Diamond In The Rough

"Even after I played a practice round," Tim Hogarth mused, "I still thought around 10-under would win it."

What DID win the 105th SCGA Amateur Championship at Hillcrest Country Club was its only sub-par score, Hogarth's total of 1-under-par 279.

When the venerable West Los Angeles club was announced as the venue for the SCGA Amateur, mid-amateur (25 years and older) golfers caught what they hoped would be a break. After three consecutive years at layouts at or near 7,000 yards, Hillcrest — at just 6,499 yards — figured to be a course that would facor precise ball stiking and experience rather than pure power and putting which play to the strength of college-age bangers, three of whom had won those three previous titles.

Hogarth, a 38-year-old Northridge resident, was the one who took most advantage of that golden opportunity, and by four strokes at that — so demanding were the tight fairways, thick rough and lightning-speed greens.

"When I saw how the course was set up (with rough at 4-5 inches it looked like U.S. Open conditions)," Hogarth went on, "even though I thought the scoring might be lower, I also knew this was my best chance to finally win one of these."

The 1996 U.S. Amateur Public Links and 1999 California Amateur champion finished with a 1-under-par 69 to beat 36-year-old Scott McGihon of Bermuda Dunes. He became the first person to win titles in the SCGA Amateur, California Amateur and SCGA Mid-Amateur, the three most important events for the mid-amateurs in the state. The four-shot margin was the largest since McGihon won by four in 2000 at Rancho Santa Fe GC.

McGihon's 3-over-par total of 283 was one shot in front of last year's runner-up, Steve Conway of Newport Beach, whose closing 72 gave him a 284 total, 4-over-par. Defending champion (and first round leader) Roy Moon of North Hills and Conway's teammate at UCLA, finished fourth at 285, one shot in front of 1999 champion John Pate of Santa Barbara and Jason Bittick of Coto de Caza.

Hogarth's victory added to an impressive total that includes four Los Angeles City Amateurs (three in succession), two Kelly Cup titles at Lakeside Golf Club and the 2002 Stocker Cup, not to mention playing in the Masters in 1997. This after he opted out of a run at the pro ranks in the mid-90s. "I'm a strange golfer," Hogarth candidly offered. "I'm not good all the time but if I have all my stuff, I can win at a course like this."

"My putting has always held me back," he went on, "and I missed a lot of putts this week. But I really feel like I out-hit the field overall in terms of accuracy/" Hogarth had lost a chance to appear in the U.S. Open earlier this year when he lost in a playoff in the sectional qualifying event. "Today," he said in a brief speech Sunday afternoon, " has helped me forget that disappointment."

Said Cal State Bakersfield's Greg Lopez of San Juan Capistrano, who shared the 54-hole lead and was paired with Hogarth, "he did everything perfect" in the final round.

Things didn't start out that way. Hogarth bogied two of the first three holes and left his drive at No. 4 in the rough. But then he had to wait because of a lengthy ruling for the group in front of him and it gave him time to settle mentally. "I decided to adjust to a three-quarter swing and use the ability to hit straight shots to my advantage."

Things clicked immediately. His approach at the 553-yard par-5 stopped three and a half feet from the hole and he guided in the birdie putt. He missed a birdie putt at No. 7 from a similar distance but kept his path of pars intact until the 378-yard ninth hole. hitting an eight-iron approach to an elevated green, his ball danced around the hole and stopped three inches away for a "gimme" 3. It was almost a carbon copy at the short par-4 10th and he was on his way. Only a three-putt at the par-3 16th marred the rest of his round and by that time he was home free.

Hogarth was at his best at the ninth hole, playing it in 3-under-par for the tournament. The holes that gave him the most trouble (he bogied No. 8 and No. 13 each of the first two rounds) turned into par holes for him on the weekend.

Meanwhile, challengers fell by the wayside as the holes progressed on Sunday. David Bartman was the first. The former Nationwide Tour player from Los Angeles and Brentwood CC had moved into a tie for the lead after two holes, but suffered a triple bogey 7 at the third hole, then a double bogey 7 at the fourth.

Lopez kept pace until he lost a ball in the right rough at the difficult 494-yard par-4 eight for a double bogey, then bogeyed the ninth and 10th as well. Conway's wheels also spun at 8 and 9 with bogeys.

McGihon's charge stalled at No. 7 when he left his tee shot at the base of a tree and had to punch sideways out of the rough, resulting in bogey. A mishit nine-iron shot into the front bunker at No.16 and a lipped out putt for par on the next hole negated a closing birdie. "Tim just played better today," McGihon concluded, "I know as well as anyone," he told reporters later, "that when it's your time, it's your time," McGihon's victory in 2000 came after several years of knocking on the door.

For McGihon, it was a continuation of rebound from last year in which, "I didn't play well at all." He won the Trans-Mississippi Mid-Amateur at La Jolla CC in June. "Then I thought I would be able to do some damage at the state (the following week)," he said, "but 12 rounds in 10 days — all of it walking — was just too much."

When the tournament opened Friday, a good deal of youthful ability manifested itself. For example, Moon (he and Conway have just completed their eligibility at UCLA) generated a 33 on his front nine and emerged with a 68 and the first round lead by a stroke over Lopez, Mark Warman (a San Diego State graduate who was fourth last year at Torrey Pines) and Kevin Loustalot of Thousand Oaks.

The latter pair faltered in the afternoon round, but Saddleback College sophomore-to-be Andrew Crowe of Murrieta threw down his second straight even-par round to grab the lead from Conway (only a double bogey at No. 8, his next-to-last hole, kept him out of the top spot), Lopez and Bartman, who matched Moon's 68 for low round of the day. Hogarth lurked another shot back along with Moon, who had dipped to an afternoon 74. Crow, incidentally, was the final qualifying alternate to gain a slot in the championship.

It was Saturday afternoon when the tournament's fabric began to appear. McGihon, who led the tournament in birdies with 16, and Pate, who made four back-nine birdies, fashioned 67s (the tournament's low rounds — there were only 13 rounds in the 60s overall). Jason Bittick, 31 and a California Amateur quarterfinalist in June shot 68 and suddenly eight of the top 11 scores belonged to Mid-Ams. And grand marshal of the parade was Hogarth, who recovered from consecutive bogeys at Nos. 5 and 6, for a 68 of his own.

A sign of things to come, as it turned out.

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