U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship Memories: Greg Puga
October 4, 2015 | Far Hills, N.J.
By David Shefter, USGA
Greg Puga, of Los Angeles, claimed the 2000 U.S. Mid-Amateur with a 3-and-1 victory over Wayne Raath on the Cascades Course at The Homestead in Hot Springs, Va. At the time of his victory, Puga was a caddie at Bel-Air Country Club. A few years later, Puga turned professional, but last October regained his amateur status. Now 44, he is married with a 6-year-old daughter and still caddies at Bel-Air. He qualified for the 2015 U.S. Mid-Amateur at John’s Island Club on the 15th anniversary of his biggest triumph.
What clicked that week in Virginia?
Puga: My ball-striking was good. My normal shot back then was a draw and my misses would normally be hooks. But that week for some reason … I couldn’t draw the ball, even if I tried to. All week, I didn’t hit one hook, which meant I hit it fairly straight. That was the key. And in match play, I made a few putts here and there when I needed to. That was it.
Was that your first Mid-Amateur?
Puga: I qualified for the one in Dallas [at age 25 in 1997] at the Dallas Athletic Club. And then I didn’t qualify [again] until I was 29. So that was my second Mid-Am.
Was there a turning point in the final match?
Puga: On the 10th hole, I hit a bad second shot in the rough just short of the green. It was really thick and all I could was hack it out. I had a 10-footer [for par] and Wayne hit it to a foot from the bunker. I am thinking I’m going to be 3 down, which is hard to come back from. I made that putt for par to [halve the hole]. Then I won the next two holes. When I won 14 and 15, I was 2 up with three to go. We tied 16 and then on 17, a par 5, I hit it down the middle. I [decided] to play for par and see if he can make birdie. I hit my sand wedge onto the green and putted up to 3 feet. He charged his birdie putt and then missed the par putt, so it was over.
Did they display the trophy at Bel-Air?
Puga: It was in the grill room for a year.
Were you now royalty among the caddie ranks?
Puga: Pretty much. All the members were excited. Eddie Merrins [the pro emeritus], made a banner for me. He had the banner [hanging] from the pro shop to the clubhouse literally three days after I won. They left it up there for about a month.
Did you get special caddie requests from some of the celebrity members?
Puga: I caddied for all those guys anyway, so it wasn’t anything different. When I played out there trying to get ready for the Masters, I would play with Al Michaels and a bunch of other guys.
Was it overwhelming to tee it up at Augusta National?
Puga: It wasn’t overwhelming. I guess being around celebrities [at Bel-Air] didn’t make it too shocking because I’m used to being around high-profile people. I played a practice round with Arnold Palmer. That was set up by Eddie Merrins.
Did you also play with 1992 champion Fred Couples?
Puga: I played with him in the Par 3 Contest. He’s a big friend of Bel-Air. Back then, he was a member at Los Angeles Country Club. A bunch of my friends also know Freddy, like Steve and John Pate. I was on the driving range [at Augusta] on Monday and I see somebody stop behind me. After I hit the shot, I looked back and it was Freddy. He says, “Are you the Greg Puga everybody has been telling me about?” Everyone from Bel-Air was telling him about me. I’ll bet he was sick of hearing about Greg Puga.
When did you turn professional?
Puga: Like 2005. I got some people to help me out, so I finally [turned pro]. I made it past first stage [of PGA Tour Q-School]. I went up to Fort Ord in Monterey and almost made it there. I had one bad hole in the third round. That pretty much did it because I missed by like four strokes. I did all the state opens. I Monday-qualified for a Nationwide [Tour] event in Canada. I shot 66 and barely missed the cut.
Why did you apply for amateur reinstatement?
Puga: I have a 6-year-old now and I can’t be traveling everywhere trying to chase a paycheck. I’m still caddieing at Bel-Air and doing some independent contracting.
Are you no longer caddieing for LPGA Tour golfer Lizette Salas?
Puga: When Lizette and I were done, I had no plans to do it [anymore], but then Ryann O’Toole called me. I said I would give it a shot. She made maybe three cuts within a half year and I was going broke. I wish I could have stayed with her [longer] because I really like her and I know eventually she’s going to be a good player. If somebody called and asked [now], I might consider it.
Have you regained some of the passion for the game now that you’re no longer playing for a check?
Puga: Absolutely, yeah. And I get to see all of my friends again, guys who I was competing against back in the day. And I get to see all the new kids coming up. It’s great.
You and two-time U.S. Amateur Public Links champion Dave Berganio have similar stories in that you grew up in non-traditional golf areas of Los Angeles; David in Sylmar and you in Boyle Heights near East Los Angeles. Do you know each other?
Puga: He came from a different bad neighborhood (laughing). Back when I was still an amateur, I was playing in an event at a private club and he was there following me and my partner around. That’s when I got to know him.