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Making the Rounds: Demise of amateur showcase reflects change

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 5C

The competitive American amateur golf landscape has changed so much since Ken Towns won the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship in 1949, he was mostly indifferent to the news Monday that the United States Golf Association will eliminate the annual men's and women's tournaments after 2014.

Key word: Mostly.

"The snooty have combined with the not-so-snooty," he said.

The Public Links was created in 1922 to give public-course players a national championship. The U.S. Amateur, established in 1895, was restricted to members of USGA-affiliated clubs, which was code for "private clubs," until being opened to all amateurs in 1979.

When Towns, then a 21-year-old San Franciscan playing out of Harding Park, won the Public Links, players couldn't attempt to qualify for both, although the winner of the Public Links earned a spot in the Amateur.

"As a top amateur, it was the only big thing we could do," Towns said. "They can play every week now."

Towns, a longtime club professional, is 84. He has lived in Penn Valley since his retirement 25 years ago, carries a 6.6 handicap index at Lake Wildwood and is part of the Sacramento area's long history with the Public Links. Some others:

• Sacramento amateur legend Verne Callison won in 1960 and 1967. In 1960, he bested a then-championship record 2,718 entries, which were prompted by the event being played in Hawaii for the first time.

• PGA Tour pro-to-be Bob Lunn, wearing tight shorts, tube socks halfway up his calves and a T-shirt, won at Haggin Oaks in 1963. Like Towns, he came over from Harding Park and ended up settling nearby (Lodi).

• The Women's Public Links, created in 1977, came to Haggin Oaks in 1992, with Amy Fruhwirth prevailing against a field filled with stubborn local competitors.

After the 1979 decision to let all comers into the U.S. Amateur, it largely became interchangeable with the Public Links. While entries into the more prestigious Amateur have dipped about 10 percent off their peak in recent years, entries in the Public Links have dipped 50 percent since the 1990s.

While no longer needed to serve its original mission and with interest waning, the Public Links will be replaced in 2015 by best-ball championships for men and women, a format the USGA said is growing in popularity.

Lunn, the son of a San Francisco police officer, was 18 when he prevailed at Haggin Oaks. The July temperature was over 100 degrees, brutal for a Bay Area boy. More than 2,000 spectators followed the 36-hole title match, in which Lunn prevailed 1 up over Steve Oppermann.

"The only way I could get on a national stage was at the Public Links," he said.

Lunn, who went on to win six times on the PGA Tour, beat Jerry Yuke 3 and 1 in a 36-hole semifinal. Yuke was a Sacramento State College junior.

In the 1992 women's Public Links, locals Angela Pieroni and Megan Hamilton reached the quarterfinals. Hamilton, a 16-year-old Elk Grove High School senior, eliminated medalist Heather Hughes in the first round of match play. Pieroni (now Dixon) and Hamilton (now Fidler) work together at the First Tee of Greater Sacramento.

"That's the special part of that event. There's usually some hometown people that don't necessarily show up on the national radar that tend to do pretty well," said Haggin Oaks' Ken Morton Jr.

Past Public Links champions include Brandt Snedeker, Ryan Moore, Tim Clark, Yani Tseng and Michelle Wie, who each went on to be top touring professionals.

Towns played part of five seasons on the PGA Tour and built a career around golf. He looks back fondly on his 1949 Public Links victory at Rancho Park in Los Angeles, where, as he wrote for Sports Illustrated in a 2000 retrospective, he beat a blue-collar collection of "truck drivers, warehousemen, police officers and firemen – laborers who also worked hard on their golf games."

"It was probably the biggest thing that happened to me in golf," he said.

Towns won eight matches over six days, going 36 holes the final four days. Long before the days the Public Links winner earned an invitation to the Masters, he received a medallion the size of a silver dollar for his triumph.

"Just being listed by the USGA as a champion is big enough," he said.

Et cetera

• Elk Grove's Spencer Levin is out for the 2013 PGA Tour season, his agent said, as he continues to rehabilitate his surgically repaired right thumb.

• Roseville's Kim Welch is in the field for this week's Women's Australian Open.

• El Dorado Hills' Cooper Hunt made a hole in one during a 4-under-par 68 Sunday at Diablo Creek to win a Bay Area US Kids Golf Tour event.

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