. I didn’t want to be a club pro, either, so my last year at Medinah, I went to night school and got a real estate license in Illinois.” – Duke Delcher
His success was moderate and Delcher went to work in the golf business to supplement his income. He started by working for Gary Groh, a former tour player who won the 1975 Hawaiian Open and had then become the head pro at Bob O’ Link Golf Club in Highland Park, Illinois, north of Chicago. Delcher worked at the course during the summer — giving lessons, helping in the shop and things of that sort — and then played competitively in the winter months. After three years at Bob O’ Link, he moved on to Medinah Country Club and did the same thing for two more years.
“By the time I got to Medinah, I pretty much knew I didn’t want to play professionally,” Delcher said. “I didn’t want to be a club pro, either, so my last year at Medinah, I went to night school and got a real estate license in Illinois.”
The Illinois license turned out to be of little practical use. Delcher went to Hilton Head, South Carolina, for a guys’ trip in 1984 and befriended a real estate agent from New Jersey one night over a couple of cocktails. Delcher agreed to start working for him on Jan. 1, 1985, getting a new license and beginning a full-fledged real estate career in South Carolina.
At that point, the game became somewhat secondary. Delcher focused on his career and while he still played golf, his competitive spirit had waned.
Delcher points to two tournaments that reinvigorated his love for amateur competition. The 1989 U.S. Amateur was hosted by Merion Golf Club, his favorite course and a short drive from his hometown. He pressed to get his amateur status back and practiced furiously so he could be ready. That drive proved fruitful as he advanced to match play and made the round of 16.
“I knew I could still compete a little bit, but I was also in the middle of starting my real estate career,” Delcher said. “It was my night job for a long time. When I got done with work I would go out and practice.”
His participation in the second tournament that inspired him came about on more of a whim. Delcher had become friendly with several players on the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team, many of whom were avid golfers, and he especially found a friendship with Rick Tocchet, the physical right-winger who was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins in February of 1992 and would win the Stanley Cup later that year.
With Tocchet in Pittsburgh, Delcher figured he would try to qualify for the 1994 U.S. Open at Oakmont.
“I thought, ‘Shoot, I’ll just try to qualify for the Open and go see Rick,’ ” Delcher said. “It was sort of a lark, quite frankly. Sure enough, I qualified for it.”
That kicked off the next stage of Delcher’s amateur career. He started to earn exemptions, particularly in USGA events. In 1995 and 1996, Delcher advanced to the quarterfinals of the U.S. Amateur and lost in extra holes.
The year he will remember the most, however, is 1997. At the Sunnehanna Amateur, Delcher played with former U.S. Amateur champion John Harris and eventual PGA Tour winner Arron Oberholser in the final group. He made three birdies on the last four holes to beat them, a victory that got him onto the U.S. Walker Cup team, which was victorious by an 18-6 margin at Quaker Ridge Golf Club in Scarsdale, New York.
Delcher went 2-1 in the event, partnering with Steve Scott in a foursomes win and then defeating Gary Wolstenholme in a singles victory.
“It was the most fun I ever had playing golf, for sure,” Delcher said. “It was pretty intense. You hear all the time about teams and all that jazz and we don’t play that much team golf in this sport, but it was intense … and I was 40 years old when I played. Back then, there were four mid-amateurs on the team which is hard to do anymore.”
The Walker Cup invite gave him copious exemptions into future U.S. Amateurs and U.S. Mid-Amateurs. Delcher has great admiration for USGA championships, from the way the courses are set up to how the overall events operate, so he has focused mainly on those tournaments in the past three decades. He moved to the Hilton Head area in 1995 and has built his own real estate business there, getting to work for himself and allowing enough flexibility to play golf on his time.
When asked how senior golf has treated him, Delcher is honest. He of course enjoys the atmosphere and camaraderie, but the competition element hasn’t been the same. He’s reached match play at the U.S. Senior Amateur three times since 2010 but did not advance deep into the tournament as he had with past U.S. Amateurs.
