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Bill Campbell: The last great amateur

Sep. 04, 2013 @ 12:18 AM

Editor's note: This article, which appeared this summer in Kingdom magazine, profiles Huntington golfing great Bill Campbell, who died last week at age 90. We thank John H. Houvouras and the magazine for permission to reprint it.

In the spring of 1964 Arnold Palmer won his fourth Masters, the last of his seven major titles. That summer, Ken Venturi, Tony Lema and Bobby Nichols won their only majors at the U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship, respectively. And in fall, Bill Campbell, the highly decorated amateur who had toiled away for years in relative obscurity, finally got the title he'd been chasing since 1947. In thrilling fashion, besting longtime rival Ed Tutwiler in a closely fought match, Campbell took the 1964 U.S. Amateur Championship.

Today, at age 90, his tall, athletic frame has rounded a bit and his gait is considerably slower, but Campbell's mind is still razor sharp and his thoughts are still offered in a deep, reassuring voice. Not surprisingly, some of those thoughts concern golf. "You don't find lifetime amateurs anymore," Campbell observes. "Why? Well, it's easy to understand when you consider the increase in prize money and the corollary money that come with being a touring pro."

As an example, Campbell points to golf's King -- Arnold Palmer. "I watched Arnie win the 1954 U.S. Amateur at the Country Club of Detroit. He emerged as a rambunctious young player full of fun and muscles. He had huge forearms and thick, blacksmith-type hands. I took note of him. But after winning the tournament he turned pro. That trend would continue in future years."

Campbell recalls that in the 1940s and 1950s amateur golfers shared a special camaraderie, but ultimately it wasn't strong enough to keep them from the money that awaited them on the professional tour.

Another change in the game that Campbell notes is the emergence of bigger, stronger athletes and their complex, if sophisticated, training methods.

"Years ago you would see just the player on the practice tee. Now, it may also be the caddy, swing coach, psychologist and trainer. It's serious business. The pros today look about 6 feet tall and 185 pounds. They're strong and sinewy. Amateur golf was different because it was simply an adjunct."

Accompanying the emergence of super-trained, physical golfers, one of the issues that deeply concerns Campbell is the meteoric rise of high-tech equipment.

"I think the ball goes too far," he says bluntly. "It's not necessarily that the ball is being hit harder -- it's a culmination of the ball and the club head. As a result, courses are growing longer and longer."

Campbell's perspective on this comes with some weight. Not only did he win the Masters' Long Drive Contest in 1954 with a 328-yard-bomb, but he served as president of the USGA in both 1982 and 1983. Among his accomplishments there, he oversaw construction of a $10 million facility to study the impact of technology on golf. He also pushed for the development of drought-resistant grasses and, perhaps most significantly, he was instrumental in merging the rules of the USGA and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, which then housed Europe's golf authority (today the R&A). In 1987 he underlined that achievement by becoming captain of the British institution, making him the third American to achieve the position and the first person in history to head both of golf's governing bodies. (It also put him in the awkward position of representing the R&A at the 1987 Ryder Cup.)

Considering his golfing resume, it might seem a wonder that Campbell didn't make a pro career out of the game, but he'd had other ideas from the start.

"I never wanted the life of a professional golfer," Campbell explains, sitting amidst mounds of boxes and papers in his office in downtown Huntington. "It's so concentric. That's a hard life. Instead, I've enjoyed a variety of pursuits. If you look around these walls, you will see I have many interests, not just golf."

Still, golf was one of the earliest. Bill Campbell -- William Cammack Campbell, born May 5, 1923 in Huntington, W.Va. -- was first introduced to the game by his father at the age of 3. "My mother, father, brother and I began a tradition of playing Sunday afternoons," Campbell says. "Eventually I got hooked on the game."

A child prodigy, Campbell's game flourished even though he never took a lesson. At 15, he became the second-youngest competitor ever to play in the U.S. Amateur. The youngest, at age 14, was the legendary Bobby Jones. At the tournament Campbell drew the attention of another golf legend, Sam Snead, who took him under his wing and guided him through his formative golfing years. The two remained friends for 65 years, and when Snead passed away in 2002, Campbell was asked to deliver a eulogy.

Campbell enrolled at Princeton University, but his studies were interrupted when he left to serve in the Army during World War II. He emerged from the war a captain after serving in the artillery of the 100th Infantry Division in France and Germany, where he was awarded a Bronze Star for Valor. He ultimately returned to Princeton and earned a degree in history. From there he returned to Huntington to enter the family insurance business, and eventually built one of the most successful agencies in the nation -- but the young Campbell was hardly "just" an insurance man.

The self-professed adrenaline junkie was an active jogger and swimmer (until age 70, when he switched to walking) and his passion for aviation, which he shared with his father, saw the two of them winging it to tournaments all over the country. A different kind of adrenaline rush hit him in 1948, when Campbell was appointed to the West Virginia House of Delegates. Politics didn't exactly favor him, though, and a tough string of political defeats ensued, including a loss in a 1952 Congressional primary that interfered with an invitation to play in the 1952 Masters.

"Those were two of the worst decisions I ever made," Campbell says now, with a smile.

