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Posted April 5, 2011, 12:00 am
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Amateurs respected at the Masters

Coe almost fulfilled Jones' wish
  • Article Photos
    Amateurs respected at the Masters
    Photos description
    In 1961, Charlie Coe (left) tied for second behind Gary Player, becoming one of three amateurs to be a runner-up in the Masters.

 

The amateur golfer has always been revered at Augusta National Golf Club, the mandate and the legacy of its co-founder, Bobby Jones -- the greatest amateur golfer of them all.

The 1961 Masters Tournament remains the best week in the event's history for love of the game over money.

Although that Masters is more noted for Gary Player's becoming the first international winner and Arnold Palmer's meltdown from a two-shot lead with one hole to play, it also featured the most success at Augusta National by amateur golfers.

They were led by Charlie Coe, a wiry, long-hitting, sure-putting native of Ardmore, Okla., who had birdie chances on the last two holes to tie Player and force an 18-hole playoff. Coe finished in a tie for second with Palmer at 7-under-281, one shot behind Player.

Coe was the last of three amateurs to finish second. He tied for ninth in 1962 and since then, no amateur has finished among the top 10.

In 1961, Jack Nicklaus, playing the last of his three Masters as an amateur, tied for seventh, six shots behind Coe. Another amateur, Robert W. Gardner, tied for 11th, only another shot behind Nicklaus.

It was the only time that three amateurs finished among the top 15. The only other amateur performance to rival that was in 1954, when four amateurs finished among the top-20, They were Billy Joe Patton (third), Richard Chapman (11th), Ken Venturi (tie for 16th) and Coe (tie for 20th).

Deane Beman won the second Par-3 Contest, at 5-under 22. He was the first of three amateurs to win the Par-3 Contest.

Nineteen amateurs played in the 1961 Masters, and they were a Who's Who of amateur champions of that era: Coe, Nicklaus, Gardner, Beman, Patton, Bill Campbell and Charles Lewis, among them.

Beating the pros

At the time, Coe was playing Augusta National as well as most professionals. He had played in 14 Masters by 1963, with eight finishes in the top 25.

"He was playing with a lot of confidence back then," said Rick Coe, one of Coe's three sons. "He really knew the course well and he always used to kid that he could take any good amateur, and go against any two professionals in a friendly match at Augusta, and beat them."

Despite his success at Augusta, and in amateur golf (won the U.S. Amateur twice, was a member of six Walker Cup teams and won three conference tournaments while at Oklahoma) Coe never considered turning professional. Rick Coe and another son, Charles Coe Jr., of Germantown, Tenn., said their father thought the professional game a bit too undignified.

Three years before he died in 2001 at age 77, Coe said as much in an interview.

"When I was growing up, golf was a gentleman's game," he said. "It was played by the amateur. You didn't think of it as a pro sport. Besides, I also was married and my wife didn't want to live out of a suitcase, so that settled it."

His amateur career at Augusta would be the envy of many pros, however. He holds or shares most Masters amateur records, including top-10s (three), most cuts made (eight), most rounds played (67) and rounds at par or lower (22).

Coe also was a rarity: He was competitive in the Masters after becoming a member. He was invited to join the club in 1959 and became a frequent golf and card-playing partner with Jones.

Amateurs respected

"The amateur golfer has always been made to feel welcome and important the week of the Masters," said Steve Melnyk, the low amateur in the 1971 Masters. "It's part of the culture of Augusta National, to revere amateurism, even though professionals make up most of the field."

"It was always a dream of Mr. Jones and Mr. (co-founder Clifford) Roberts to have an amateur win the Masters," said Beman, the former PGA Tour commissioner who appeared in the Masters eight times as an amateur. "That was very difficult at the time I was playing as an amateur and even more difficult now."

A surprising finish

Beman said it wouldn't have surprised him if Coe had won a Masters.

"Charlie was a very long hitter for that time, and did everything else pretty well," Beman said. "He was a very good wind player and a good putter. And a lot of people were rooting for him because Charlie was one of the nicest guys out there."

Coe started the 1961 Masters 72-71 and was six shots behind Palmer and Player, who were tied for the 36-hole lead.

Player shot 69 in the third round and led through 54 holes at 10-under. Coe matched that 69 but remained six shots behind Player. Palmer, with a 73, fell to 6-under, four behind player and two ahead of Coe.

After rain postponed the final round, the field returned for a Monday finish. Player lost his lead early, and Coe and Palmer, playing together, overtook the South African on the back nine.

Rick Coe said his father was a friend of Palmer and had learned one trick in being paired with him.

"Arnold was like a steam engine out there ... he walked fast, up and down those hills, and if you tried to keep up with him, he'd wear you down," Rick Coe said. "Dad walked at his own pace."

Player rallied but, with two holes left, still trailed Palmer by two shots and led Coe by one. Coe had a 20-foot birdie-putt attempt on the 17th hole, but missed it by a foot.

"Dad said later he choked a little on that putt," Rick Coe said. "The funny thing is that Arnold had the same putt, just a little bit closer, and after watching dad's putt go right by a foot, Arnold's went right by 18 inches."

Palmer still had a two-shot lead, though, and in a story he tells often, felt confident enough to chat with fans after hitting his drive at No. 18.

Palmer lost his concentration, however, and planted his second shot in the right greenside bunker.

Palmer eventually made double bogey to fall one shot behind Player. Coe had another birdie attempt at No. 18 but missed that, and the two waited for Player to finish.

Player hit into the left bunker at No. 18 but got up and down for par to win the tournament.

Coe's sons said that, like his decision to remain an amateur, their father never expressed regrets about finishing one shot from a playoff.

"He'd say that he could have won that year ... that he should have won," Rick Coe said. "But I don't think he would take back any decision he made out there that day."

Reach Garry Smits at (904) 359-4362 or garry.smits@jacksonville.com.