U.S. SENIOR AMATEUR
Elliott’s U.S. Senior Am Title a Heart-Stopping Tale of Perseverance September 14, 2021 By David Shefter, USGA

Gene Elliott finally claimed his elusive USGA title in his 36th attempt in early September at the C.C. of Detroit. (Jeff Haynes/USGA)

Forty-two years ago, Gene Elliott began what would become a five-decade chase for a USGA championship. The Iowan likely wasn’t thinking about such a quest as an incredulous 17-year-old when he lost in the Round of 32 of the 1979 U.S. Junior Amateur. Throughout the next 40 years, which included a brief stint as a professional in the mid-1980s, Elliott qualified for eight U.S Amateurs, 16 U.S. Mid-Amateurs, and since turning 55 four years ago, the U.S. Senior Amateur.

Elliott didn’t take long to figure out that trying to be the last man standing in these championships was no easy task. In his first 35 attempts, Elliott went home without the hardware he coveted. Sure, he collected medals like in 1999 at Pebble Beach when he bested the entire field of 312 during the stroke-play portion of the U.S. Amateur. The previous year at the age of 36, he captured a pair of prestigious amateur titles, the Porter Cup and Terra Cotta Invitational, against a majority of players nearly half his age.

Since becoming eligible for senior events, Elliott has enjoyed a golfing renaissance that has made the West Des Moines resident one of that demographic’s most revered competitors. Twice he has won the Canadian Senior Amateur title. Earlier this summer, despite having to quarantine five days in a London-area hotel, he won the Senior Amateur Championship conducted by The R&A at Ganton Golf Club in England.

But for all of the accolades – he is a member of the Iowa Golf Hall of Fame – and achievements that includes 15 Iowa state titles, there was one obvious void in his portfolio: a USGA title.

For many elite players like Elliott, the U.S. Senior Amateur offers a final opportunity at USGA glory. Recent results bore that out. In 2010, Paul Simson won the first of two titles in his 39th USGA start. George “Buddy” Marucci, the runner-up to Tiger Woods in the 1995 U.S. Amateur, finally claimed his title (2008) in his 38th start. Sean Knapp, twice a U.S. Mid-Amateur semifinalist, earned his title in 2017 in start No. 35. Jeff Wilson, one of two players in history to be the low amateur in the U.S. Open and U.S. Senior Open, captured the 2018 championship in his 30th start.

Elliott fit neatly into that category, but experience told him the fickle nature of match play can often deny even the most deserving of competitors. In his first three attempts, Elliott had never advanced beyond the Round of 16 (2018). But when he remarkably staved off elimination against good friend and fellow Iowan Michael McCoy with an emotional 19-hole, Round-of-32 victory, the stars seemed aligned.

Two days later on a glorious early September day in Grosse Pointe Farms, Mich., Elliott finally secured that elusive national title in his 36th USGA start. The 59-year-old never led the final match at the Country Club of Detroit until his opponent, Jerry Gunthorpe, 58, of Ovid, Mich., missed an 8-foot par putt on the 18th hole.

“It’s still hard to believe,” said Elliott, when reached by phone nearly a week after his title. “I’m now 1 for 36. I just feel lucky enough get one. I’m just thrilled. It’s the cherry on top of a lot of golf.”

Elliott joined Simson and Chip Lutz in an elite fraternity of players to have captured the national senior titles of the United States, Great Britain and Canada.

But those two players didn’t face life-altering moments before their 40th birthdays. On Valentine’s Day 21 years ago, Elliott was at his office – he is the CEO of Elliott Equipment Company – when something didn’t feel right.

“My heart felt like it was leaping out of my chest,” said Elliott, recalling the frenetic moment.

Within 5 minutes, his secretary had called for an ambulance and he was quickly en route to the emergency room. Fortunately, the cardiologist properly diagnosed Elliott’s condition as an aortic aneurysm, which had caused massive bleeding.

Three hours after first feeling symptoms, Elliott was undergoing 5½-hour open-heart surgery.

“All I heard from the doctor was we have to cut you open, we have to cut you open now,” said Elliott. “That surgery saved my life. [At the time], I had a 50-50 chance of living.”

Remarkably, the uber-competitive Elliott was back competing a few months later. As a testament to his perseverance – and talent – he advanced out of a local U.S. Open qualifier. Aspirin and a prescription to control his blood pressure have helped Elliott live a normal life since the surgery, with the only palpitations coming during tense matches on the golf course.

He had several heart-stopping moments en route to his U.S. Senior Amateur title, including the aforementioned 19-hole win over his U.S. Amateur Four-Ball partner McCoy. In years past, Elliott might have missed the 18-foot par putt to force extra holes. This time, the ball found the center of the hole. On the 19th hole, he stuffed his approach to a foot to win the match.

Then in the Round of 16 that afternoon, he fittingly beat a retired pulmonologist, Doug Hanzel, 1 up. Hanzel and Elliott entered the encounter as the No. 1 and 2 senior golfers in the World Amateur Golf Ranking®/WAGR®. When he beat “local” favorite Tom Gieselman, 2 and 1, in the quarters and then played 6-under-par golf over 14 holes to dispatch Californian Craig Davis, a man who edged him in a playoff for the 2019 Senior Amateur at North Berwick in Scotland, Elliott was finally in a USGA final; his previous best finish was a run to the 2006 U.S. Mid-Amateur quarterfinals.

By Thursday afternoon, Elliott was hoisting the Frederick L. Dold Trophy and receiving hundreds of text messages that his wife, Dalena, read aloud during the nine-hour drive home. A congratulatory call from McCoy just added to this special day.

In the golf community, this was a popular champion.

In a state that ranks 31st out of 50 with 3.16 million inhabitants, Elliott became Iowa’s fifth male USGA champion, joining McCoy (2013 U.S. Mid-Amateur), Jack Fleck (1955 U.S. Open), Ed Updegraff (1981 U.S. Senior Amateur) and Jack Newman (2007 U.S. Amateur Public Links).

A heart-warming story?

As they might say in Iowa: You betcha.

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