Mike McCoy and Jerry Pate walked up the ninth fairway of Del Paso Country Club Monday in steady conversation as their practice round for the 36th U.S. Senior Open neared its conclusion. It was a warm summer day of catching up and catching on to what the venue demands.
Like many in the 156-player field, McCoy, the 2013 U.S. Mid-Amateur champion, and Pate, who won the 1976 U.S. Open, are old friends as well as competitors. McCoy, 52, nine years younger than Pate, has been aware of him well before their friendship started.
McCoy was a golf-loving Iowa teenager attending the Amana VIP Pro-Am during the mid-1970s when he first saw Pate, at the time one of the best young players on the PGA Tour. Later, McCoy saw Pate play in an exhibition and conduct a clinic in Des Moines at the Wakonda Club, where McCoy worked part-time.
“We had a good visit about it,” McCoy said. “He told me after he won the Open, they told him he could go play the Amana VIP the next day. He went out there and played. Jerry was very gifted and had a great career cut short by injuries.”
McCoy briefly tested the professional waters after graduating from Wichita State University in 1985. He then got into the insurance business, regained his amateur status and has had a fine amateur career, capped by his victory in the U.S. Mid-Amateur at age 50 – he is the second-oldest winner of the championship.
Competing in his 38th USGA championship at the time, his 8-and-6 victory over 36-year-old Bill Williamson in the final was a testament to McCoy’s tenacity. His first national championship appearance was the 1982 U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship.
“I’ve always worked hard at my game and competed a lot,” McCoy said. “But for whatever reason I just wasn’t getting it done. That was just a great example of perseverance. I just kept at it, kept working. I tried to forget about my age. It was sort of magic when it happened.”
A two-time champion of the prestigious Trans-Mississippi Amateur (2000, 2008), McCoy uses his experience to try to motivate other golfers to keep chasing their dreams. “I encourage these guys in their 30s and 40s to keep competing, keep working on their games,” he said. “If I can win, anybody can.”
McCoy feels at home in USGA championships.
“They’re always the most important championships,” he said. “They’re all well-organized and well-run. It’s easy to get motivated and prepare if you want to be there.”
Qualifying to compete against golfers from his generation excites McCoy. He played in last week’s Sunnehanna Amateur in Johnstown, Pa., missing the cut.
“It’s nice to play with guys my own age instead of 30 years younger,” McCoy said. “The kids these days are amazing – it’s a different game. There is some feeling of comfort here, playing with your peers.”
After this week’s championship, McCoy has a pretty busy competitive schedule the rest of summer, likely the Trans-Miss, Porter Cup, Western Amateur, U.S. Amateur and U.S. Mid-Amateur. He knows his years of competing regularly against golfers half his age or younger are drawing to a close.
“In a lot of respects, this is my farewell tour,” McCoy said. “I’ll play the Mid-Am events. I’d like to play some four-ball and some club championships. I’ll try to keep my game sharp and play some senior [amateur] golf when I turn 55. I know I’m not going to chasing college kids around in the summer, but I’ve enjoyed getting to know them through the years. I remember playing with Dustin Johnson in the Porter Cup. I watched my son, Nate, play with Jordan Spieth and guys like that.”
Nate is 24, a pro currently on PGA Tour Canada. Father and son have often caddied for each other. McCoy’s interest is less on his own game than his son’s. “I’m a little bit more worried about his game these days,” he said.
McCoy missed the cut in the 2013 Senior Open but tied for 26th last year at Oak Tree National.
“These guys are so good, but I had a pretty good tournament last year,” McCoy said. “I admire all of them, they’re gentlemen and they’ve had great careers. I’m a kid peering through a window here. But it would be fun to play nicely, play some solid golf.”
That is something McCoy has been doing for a long time.
Bill Fields is a Connecticut-based freelance writer.