From the Golf Journal Archives - Like Father, Like Son

Sep 09, 2011

A fit Kemp Richardson reaches an age where he leaves opponents awe-struck – and collects a title won by his dad.

By David Shefter

(Note: This article originally appeared in the October 2001 issue of Golf Journal.)

FOR THE LAST FIVE YEARS, Kemp Richardson has been in senior amateur golf’s version of no-man’s land – old enough to play in the Senior Open and pro tournaments but too young for most amateur events. Except Richardson did not seem anxious to reach the Senior Amateur age limit of 55, even though his birth certificate indicates that he’s been eligible since April.

The resume shows that since turning 50, Richardson has competed in three Senior Opens (twice he was low amateur). But unlike a lot of peers, he prefers to play as if he’s discovered a fountain of youth. By staying in good physical condition through exercise and diet, Richardson passes as a younger “flat-belly.”

Richardson placed fifth in the Southern California Golf Association’s Mid-Amateur just prior to his arrival in St. Louis for the 47th USGA Senior Amateur at Norwood Hills Country Club. Further proof of his youthful spirit came when the resident of Laguna Niguel, Calif., shunned the use of a golf cart at the Senior Amateur, one of two USGA events where competitors can ride. Richardson chose to use local caddies and walk the hilly 6,580-yard layout. “I hate to ride,” Richardson said. “I carry my own bag back at my home course.”

His decision, while atypical, hardly affected his play. In six matches, including his 2-and-l final over 1999 champion Bill Ploeger of Columbus, Ga., Richardson never needed the 18th hole.

A stockbroker who played college golf at the University of Southern California, Richardson sent an early message to the 156-player field as the lone competitor to break 70 during stroke-play qualifying. A six-over 41 in his final nine holes of stroke-play was a minor detour. In his six matches, his scorecards contained two eagles, 21 birdies and 13 bogeys.

Richardson’s victory also was significant in that his father, John, had won this title in 1987 at the age of 66, making John and Kemp the first father-son combo to capture USGA titles. “He meant everything to me,” said Kemp, who was low amateur at last year’s Senior Open at Saucon Valley, the site of his father’s Senior Amateur triumph. “He introduced me to the game and taught me the game.” Unfortunately, John Richardson did not have long to enjoy his title. He died a year after his victory from a blood disorder called acute anemia.

Two days before Kemp hoisted the trophy to see his father’s name among those engraved, the Senior Amateur – and all of the U.S. – was enveloped in tragedy. Not long after the second round of match play began, news of the terrorist acts in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., reached the course. Some competitors found out during their matches, while others learned of the shocking events upon reaching the clubhouse.

An eerie pall fell over the course. The din of jets from nearby Lambert Field had vanished and Norwood Hills went quiet. Inside the clubhouse, people gathered around several television sets to obtain the latest details.

“I just felt the chill that the world had changed,” said semifinalist E. Thomas Jung of Chicago, Ill., who learned that two of his brothers who work in New York’s financial district were safe. “It’s like a Tom Clancy novel.”

Recalled Jung’s wife, Diane: “When I told Tom that the two Trade Center [towers] were down, he stopped and I thought he was going to faint.”

“You just had to try and block it out and play golf,” added quarterfinalist and 1997 champion Cliff Cunningham of Monroe, N.C. “You tried not to think about it... but you are always thinking about it.”

The third round was scheduled for Tuesday afternoon and, after much discussion by USGA officials in charge of the event, the decision was made to move forward. The eight quarterfinalists were polled that evening, and the decision was made to continue as planned.

One of the eight was O. Gordon Brewer Jr. of Pine Valley, N.J., the 1994 and ‘96 champ for whom adversity is nothing new. His presence in St. Louis was remarkable. In late May, doctors discovered a tumor in Brewer’s brain (later diagnosed as benign). They prescribed six weeks of radiation treatments at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, the last just 10 days prior to the Senior Amateur. Nevertheless, Brewer continued playing thanks to his exercise regiment of light lifting and aerobics.

“I don’t think I could possibly, at 64, compete at this level unless I maintained a level of fitness,” Brewer said. “It’s just not doable.”

