NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. – George Beechler, Ernest Pieper Jr. and Richard Runkle might not be household names to golf fans.
But in the annals of the U.S. Senior Amateur Championship, they have the distinction of losing multiple finals – in all three cases in consecutive years – without ever hoisting the trophy.
Pat Tallent didn’t want to join that fraternity on Thursday at Big Canyon Country Club, and the 61-year-old from Vienna, Va., avoided being initiated, thanks to an impressive 2-and-1 victory over Bryan Norton, 55, of Mission Hills, Kan.
Four years ago, Tallent advanced to the championship match as the stroke-play medalist before losing a tough 2-and-1 match to Paul Simson. It was the first of two titles for the North Carolinian. While Tallent had battled his way through the match-play brackets in ensuing Senior Amateurs, including a quarterfinal showing last year, it wasn’t until this week that he got a chance to play in another 18-hole final. It didn’t come easily.
He struggled on the first day of stroke-play qualifying, carding a 7-over 79 after playing the first 10 holes in 7 over par. A second-round 70 put him in a 15-man playoff for the last 13 match-play spots and he garnered the No. 60 seed. Most might find that an unenviable spot, but Tallent recognized that the slate was wiped clean once match play commenced. So he went to work, eliminating higher-seeded players in every round, including No. 5 Chip Lutz in the Round of 64.
Tallent’s no-nonsense approach works well in head-to-head golf. Playing nearly mistake-free golf over six rounds, Tallent, an academic All-America basketball player at George Washington University, finally hoisted a USGA championship trophy in his 27th event.
My good friends are Paul Simson, Chip Lutz, George Zahringer and Vinny Giles, and they’ve all won USGA events [or national amateur titles in Lutz’s case] and I had never won one, said Tallent. I’ve always considered them to be this much above me because they have. Chip has won two Canadians and two British [Seniors]. In the last five years, every time I beat either Paul or Chip, the other one beat me. I can’t get by them both.
It was that way for many years at Congressional Country Club, where Tallent has been a member since 1980. For three straight years, he lost to attorney Jack Vardaman, a former USGA Executive Committee member, in the club championship. It frustrated Tallent so much that he vowed to improve. He even withdrew from the semifinals of the 1984 D.C. Metro Amateur to play in the finals of the club championship, which he finally won. That same year, Tallent qualified for his first USGA championship, the U.S. Amateur at Jupiter Hills, and he has been a regular competitor ever since.
And as the No. 60 seed, he has won the 60th U.S. Senior Amateur.
Here’s what I tell my friends when they go to USGA events, you shouldn’t be worried about making the cut, said Tallent, because if that’s what you are worried about, you are not going to win the tournament. And I wasn’t really worried about it until I started so poorly. It’s just as hard to make the cut sometimes when you know you’re on the number. But I was lucky. I thought 148 was going to be the number. And it turned out to be 149. The whole tournament came down to beating Chip Lutz the first day.
There’s a group of us who have played together for quite some time and I am really happy I can say I won one of the ones they won.
Cutting Class for Dad’s Match
Danielle Norton has watched her father play in a lot of golf events back in Kansas, but now that she’s a junior at the University of Southern California, it’s more difficult to attend in person. With the Senior Amateur about an hour south of the Los Angeles campus, the 20-year-old business and cinematic arts major made the short drive down the 405 Freeway to watch the championship match.
Immediately after the prize ceremony, Danielle headed back to campus for her 2 p.m. finance class. She did, however, skip some morning classes on Thursday.
I got the clear from my teachers, she said. They were all on board. I sent them the link of the [USGA] home page and there was no way I was going to miss this.
And there was no way she was missing the finance class, either.
I’ve got my cousin here, so we’ve got the carpool lane all the way, said Danielle, who also watched her father play in Saturday’s first stroke-play qualifying round.
