Museum Moment: Holtgrieve Reflects On Inaugural Mid-Amateur 30 Years Ago

Sep 15, 2011

By David Shefter

When then-USGA Executive Committee member and 1971 USA Walker Cup participant Jim Gabrielsen approached Jim Holtgrieve at Augusta National Golf Club prior to the 1980 Masters about a proposed new USGA championship for golfers 25 and over, the Missouri native was extremely interested.

Holtgrieve, who had played on the first of his three USA Walker Cup Teams in 1979, realized the time had come to conduct a national championship for the “working” amateur. The college players had simply become too tough to beat at the U.S. Amateur.

This theory is supported by a look at the U.S. Amateur champions over the past 30 years. Only four mid-amateurs have claimed the U.S. Amateur title – Jay Sigel (twice), Buddy Alexander, Mitch Voges and John Harris – and only one (Harris) since 1993.

Holtgrieve was more than happy to assist with getting the inaugural U.S. Mid-Amateur off the ground, to the point where he secured the venue. Knowing that Bellerive Country Club had a history with the USGA, having hosted the 1965 U.S. Open, Holtgrieve pitched it to the St. Louis club and immediately the membership was interested.

“They were all over this,” said Holtgrieve, 63, during a lunch break at this year’s Walker Cup Match at Royal Aberdeen, where he served as the USA captain. “Within 10 months, we basically put together the U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship.”

The second week of October in 1981 turned into a magical week for Holtgrieve. Not only was he serving as the de facto host for some of the country’s best amateur golfers, he also wound up taking home the trophy as well. His 1-iron from the championship now resides in the USGA Museum in Far Hills, N.J.

As the competition approached, winning was the farthest thing from Holtgrieve’s mind. Sure, he wanted to play well in front of friends and family. But he also wanted to make sure each and every participant would have a world-class experience. In fact, he admitted that was his primary focus.

“I was making sure everyone was happy,” said Holtgrieve. “I was more concerned about the success of [the championship] than me getting to the final.”

Maybe all the distractions were a plus. Most players find it hard to compete on their home course or in their hometown because the tugs come from all angles – friends, family and club members.

For Holtgrieve, the distractions freed up the tension. While he had won on the local and regional levels in amateur golf, and helped the USA to victory in the 1979 Walker Cup at Muirfield in Scotland, he had yet to take home a national title.

Yet Holtgrieve quietly worked his way through the match-play bracket that week at Bellerive. By the time he reached the 18-hole championship match against future Walker Cup teammate Bob Lewis Jr., Holtgrieve had gradually become more focused and determined. On the morning of the final, Holtgrieve said the competitive juices were “flowing like Niagara Falls.”

While a Thursday championship might not normally attract a large gallery, some 1,500 to 2,000 people came to watch the hometown guy shoot for some history. Holtgrieve said he was pleased to see so many great players from the St. Louis area take the time to come and watch.

The partisan gallery got what they wanted, with some dramatics thrown in for good measure. Leading by one hole at the 18th, Holtgrieve finished the week in style by holing a delicate 10-foot, left-to-right breaking downhill birdie putt for a 2-up victory.

To this day, Lewis has told his now good friend Holtgrieve if that putt had missed, the outcome might have been different.

“I thought I hit it easy enough,” said Holtgrieve. “But it went in. It was gratifying.”

In Holtgrieve’s eyes, the inaugural Mid-Amateur could not have been a more enjoyable week. The championship was a huge success, and players thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

Thirty years later, the Mid-Amateur is now the USGA’s second-largest competition, featuring 264 competitors, two golf courses for stroke-play qualifying and a likely Masters invitation to the winner, which was instituted by Augusta National in 1988. It has also been a roadway for many top post-college golfers to the Walker Cup.

“We’ve got to continue to do that; get mid-ams on the [USA] Walker Cup Team,” said Holtgrieve.

Holtgrieve played on two more USA Teams after his 1981 Mid-Amateur triumph. He also was a member of the 1982 USA World Amateur Team, with Lewis. Two years later, Holtgrieve reached the final of the British Amateur at Turnberry, where he fell to Philip Parkin of Wales, 5 and 4. Along the way, Holtgrieve had another memorable encounter with Lewis, beating him 1 up.

Later that fall at Cherry Hills C.C., Lewis would avenge the two defeats with a 2-and-1 win at the U.S. Mid-Amateur.

In the last decade, Lewis and Holtgrieve have joined an elite fraternity by serving as USA Walker Cup captains. Lewis led the USA to a win in 2005 at Chicago Golf Club after suffering defeat at Ganton G.C. in England two years earlier. Holtgrieve made his inaugural voyage at Royal Aberdeen last week, losing a close decision to Great Britain & Ireland, 14 to 12.

He said other than getting married and having his children, it’s the highest honor that has ever been bestowed upon him.

But that U.S. Mid-Amateur title 30 years ago certainly has a high spot in his golfing achievements. It opened up many avenues and proved he belonged among the game’s elite.

“Amateur golf has been really good to me,” said Holtgrieve. “When I won my first somewhat big tournament in St. Louis in 1977, I thought maybe I can play. I qualified for the [U.S.] Open. I played in the Western [Amateur] and competed well. When I won my Missouri [Amateur] title, I thought well maybe I can be [be one of the best], but you never know until you win a national title and beat everybody.

“What winning that Mid-Amateur helped me with was going forward to get more Walker Cup and World Amateur Team experience. I played in five Masters and made the cut the first three times. I’m grateful … and very blessed to have won that championship.”

David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. E-mail him at dshefter@usga.org.

The second week of October in 1981 turned into a magical week for Jim Holtgrieve. Not only was he serving as the de facto host for some of the country’s best amateur golfers, he also wound up taking home the trophy as well. His 1-iron from the championship now resides in the USGA Museum in Far Hills, N.J. (USGA Museum)