Considering that the participants are senior amateur golfers, with emphasis on the word senior, these two national championships, the U.S. Senior Amateur and U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur, might be labeled golf’s greatest endurance tests.
The finalists in each of these two tournaments are required to play eight rounds of golf in six days at various stages of AARP eligibility. Furthermore, because the match-play competition is single elimination, the players must summon the best of their tired games.
Forget CBD. This is the Advil generation. But there are no excuses here.
These championships are absolutely an examination of endurance as well as ability. Welcome to Super-Duper Senior Amateur week.
Two West Coast golfers captured the championships in 2018 – Jeff Wilson of Fairfield, Calif., winning the men’s Senior Amateur title, and Lara Tennant of Portland, Ore., taking the Senior Women’s Amateur crown.
Wilson defeated defending champion Sean Knapp, 2 and 1, in the men’s final, while Tennant outlasted Australian Sue Wooster, 3 and 2, in the deciding match for senior women.
In 2019, the two championships again will be staged concurrently, starting today and ending next Thursday. The men are currently battling each other at Old Chatham Golf Club in Durham, N.C., while the women are at Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Country Club.
Wilson is 56, Tennant 52. These ages are purely academic, except for the fact that golf can’t make up its mind about the senior classification. Female amateurs, for example, are eligible for the USGA senior category when they turn 50. Male amateurs, on the other hand, must be 55 to achieve senior status.
Why the disparity? The explanations are many. Senior men far outnumber senior women. In addition, men appear to be more dedicated to tournament golf than women. Historically men maintain full-time jobs longer than women, although this may be changing.
Anyway, there is no doubt the USGA has worked diligently to transform the Senior Women’s Amateur into the equal of the men’s Senior Amateur.
Tennant showed up at the 2018 Senior Women’s Amateur with her own personal caddie. That would be George Mack, her father. About to turn 80, Mack has been a dominant figure in Oregon golf for decades.
“Having my dad on the bag is really special,” she said. “He’ll be back again. He’s my No. 1 cheerleader and he helps me a lot with club selection and reading the greens. I want to experience this with someone in my family.”
As a senior he has not lost the competitive fire. Moreover, his daughter seems to have inherited the same trait. Tennant played 99 holes on the way to winning the Senior Women’s Amateur and was up in 97 of them.
Meanwhile, her father has won two Oregon Senior championships. He has played in the U.S. Senior Amateur and U.S. Senior Open. One of his playing companions in the Senior Open was Arnold Palmer.
“Still,” he said, “Lara winning that tournament was the greatest thing – except for my (two) kids and (10) grandkids – that I’ve ever been a part of.”
Lara and her husband, surgeon Bob Tennant, have five children. “I give 100 percent credit to my husband,” Tennant said. “He has always encouraged me to keep playing competitive golf.”
She accompanied one of her kids to Boston College before traveling directly to Cedar Rapids.
Despite rotator-cuff surgery on both shoulders, plus an active tournament schedule (she has won three consecutive Oregon senior titles), she says, “I have a renewed passion for golf. I didn’t know if it was still there, but it was. I was able to practice more as I approached 50, and my game actually got better.”
Wilson called the driver a “secret weapon.” There was no measuring device on hand, but Wilson appeared to be obliterating the 300-yard barrier on every drive.
Wilson’s family connections were obvious on the final day of the 2018 Senior Amateur, when his father, 84-year-old Jack Wilson, showed up to watch his son. The Wilson family has owned California automobile dealerships for more than 75 years (currently Toyota of Vallejo, of which Jeff is president).
Jack was engaged in an annual fly-fishing trip in Oregon at the same time his son was marching through the Senior Amateur field. So Jack immediately changed plans, driving to Eugene (Ore.) Country Club, site of the championship.
Another parent sighting occurred when Canadian Terrill Samuel, who lost in the semifinals to Tennant, used her mother as a caddie.
Wilson, too, is big on friendship. His longtime friend and caddie, Bobby Periera, caddied for him at Eugene. His closest golf buddy is Jeff Brehaut, known as both a golf instructor and a touring pro.
Early in his golf career, Wilson turned pro. He didn’t like it, regaining his amateur status. Wilson and Brehaut became students of short-game wizard Phil Rodgers, who died in June 2018.
The Senior Amateur marked Wilson’s 34th appearance in a USGA championship. Wilson and Vinny Giles are the only players to have earned low-amateur honors in both the U.S. Open and U.S. Senior Open.
After Knapp lost to Wilson, he was extremely gracious in defeat. “Anybody who has played amateur golf at a high level has known Jeff Wilson,” he said. “He is a superstar. You did not see a senior amateur golfer out there. You saw one of the best amateur golfers in the entire country. I knew it was going to be an uphill battle, and it was.”
If it was indeed uphill, credit Wilson’s driver with making the difference. Wilson called the driver a “secret weapon.” He outdrove Knapp by approximately 50 yards on two occasions, and was in front of his opponent all day by some 30 yards. There was no measuring device on hand, but Wilson appeared to be obliterating the 300-yard barrier on every drive.
And what was this nuclear driver? It was a new club for Wilson – a 9-degree Ping G400 with a Project X Hzrdus graphite shaft. The driver came from Kepler’s, a large northern California retail golf store where Wilson spent valuable time with a professional clubfitter.
“I swear, he hits it 20 to 25 yards longer (than any of his previous drivers),” said Periera, his caddie.
As part of their reward for winning the senior amateur events, Tennant and Wilson earned exemptions, respectively, into the 2019 U.S. Senior Women’s Open and 2019 men’s U.S. Senior Open. Tennant was paired with defending champion Laura Davies, and Wilson joined titleholder David Toms.
“Two things,” Tennant said. “Laura is the fastest player I’ve ever seen, and her hands – unbelievable, the best short game ever.”
Remember, it’s senior golf, the game of a lifetime. Senior champions deserve to have these experiences.
Jeff Wilson acknowledges the gallery during the 2018 U.S. Senior Amateur. Photo: J.D. Cuban, Copyright USGA
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