All three of Norton’s children – his oldest daughter Alexandria, 23, graduated from Vanderbilt and works on Wall Street and his 18-year-old son Johnnie is a freshman at Kansas – grew up around golf, but none has ever competed in a national event. Bryan and Johnnie claimed the Kansas Father-Son event this summer shortly after Bryan won the Kansas Amateur.
Norton’s wife, Julie, also was in attendance all week, along with her mother.
He’s had quite the year, said Danielle of her father. He won the Kansas Amateur, he won the Coleman Cup [at Seminole Golf Club] and he played in the U.S. Senior Open. He’s done a lot.
Norton Rues Opportunity Lost
Bryan Norton was asked if he was happy to have reached the championship match in this, his first U.S. Senior Amateur.
No, I don’t look at it that way, said Norton, 55. This is different, because you know age is working against you, starting with next year. I have been to a USGA final before [the 2003 U.S. Mid-Amateur]. I am not Tiger Woods, so I’m not going to get in this situation all the time. When you get here, you need to convert and I didn’t, and that will be disappointing. They only remember the winner.
Norton noted a bogey on No. 16, when he had a chance to whittle his deficit back to 1 down if he made 5 on the par-5 hole. Norton missed a 3½-footer for par after his wedge approach shot spun off the front of the green. Pat Tallent had already made a bogey.
It was an indication of how my day went, said Norton. I thought I hit a good shot into that green when I hit it. I made a judgment call with the breeze and the uphill shot. And I wasn’t spot-on with my putter – I was trying to be too perfect. That was real gift to him.
Tallent took full advantage, rolling in a 30-footer on the next hole to close out the match, with Norton just 3 feet away from a birdie that could have extended the match to No. 18.
After I got the momentum, said Norton, I wasn’t able to get something to go in that was meaningful. I had my chances. I needed to get it done today, but I didn’t and Pat did. Good for him.
Norton Shares Ryder Cup Perspective
Having played on the European and PGA Tours in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Norton has a rare perspective on the upcoming Ryder Cup Matches in Scotland.
Norton competed in Europe for five years, from 1987-91, with full status the entire time. He had three top-five finishes over that span and his single season was 60th position on the Order of Merit.
Those are my best memories and the coolest thing I got to do playing professional golf, said Norton, who regained his amateur status in 1998. Back then the Ryder Cup points system was built on one year of results, not two, and with 1987 being a Cup year, all the big players played.
That is when Europe brought the event to a new level of competitiveness, with players such as Seve Ballesteros, Ian Woosnam, Nick Faldo, Colin Montgomerie, Sandy Lyle, Jose Maria Olazabal and Bernhard Langer, among others. Norton competed against them head-to-head in those years.
The good players were trying to make the team, and they played all the time, said Norton. They were always grinding. I was part of the small American contingent over there.
When Norton returned to the U.S., where he competed on both the PGA Tour and the developmental Hogan Tour (now Web.com Tour), he heard a frequent refrain.
It always cracked me up when I came back here and people would say, ‘How did they beat us in Ryder Cup?’ said Norton. And I would tell them, they’re better than we are. Those guys were so good, and people would just shake their heads and say they had never heard of them.
Norton also believes that when the matches come down to the wire, there is something to be said for teamwork.
I don’t care what anybody says, the camaraderie thing is huge, said Norton, who quit the touring pro life in 1992, shortly after his first child, Alexandria, was born. It’s a cultural difference. In Europe, there will be 20 guys in the hotel lobby bar and 10 of them will go out for dinner together. There is this feeling of team and it makes a difference.
Norton added, Hopefully, we [the U.S.] will get underestimated a little bit this year.
None of the matches in the last three rounds went to the 18th hole, a downhill par-5 that had been the scene of many dramatic finishes this week. A pond fronts the green, making it a strong risk/reward hole…The 2015 U.S. Senior Amateur will be contested Sept. 26-Oct. 1 at Hidden Creek Golf Club in Egg Harbor Township, N.J.