Still, the treatments limited his travel and competition, leaving him cautiously optimistic about his chances of winning a third title. Brewer qualified for match play on the cut line and then overcame three-hole deficits in three of his first four matches to reach the semifinals.

Brewer appeared to be taking a similar path against the 61-year-old Ploeger when he fell 3 down after five holes, but he never could square the match. Brewer missed a critical 10-footer for birdie at the 16th that would have trimmed the deficit to 1 down. After Ploeger three-putted the 17th, Brewer failed to get up and down for par at the 18th while Ploeger two-putted for a 2-up win.

“I respect him so much as a person and a player,” said Ploeger, who overcame a mild heart attack prior to last year’s Senior Amateur. “To beat Gordon means a lot to me.”

After earning a spot in the semis for the second consecutive year by beating John Lindholm, Jung said Lindholm was the best ball-striker he’d seen. His opinion quickly changed when he witnessed Richardson birdie four of the first 11 holes in a 4-and-2 semifinal victory.

“Through 11 holes he was flawless,” said Jung. “He three-putted from 4½ feet at No. 2 (a 505-yard par 5) after reaching the green in two. He’s a very good ball striker and a very good player. He’s playing really well right now.”

Indeed, Richardson entered the week having won the British Senior Amateur, a 54-hole event held in August at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland. Bill Shean Jr. achieved the double when he added the ‘99 British to his ‘98 U.S. crown (he won the Senior Amateur again last year, but was unable to defend due to back problems). Richardson, at 6-foot-2 and 195 pounds, does not lack strength. He routinely outdrove Ploeger by 30 to 40 yards and reached the 495-yard eighth with a fairway wood and 4-iron. “He just kills the ball,” Ploeger said. “Hell, he ought to be a mid-amateur. He hits it too far.”

Ploeger won the par-5 second with a 12-foot birdie, but missed a three-footer to win the third with a par. Richardson squared the match with a birdie at the sixth, then won the seventh with a par and recorded a two-putt birdie at the eighth for a 2-up advantage. Ploeger managed to square the match with pars at the tricky 297-yard 11th and the 452-yard 14th. Richardson nearly reached the par-5 15th with a 5-wood from the fairway and then sank a downhill 10-footer for birdie to claim the hole.

Both drove the ball perfectly at the 16th. Richardson’s approach came up 35 feet below the hole, while Ploeger’s approach flew directly at the flag but went too far and trickled into the rough. A poor chip left him nine feet away, and after Richardson made his 10-footer for par, Ploeger’s putt came up inches short to fall 2 down.

“Sixteen just broke my heart,” said Ploeger. “Kemp played better than me today and he deserved to win. He’s going to win a lot of senior tournaments.”

Richardson did not ponder a pro career despite playing several prominent amateur events after graduating from USC in 1968, including the Western Amateur, where he lost the final to Rik Massengale, 3 and 1.

“Personally, I don’t like to travel that much,” Richardson said. “I have traveled more lately because of [his golf accomplishments], but I think the only way I would [as a pro] is if I had my own personal jet.”

Richardson does, however, have a growing collection of Senior Amateur flags. His father gave him the one from the 18th hole that he earned by defeating James Kite Jr. at Saucon Valley. It now hangs in Kemp’s den at home. It will be joined by the one from the 17th at Norwood Hills, along with the Senior Amateur trophy bearing their names.

“He was a great man,” said Richardson, “and in my opinion, it’s great that I can do the same thing that he did.”

Richardson has a 27-year-old son, Scott, but he is a fledgling professional, so unless Scott gives up his dream somewhere along the way and becomes reinstated as an amateur, the Richardsons will not get a shot at a third generation of victors in the Senior Amateur.

“He’s a very good player,” Kemp said of his son. “He can blow it by me a long way.”

Funny, the rest of the Senior Amateur field was saying the same thing about him.

Richardson’s victory also was significant in that his father, John, had won this title in 1987 at the age of 66, making John and Kemp the first father-son combo to capture USGA titles. (USGA Museum)

Ploeger, the 1999 champ, took early control of the final but could not counter Richardson’s length. (USGA Museum)

Brewer came out from behind the side effects of radiation treatments to make the semifinals at 64. (USGA Museum)