Not even the ambling approach of a rogue bulldog could shake Ben Crenshaw from his putt-sinking trance. After all, Muggsy was just another friendly face at Wannamoisett Country Club, albeit one that was slightly out of place on the No. 4 putting green.
Crenshaw, fresh off a third-straight NCAA individual title, had been sharing Muggsy’s home for a few days, so it was only fitting that his host family’s dog would interlope in the 21-year-old Texan’s comfort zone too. According to local lore, Crenshaw stepped away from his putt, grinned, and drawled a friendly “Hey Muggsy, what are you doing?”
The budding star then stepped back to his putt, sunk it to Muggsy’s delight and surged to a tournament-record 275 en route to winning the 1973 Northeast Amateur Invitational Golf Tournament.
It’s one in a trove of memories made at the picturesque Rumford, Rhode Island, club, where one of the nation’s most prestigious amateur golf tournaments has been played to large crowds and cheerful hosts since 1962.
Long and Distinguished
Canine cameos are good for comedy, but the Northeast’s truest charm has always been great golf on a classic Donald Ross course. The honor roll of Northeast Amateur alumni includes 24 United States amateur champions, five British amateur champions and 20 NCAA individual champions. Thirty players have used it as a stepping stone toward professional major championships, from Crenshaw to Fred Couples to Tiger Woods. It’s truly a best-of-the-best event, a can’t-miss on the national amateur scene that ranks annually in the world’s top five events.
“There really is no better way to watch golf,” said first-year tournament director Ben Tuthill. “It’s a beautiful place, it’s accessible and the field just continues to get stronger and stronger. This year, we had 27 of the top 100 amateur players in the world.”
Jolly Good Times
And while the 2014 field was indeed worldly, with invitees from Australia, Brazil, Canada, China and Taiwan, it was Alabama native Stewart Jolly, a senior-to-be at Louisiana State University, who hefted the championship crystal Saturday after a final-round 71 to compete a wire-to-wire win.
Jolly, an NCAA All-America selection, finished the event with a 2-under-par 274, outpacing Oklahoma State’s Jordan Niebrugge, a member of the U.S. Walker Cup team last summer, by two strokes. He called it his biggest win to date, eclipsing a pair of NCAA victories and a Future Masters title in 2009.
“I’m so excited to win here,” Jolly told Jim Donaldson of the Providence Journal. “There have been a lot of great players in this event. It’s an honor just to be part of it. Winning it is huge.”
And to think, Jolly, 21, almost skipped it.
Selected to represent the U.S. at next week’s Palmer Cup in Surrey, England, Jolly had the option of crossing the Atlantic Ocean early, with his teammates, but he chose instead to honor his previous commitment to the Northeast. Buoyed now by a jolt of confidence from being the only under-par finisher at Ross’ esteemed classic, Jolly will depart early this week to join his Palmer Cup teammates. The youthful Americans will begin play Thursday at Walton Heath Golf Club against Team Europe. The Scotland-born Ross, who maintained a summer office in Little Compton, R.I., would have been impressed, though it’s difficult to say where his Palmer Cup allegiances would lie.
Building on a Legend
Time passes and things change. The inaugural Northeast Amateur included a field of only 30 players and was purely a regional affair. It blossomed into something special, something national and then something iconic. Spectators poured in, charging the tournament with a big-time atmosphere that proved an ideal and alluring stage for the nation’s top players. It became an event. And as years passed, the Northeast remained an outstanding test of golf against elite up-and-coming talent; a can’t-miss tournament for future big-timers. But as an event, it lost some of its cachet, pressured by other tournaments, societal changes and time itself.
Simply put, the world changed in 53 years, and amateur golf wasn’t immune.
Tuthill, who both played and caddied at the Northeast, is earnest in his mission to breathe new vitality into the event.
“It has tremendous respect among the players,” said Tuthill. “These guys know the reputation, and they want to be here if they can, but we’re up against schedules — the British Amateur Championship is played at the same time — and exemptions for PGA Tour events and Web.com events.”
For today’s budding golf stars, things like tour exemptions are difficult to ignore. So too is the sparkle of a tournament with flashing digital scoreboards and buzzing social media to boost their personal brand. There’s big money to be made now, not just by winning, but also through sponsors and fans knowing your name. Tuthill and his fellow tournament hosts are eager to push their event into the 21st Century without sacrificing its classic charm.
“We’re trying to build it back into what it was,” said Tuthill. “In some aspects, we’ve gotten behind. How do we get that PGA Tour feel for these kids? That’s a question we’re asking.”
As they look to the future, nearly everything is open for discussion except deviating from their traditional date on the June calendar. Tuthill is adamant about that. But other things will most certainly change.
One modification already in effect was an expansion of online coverage from the event, with a new website, daily video updates and blog entries. Enhanced social media efforts are sure to follow. And golf-specific changes could also be on the horizon, as tour exemptions, expanded fields with regional qualifiers and tweaks to ancillary events like the player-sponsor tournament and the long-drive contest have all been considered for next year and beyond. One thing, however, is certain. Whatever evolution comes, it’s sure to be done with love by the loyal army of Wannamoisett faithful.
“Our membership has embraced this event since Day 1,” said Tuthill. “It’s an incredibly busy time at our club, but we truly enjoy doing it. It’s a lot of fun to spend a week with these young people and get to know them. Incredible relationships have been forged at the Northeast, and we want it to continue getting better.”