At the age of 31 and seemingly a confirmed bachelor, he made a decision of a different kind by marrying Joan Dourif, a widow from Huntington with four young children. The couple added two more of their own and settled into family life, one in which golf was not his first priority.

"I didn't play weekday or business golf," Campbell insists. "In planning my career, I wanted business and golf to be separate. I competed in only a handful of tournaments each year." But oh what tournaments they were, including the aforementioned 1964 U.S. Amateur.

There, Campbell played well in the early rounds, caught a few lucky breaks and ultimately found himself in the final facing Tutwiler. The two had faced off numerous times in the West Virginia State Amateur finals, with the seasoned Tutwiler winning six of their seven encounters (though Campbell ultimately took the tournament 15 times).

"He had my number," Campbell readily admits.

The two veterans put on a show for the gallery as they battled over 36 holes. Arriving at the 35th hole, a 215-yard par-3, the match was all square. Campbell's one-iron landed on the berm, short of the green. Tutwiler, in turn, missed the green by 75 feet. Tutwiler then pitched to 15 feet short of the pin before two-putting for bogey. Campbell chipped up to three feet and rolled in his par putt. For the first time in the match, he was 1-up. When both players halved the 36th hole, Campbell had finally realized his dream.

And there were others, of course. Many others. Over the course of seven decades Campbell won 33 championships, including back-to-back U.S. Senior Amateurs in 1979 and 1980. He's been honored with a long list of awards, including induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame and the USGA's highest honor: the Bob Jones Award for Distinguished Sportsmanship in Golf. Not surprisingly, all of these tournaments and awards saw him playing with some of the other all-time greats, including Arnold Palmer.

Though they were never paired together in a major tournament, the two did meet up in 1965 for a special event in Washington, D.C., when "The Big Three"--Palmer, Nicklaus and Gary Player--took on three outstanding amateurs in Campbell, Deane Beman and Dale Morey.

"Arnold wasn't playing his best, and as we were walking down the fairway he turned to me and said, 'You know, my father always said to me: He can who thinks he can. Bill, do you believe you can force yourself to do things?' And I said, 'Well, Arnold, I can't argue with that. You're pretty strong evidence of it.'"

Campbell notes that despite Palmer's unorthodox swing, he made it work. That, combined with his tenacious will to win, made him a formidable opponent. "He had his own style based on balance, strength and a wide arc. He wasn't terribly flexible, but he managed to make a turn and his big muscles would carry him through. It wasn't a swing taught by plastic teachers. I love the commercial airing now where he says, 'Swing your swing, not a swing you saw on TV.' Then you see his huge swing moving all around and he says, 'I know I did.' It's a beautiful ad."

Campbell says Palmer's mark on the game was groundbreaking. "Arnold Palmer's impact was huge. He emerged during the advent of televised golf, and he truly popularized the sport. He was strong, handsome and daring. He played with great enthusiasm and determination. It was a thrill to watch him. He was a long hitter, and he always made the bold decision. People saw in him something they admired and envied."

Campbell points out that there was one place where Palmer's game and personality especially shone.

"Augusta was his big stage. He became the hero of that course.

"He had an ability to create excitement. Huge crowds followed him because they loved his smile, his big laugh and the fact that he was having fun. Arnie has a gift. People love to be around him. He was everyone's champion. There's a reason they call him The King."

But of all the memories Campbell has of Palmer, there's one that stands out. "One year I was an official at the seventh green at Augusta. I was standing next to two young ladies when Arnie walked off the green, looked over at them and winked. It was vintage Palmer. Then one of the ladies turned to the other and said, 'I'd give my right arm for 45 minutes with that guy.'"

By the time Campbell retired from competitive golf, he'd amassed one of the greatest amateur resumes in history. If he's frustrated by some of the changes he's seen over a lifetime in the game, like the effects of modern technology, he's also optimistic about the positive changes in golf, including accessibility.

"In my day there was no junior golf," he says. "If you were younger and wanted to compete, you had to go up against the big boys. In addition, there wasn't senior golf. So golf has widened its take, and that's a good thing."

Former USGA executive director Frank Hannigan likes to tell this anecdote, which sums up the respect Campbell earned from his peers: "I was talking with Jack Nicklaus about the USGA's amateur status rules, including a prohibition against accepting free balls or clubs from equipment manufacturers. Nicklaus, who had turned professional by this time, was telling me the rule should be changed. He asserted that the prohibition was unenforceable. 'Name one top amateur who doesn't take anything from the manufacturers,' Nicklaus said. 'Bill Campbell,' I replied. Nicklaus paused for a moment. 'OK. You can have Campbell,' he said. 'Name another one.'"

Finally, looking back over a lifetime of integrity -- in golf and in his numerous other pursuits -- the man who is perhaps the last great amateur ever to play the game finds wisdom in golf, and it's timeless:

"Golf is a game of misses and how you react to them. That applies also to life," Campbell explains. "We know that bad bounces and bad breaks occur. You don't always get what you deserve. But we always hold out the hope that from a bad place, we might make a great recovery. Mistakes happen, and people are imperfect; but they can always try. The beauty of the game is that when you are through with a round, it's gone, and tomorrow is a new day."

This article originally appeared in Kingdom magazine. The author, John H. Houvouras, is publisher and editor of the Huntington Quarterly.

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