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.”