And Up Steps Craig Steinberg

There it was. Another leaderboard with most of the usual suspects near the top. In fact, with six players at a low of 209 through 54 holes, it was as crowded at the top of the board as any SCGA Amateur championship has ever been. Ask a dozen people their pick and you'd likely get six different answers.

Jason Gore, 23, playing the hottest golf of maybe any amateur in the nation, riding high with his appointment to the Walker Cup team the previous day.

Jason Semelsberger, an 18-year-old sophomore at UCLA, whose game had been measurably toughened by his experience at the U.S. Open just five weeks before at Congressional CC.

Mark Johnson, 43, winner of twice as many SCGA-related competitions as anyone else and desperately seeking his first SCGA Amateur win.

Ed Cuff, 35, who returned to the amateur ranks without missing a step a few years back, proceeding to knock Tiger Woods out of the state amateur three years ago, and win Lakeside GC's prestigious Kelly Cup only weeks before the SCGA Amateur at this very course.

Jim Camaione, 42, everyman's golfer, whose putter was doing as much talking as the gregarious transplanted Easterner always does, earning him a share of the second-round lead with Johnson.

And Craig Steinberg. Ah, Dr. Steinberg...the 39-year-old former USC standout who opted to stay "a good amateur player" instead of heading for the pros.

For a while after Steinberg won his second consecutive and third overall SCGA Amateur crown in 1992 at Faribank Ranch CC, you didn't hear as much from the tenacious optometrist/lawyer from Van Nuys. Until, that is, when he came from three strokes off the pace last fall at The Victoria Club to tie Greg Puga for the SCGA Mid-Amateur lead. Steinberg then found the water on the first playoff hole, recovered to halve the hole with an 18-foot putt from the fringe, and won with a par on the next hole.

That kind of scramble and grind is what faced the pretenders to the crown that July Sunday in Lakeside. All dropped by the wayside in the face of Steinberg's second 67 in three days.

Steinberg beat Gore by a stroke to join Dr. Paul Hunter and Johnny Dawson as the only golfers who have earned at least four sports on the big silver trophy in the nearly century-long history of the event.

Steinberg's four-under-par total of 267 was four strokes better than what he had thought might win the event going in. The two ensuring days altered his thinking a little. "When you saw all those guys at one under starting the final day," related Steinberg later, "you had to think somebody was going to put up a sub-par round to win."

Steinberg and Gore were the only members of the six-pack who posted final rounds below par-70. It appeared the Gore was going to run off and hide at the outset. After birdie putts on the first two holes and another at the 451-yard fifth, he had a three-stroke lead on Steinberg.

But three holes later, the pair was back level as Gore bogeyed twice in a row, and Steinberg rolled in a birdie at the long 240-yard par-3 ninth.

Give Craig Steinberg an opening, then stand aside as he goes right through. "When I found out we were tied through nine (he, Gore and Johnson), my caddie (Lakeside president Chuck Gonzalez) reminded me to just keep hitting the greens," said Steinberg later. "The size of the greens here sometimes leaves you a 10-foot putt even if you've only gone for the center on your approach."

Steinberg wasn't as successful at greens in regulation as he was the day before (when he hit 17 greens), but, and here's a huge key to Steinberg's winning ways: "The putts for pars (at 10 and 11 for example) were very big," he said later.

Interestingly. Steinberg changed putters at mid-tournament. "The second day, it really helped."

Of course, the 10-footer for birdie at No. 13, giving him the lead for the first time, and another of 25 feet on the next hole, to go with Gore's bogey at the par-three 15th after he flew the green, weren't bad.

In fact, they were the tournament, as Gore roared back with a stunning 60-foot pitch shot form the rough for a bidie at the 17th. Then after a drive of 310 yards on the final hole, and needing an eagle right then to tie, Gore sailed his approach to within three feet of the hole. Only thing the birdie to follow did, was leave him two strokes alone in second. Steinberg had methodically pared 18 ahead of him to lock down the title.

Of the six tied for the lead heading into the final round, Semelsberger disappeared first, unable to scramble back form a lost ball at No. 2. When a huge gallery couldn't locate his Titleist in the trees to the right of the fairway, he took a drop and wound up with a double bogey seven. Two holes later, he strung two bogeys together and a pair of birdies at the remaining par-3 holes wasn't nearly enough to put him back in the hunt.

Camaione pretty much held together until consecutive bogeys at 10 and 11. Johnson was even par when his shot at 11 sliced into Valley Spring Lane along Lakeside's northern property line: triple bogey seven. One-under the rest of the way left him in sixth place, five strokes back.

Cuff had both his bogeys and both his birdies within the first six holes. Paring in after that didn't achieve the velocity that a winning move required this day.

Meanwhile, Matt Murray of Santa Maria CC and San Diego State had started the day at even par and just one back of the leaders. After bogeying three of the first four holes on the back side, he steadied himself for three birdies in the last five holes for a 69, three strokes short.

Lakeside member David Olsen joined Murray at 279 with a sometimes remarkable road to a 68. Recovering from a skulled bunker shot for a par, and guiding a down-hill putt with a two-foot break at No. 6 were only two of the stops on his roller coaster which led to his first SCGA plate in a solid career.

The first two rounds on Friday produced some remarkable golf. Despite Lakeside's par of 70, there were no les that 17 subpar rounds that day, led by Scott McGihon's 66 in the morning. It was a different story later in the day for the Avondale member. His 33-33 with four birdies and an eagle became a 37-38 with a lone birdie and he moved offstage.

A pair at two strokes behind, though, did not. Johnson and Camaione, each starting at No. 10 for the afternoon round, backed up their 68s with 69s.

Semelsberger matched his morning round of 69 to position himself a stroke off the lead and one shot better than his Santa Clarita Valley neighbor, Gore, who pumped in an afternoon 68, and Murray, who slid form his moring 67 to two over later.

On paper, Steinberg was back in the pack after a round of 74 left him four strokes off the pace. But plenty of golf remained. And with 14 golfers within four stokes of one another, the six-way logjam that resulted after Saturday's third round couldn't have been too surprising.

Plenty of golf, incidentally, is what Crag Steinberg had played at Lakeside. For 10 years through his high school and college years, Steinberg had caddied at the club. "I've probably played that course more than any other single one," he said.

So on Saturday? Steinberg's 68 was the only subpar round of the day and vaulted him right into a position he took advantage of to the fullest. This experience, and Steinberg's legendary determination, can not be underestimated when analyzing what came down.

Steinberg is not unlike a growing number of accomplished golfer in his age group as they eye the Senior PGA Tour once the old five-oh rolls around. Steinberg isn't close to that yet, but that's a good thing, according to him.

"I don't believe you can turn 50 and then suddenly turn pro," he said, "there's so much preparation to be made. Playing at that level is another game. That 74 I shot at Lakeside would have had to be a 68 or better for me to even make the cut in a lot of events."

So, sure, Steinberg and Mark Johnson and several other will keep in mind where they feel they'll have to be when it comes down to decision time.

Meanwhile, the bad news is for every new wave of young lions working their way through the collegiate/amateur ranks is that Craig Steinberg remains among the usual suspects.

And now he's clanked the big door shut on 'em four times.

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