“I haven’t enjoyed much of it,” Delcher said. “I haven’t had the success I thought I would have. My body fell apart a little bit. I’ve had three back surgeries and a shoulder surgery, so I can’t practice like I used to.”
“Candidly, the game has changed. Even in senior golf, it’s a power game. Quite frankly, I was lucky to come along when I did. If you turned back the clock and the game being played today was like it was when I was playing, I wouldn’t have had the success I had.” – Duke Delcher
On a deeper level, Delcher also believes the way the game is now played largely runs counter to his skill set. He thrives on its artistry, taking pride in being able to play a wide variety of shots and relying on excellent course management to separate himself. It’s why he loves firm, running fairways and greens, elements that ask the golfer different questions.
What he sees now is power playing too large a role in the game, even at the senior level.
“Candidly, the game has changed,” Delcher said. “Even in senior golf, it’s a power game. Quite frankly, I was lucky to come along when I did. If you turned back the clock and the game being played today was like it was when I was playing, I wouldn’t have had the success I had.
“Senior golf overall, course conditions have become softer. Guys like Doug Hanzel hit it forever. Guys like Brady Exber pound it. It’s a power game. Length is paramount at every level of the game.”
What has probably been the most rewarding to Delcher in the past two decades is the creation of the Players Amateur, a premier event that took place from 2000 until last year when it was discontinued for financial reasons.
Delcher and McKnight, two friends who both live in Bluffton, South Carolina, came up with the concept while on a cross-country flight to the 1999 U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach. The lofty ambition was to create a tournament where everything was taken care of for the players — food and beverage, housing and, at least when the event first started, even the entry free.
Both Delcher and McKnight had relationships with players that they were able to leverage, convincing some of the top amateurs and college players to compete. Early winners like Ben Curtis, Bill Haas, Camilo Villegas, Brian Harman, Rickie Fowler and Bud Cauley reflected the outstanding strength of the fields. It became a must-play in the Walker Cup race.
“We wanted to run it for the players,” Delcher said. “I’m very glad we did it, but I’m sorry that it’s over with.”
Steve Wilmot, the president of the Heritage Classic Foundation, remembers that Delcher approached him about the winner of the Players Amateur receiving an exemption into the RBC Heritage, a PGA Tour event run by the same organization. Wilmot was hesitant at first, but was convinced the tournament deserved one.
“With our PGA Tour event being a limited field and an invitational, it’s not easy to give one away (to an amateur),” Wilmot said. “But one year I went out to the Players Am before the tournament and they paired me with a young man who, after 18 holes, I went up to his mom and said, ‘We need to have a gentleman like this on the PGA Tour.’ It was Lucas Glover.
“That was definitely intentional. I realized the quality of player and the quality of person coming there. … It was just an example where Duke always put his best foot forward and always runs a first-class operation.”
Over time, the landscape of amateur golf changed. There were more opportunities for players and Delcher’s recruiting efforts weren’t like they used to be when he competed directly with and against top amateurs. He stayed involved with the event, but less so than he had at the beginning.
“I couldn’t go out on the road and recruit people,” Delcher said. “We just ran out of steam. You imagine it going forever, but that’s a long time. It could always come back, you never know.”
There have been eras in Delcher’s golf career that have come and gone — playing professionally, being a club pro, competing at the highest level of U.S. Amateurs and Walker Cups, co-founding an elite tournament — but he has always come up with something new.
Now at 65, it’s competing in events like the Society of Seniors National Super Senior Championship this week at Forest Creek Golf Club in Pinehurst, North Carolina, where he finished sixth out of 71 competitors. And soon, he hopes to play in another USGA championship to add a sixth decade of playing in them.
“I’m going to keep battling as long as I can.”
Top: Duke Delcher plays a chip shot during the second round of stroke play at the 2019 U.S. Senior Amateur. Photo: Chris Keane, Copyright USGA/Chris Keane
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