An Amateur Title Tops The Menu
Dave Sheff was well on his way to a third consecutive day of improving his score at the 87th SCGA Amateur Championship. He was playing what he later called "one of the best rounds of my life."
Then on Hillcrest Country Club's picturesque par-three 16th hole, an old nemesis — Sheff's short game — came into play.
But despite a triple bogey at 16 and a bogey on the next hole, Sheff's lead and his mettle, combined with the experience of a 37-year-old with a professional seasoning, were enough to win the championship by one stroke over four other players.
Sheff's 73-72-69-71 — 285 was one over par for the tournament, on the 6,451-yard, par-71 Hillcrest layout.
The Newport Beach Country Club member, a sales representative for Ping, was seven strokes off the pace after Friday's 36 holes, but one-by-one, contenders fell back. That is until Sheff came back to them.
With seven pars and two birdies on the front nine Sunday, he'd assumed what became a four-shot lead at one point, even though he didn't know how his fellow finalists were faring. He was four-under for the day when his tee shot at the 16th hole flew into the left bunker.
"The ball plugged, then bounced out," Sheff explained later. "The sand in that area looked finer than the rest and the ball ended up with no sand behind it."
Whatever else contributed to the problem, it didn't get solved until five shots later, three of them from the bunker.
The effect of the triple-bogey 6 was compounded moments later when Sheff pull-hooked his tee shot on the 310-yard, par-four 17th hole. Always powerful off the tee, he put the ball within pitching wedge distance of the green, but it was dead behind a small pine tree in the left rough.
From there, the San Marino resident hit over the green, and ended up with a bogey.
"I still wasn't real sure at that point how things stood," Sheff said later. "Someone said if I parred 18, I'd win the tournament, but I knew those guys ahead of me weren't done yet."
As it turned out, par became what he needed to avoid a five-way playoff for the title. Two players in the group just in front of Sheff, veteran competitor Dennis Iden of Old Ranch CC and Former USC standout Rob Geiberger of Montecito CC, had parred the 18th hole to finish at 286. Earlier, a two-under-par 69 by the steady Buz Greene of North Ranch, and Pat Duncan's (Rancho Santa Fe) 68, low round of the day (with Markel Taylor), had put each of them at the same figure.
After crushing his tee shot on the final hole, Sheff wedged to within seven feet of the cup, and came close to holing the birdie. When the short par putt fell, the title was his.
"I really only felt I knew for sure what the scores were when I heard someone say 'nice lag' on that putt at 18,' Sheff said with a smile.
It was Sheff's first try at the venerable SCGA event, the nation's oldest continuously contested amateur championship. During the 1970's he played the mini-tour circuit, then the PGA Tour for two seasons with marginal success. "I always hit it long, but my short game was never what it should be," he recalled ruefully. He regained his amateur status a year ago.
Sheff has worked for Ping for eight years and has no aspirations to return to the pro ranks. "It was fun out there today," he said. "I really enjoy amateur golf."
Originally from Reno, Sheff played college golf at Arizona State with future pros Bob Gilder, Howard Twitty, and Tom Purtzer. He won the NCAA long-drive competition in 1971 at Tucson National.
Only recently, he and his wife Vicki adopted Kristin, just a week old at the time.
"That's why my wife couldn't come down to watch," he explained. "She had to stay home with the baby." On the telephone Sunday evening, Dave reported home, "Tell Kristin she's undefeated — one tournament, one win."
If Jon Buchman, a 39-year-old retired dentist from Fairbanks Ranch CC, had been able to play back to his Friday performance, he might have run off and hidden from the field.
Buchman returned two cards of two-under-par 69 to lead Iden (whose opening-round 67 was the best score of the three days) and Greene by two strokes.
Buchman, who has the distinction of holding both the golf and tennis club championship at the northern San Diego Country Club, had been low amateur in the U.S. Open local qualifying earlier this year at Carmel Mountain Ranch. He's been playing golf seriously for just over three years, making the conversion from tennis.
The following day he ballooned to an 80 and the lead was assumed by rangy Bryan Gorman form Bonita Golf Course, who had three straight even-par rounds of 71 before blowing to a 77 and a 290 total.
Gorman had returned earlier this year from a layoff in a big way, including a low SCGA Amateur-qualifying 66 at San Luis Rey Downs. He'd won the 1981 CIF-SCGA High School Invitational championship, beating Sam Randolph (among others) as a senior at San Diego's Hilltop High School.
After playing at U.S. International University, Gorman took some time off from the game until earlier this year.
Among the challengers, Geiberger loomed early in the final round with five birdies (and two bogeys) on the first eight holes.
But his tee shot on the 379-yard, par-4 ninth hole went directly into the trees bordering the dogleg-right hole and the resulting double bogey, plus bogeys on three of the next four holes, left him just out of reach.
Geiberger, was hoping to emulate his father Al, who won the SCGA Amateur in 1956 and '59. The elder Geiberger is a golf legend for his round of 59 strokes in the PGA's tournament at Colonial in Memphis in 1977.
Iden, 51, after having putting problems late in Friday's double round, was moved to comment, "I'm only good for 27 holes." He had been the leading qualifier at Hacienda Golf Club with a two-under-par 70.
Duncan, five groups ahead of the leaders Sunday, didn't have a bogey until 18 — and didn't know how much it cost him until an hour after he had it. He wound up second after matching cards; Greene was third, Iden fourth and Geiberger fifth.
A year ago, when Duncan, 30, had his first career hole-in-one in this tournament at Virginia Country Club, he missed the cut. This time around, with no ace in the hole, he was within a par of a championship.
Richard Greenwood of UCLA and El Caballero CC played the final day in the group with Sheff and Gorman. A 75 left him in a tie for sixth with Taylor at 289.
Greenwood scorched the front nine at Brentwood CC in qualifying with a 31 and wound up beating everybody there by five strokes with a four-under-par 68.
Another near miss possibility was Ted Richards of Bel-Air CC. The congenial 62-year-old was the toast of the first three rounds with a 217 total, just four strokes off the pace of a tournament he's won twice before and placed second in "seven or eight times." He first played in the SCGA Amateur "in '53 or '54."
However, on the final day the four-time SCGA Senior Amateur champion was slowed by an injured back and shot 86.
During a post-round refreshment break with fellow Bel-Air member Bill Keogh (who's half his age), Richards speculated he'd played Hillcrest more times than Keogh.."before you were born," Richards added with a hearty laugh.
The last laugh of the weekend, however, was Dave Sheff's.