Steve Melnyk has several slices of Masters history worth most everyone’s envy.
A couple of weeks after he won the 1969 U.S. Amateur at Oakmont — a five-stroke victory back when the tournament was stroke play — Melnyk opened a personal letter from Bobby Jones welcoming him to Augusta National. His first-round pairing the following spring was with Jack Nicklaus, who clipped him by two strokes that day, and a year later he found himself playing alongside Arnold Palmer on his way to finishing low amateur.
When his playing career ended, Melnyk came back to collect memories by serving as the commentator on the 11th and 12th holes for a decade. His call of Larry Mize’s chip-in to defeat Greg Norman is one of the all-time classics — Melnyk’s soft, southern voice slowly saying, “Words do not do justice to the greatness of that shot.”
Even after that stint ended in the 1990s, he still returns every April as an honorary invitee. Until a recent change, that meant competing in the Par-3 Contest and playing practice rounds.
“It’s the greatest gig in the world,” Melnyk said. “They treat you like a player who doesn’t post a score. Only Augusta can do something like that.”
So how does a kid from Brunswick, Georgia, end up writing that golf story?
The son of two great players, including his mother, Mary, who won a Georgia State Amateur, Melnyk learned the fundamentals of the game without needing formal instruction. He won the 1965 Georgia Open as an 18-year-old amateur and possessed obvious talent, but there were no scholarship offers on the table until a friend of his playing at the University of Florida recommended Melnyk to the coach. He took his dad’s car down to Gainesville, Florida, and the coach offered him a partial scholarship, giving Melnyk enough reason to eschew his plans to attend Georgia Tech as a non-athlete.
Once he arrived on campus, Melnyk went out to rush in a fraternity and found himself in conversation with someone he describes as a “slow-talking, bow-legged guy from Johnson City, Tennessee,” named Steve Spurrier. A year later, the Gators’ quarterback would win the Heisman Trophy. The two shared the same big sister in Greek life, ended up being in each other’s weddings and still consider each other close friends. Melnyk is quick to point out that Spurrier had considerable golf talent and nearly beat Andy Bean one year at the Golden Isles Invitational in Brunswick.
“He had a really quirky swing, self-taught, but was a great athlete with great hands,” Melnyk recalls.
As good as Spurrier was on the gridiron, Melnyk just about matched him on the golf course. He won nine times in his college career, leading the Gators to the school’s first NCAA Championship in any sport and clocking in as an All-American every season.
In his senior year Melnyk authored one of the great stretches in amateur golf history. On Labor Day weekend of 1968 he underwent knee surgery from an old football injury and heard that childhood counterpart Bruce Fleisher had won the U.S. Amateur. So, while in a hard cast from his hip to his calf Melnyk had found a new level of motivation and was invigorated by a three-month hiatus as he healed.
That next spring, he rattled off five consecutive college victories heading into an unforgettable summer in which he won the Western Amateur, represented the victorious United States side admirably at the Walker Cup and then claimed the U.S. Amateur title a week later.
He beat four future major champions in the U.S. Amateur, including eventual U.S. Open winners Andy North, Tom Watson and Tom Kite. Only four under-par rounds were recorded the entire week, and Melnyk had two of them.
“It was good for me, because I didn’t like golf courses where you had to shoot really low,” Melnyk said. “I liked when par was a meaningful score.”
A year later, Melnyk was the low amateur in the 1970 Open Championship, which is best known for Nicklaus defeating Doug Sanders in a dramatic playoff at St. Andrews. Melnyk would come back to St. Andrews in 1971 to play in his second Walker Cup, although this time it was a 13-11 loss to Great Britain & Ireland.
One positive from that trip was that Melnyk decided to stick around after the Walker Cup and play in the British Amateur at Carnoustie. Once again given a brutally difficult course, Melnyk thrived in the grueling match-play setting.
“Those two weeks with the Walker Cup and the British Amateur, I played 36 holes for about eight of those 12 days,” Melnyk said. “We played in rain suits every day and, let me tell you, Carnoustie deserves its reputation.”
Melnyk defeated American Jim Simons in the final, 3 and 2. Simons is best known for what happened a week later when he showed up at Merion for the U.S. Open, took a two-stroke lead into the last day and fell just short of getting into a playoff with Lee Trevino.
In the two years between graduating from Florida and winning the British Amateur, Melnyk had no interest in turning professional. He moved to Jacksonville, Florida, to work for an insurance company and worked hard on his game as an amateur. As time passed, however, he grew to dislike his job and he turned to professional golf for what he now calls “the wrong reasons.”
He played for a living, but it wasn’t his happiest time in the game.
“I didn’t like playing golf all the time,” Melnyk said. “When I got out there, even early on, I knew this is not what I wanted to do. I love it a lot more now than I did back then.”
He’s modest about his pro career, but Melnyk held his own. He was runner-up four times on the PGA Tour and competed in 18 major championships throughout both his amateur and professional career, his best finish being a tie for 12th place in the 1972 Masters. An accident at the 1982 Phoenix Open — he slipped outside of Phoenix Country Club just beyond the reach of Fuzzy Zoeller, breaking his elbow — virtually ended his career and led him into a 26-year stint as a broadcaster with CBS, ESPN, ABC and Golf Channel. He was the first person to both play and broadcast at all four major championships.
“Pat Summerall (the legendary CBS sportscaster) was a good friend to me who lived close by in Lake City,” Melnyk said. “They gave me a shot to commentate at the Players Championship in ’82. I did OK and then eventually there was a full-time opening. … I was always good on my feet and enjoyed giving speeches, so I figured it was worth a shot.”
Melnyk has rightfully enjoyed each of the different eras of his golf career. If you name something within the industry, he’s likely had experience with it. That includes designing a handful of courses throughout the southeastern United States, spending considerable time on USGA committees and serving as president of the Gator Boosters, the fundraising arm for University of Florida athletics. The Melnyk Golf Practice Facility on campus was built at his alma mater in honor of his impact on the game and school. He’s in several halls of fame, including both the Florida and Georgia Golf Hall of Fame.
But even with all of these accolades and accomplishments, Melnyk’s true calling is amateur golf.
His amateur status was restored in 2009 and a few years later he created an invitation-only mid-amateur and senior amateur event at his home course called the Timuquana Cup, which normally takes place next week in Jacksonville but has been moved to next spring. At 73 years old, he enjoys competing now more than he ever has.
“My heart has always been with amateur golf,” Melnyk said. “I’m seeing the same guys now as I saw back in college golf, so I think I’ve really come full circle.”
If you ask Melnyk what he is most proud of, it’s his legacy in amateur golf. That especially means his two sons, Dalton and Butler, who played collegiately for Florida and Georgia, respectively, and have competed in several USGA championships.
Melnyk’s time on the course now is not so much to post a score as it is for the camaraderie of the game and a reminder of everything he has been blessed with in golf.
That’s a long list of memories and indelible moments.
Top photo: Steve Melnyk, winning the 1970 Eastern Amateur (USGA Museum)
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