Fond Memories: '62 Amateur Champ Labron Harris Jr. Reflects on Victory
Labron E. Harris Jr. checked out of the Pine Crest Inn Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday mornings of that week in late September 1962.
He did so because he just did not expect to win his matches each of those days in the U. S. Amateur Golf Championship being played on Pinehurst No. 2, and he did not have enough money to squander it by staying an extra night after losing.
Harris planned to drive back home to Stillwater, Okla., immediately after being eliminated.
Surprising himself, the 20-year-old son of the Oklahoma State golf coach won and won and just kept on winning. So each day Harris returned to the Pine Crest Inn where kindly Bob Barrett, the owner/proprietor for just a year at that time, took Harris back in again and again that week. After all, rooms became available each evening as other golfers were eliminated in bunches during the early rounds of the U. S. Golf Association's Amateur Championship.
Harris had driven to Pinehurst with his buddy from Texas, Charles Coody, who also checked out with Harris each morning in expectation that the two would be hitting the road back home later each day after their defeats. But Coody, like Harris, had to ask Bob Barrett to take him back into the Pine Crest Inn each evening simply because unexpected daily victories kept interrupting their travel plans.
In fact, these two long-time friends who were paired in opposite halves of the draw, were heading toward a Texas-Oklahoma showdown in the final 36-hole match for the national title, Saturday, Sept. 22, 1962, on Pinehurst No. 2.
Speaking by phone from his Maryland home recently, Harris, now 66, said, "We checked in every night and checked out every morning. We never gave it a thought we would win. I lost in the first round the year before."
Working toward a graduate degree in math at Oklahoma State University, Harris spent the summers back then playing the old amateur golf circuit that included the U.S. Amateur, the Western Amateur and other big amateur tourneys across the nation. He said, "We were a small, close and friendly group back then. We knew each other pretty well and played each other regularly."
The tall (6-foot-4), slim Harris was beaten in the 1961 U.S. Amateur opening round by a friend and fellow Oklahoman, Glen Fowler. That was the year that the much shorter, stocky 21-year-old Jack Nicklaus won the amateur crown, taking his second U.S. Amateur title in three years.
But Nicklaus did not defend his amateur title in 1962 because he turned pro that year. In fact, Nicklaus won his first tournament as a pro and the first of his 18 majors just three months before the 1962 Amateur at Pinehurst when he beat Arnold Palmer in a playoff at Oakmont in Pennsylvania for the 1962 U. S. Open Championship.
Harris said that few amateurs at Pinehurst gave any thought to whether Nicklaus was in or out of the amateur tournament that year.
"You just play the man you have to play each round, no matter if it's Nicklaus or someone else. You just play your game."
There were some fairly impressive amateurs in that 1962 field at Pinehurst No. 2, including former and future U.S. Amateur Champions Harvie E. Ward Jr., Charlie Coe, Jay Sigel, Billy Campbell and Deane Beman.
Harris just played his game round after round until he got to that Friday afternoon semifinal match with the local hero and favorite, Billy Joe Patton, from Mimosa Hills.
"I beat Billy Joe, 3 and 1," Harris said. "It was not a really popular victory for me down there. Why, when Billy Joe bent over to tee it up on each hole they cheered for him. It was not difficult to tell they were pulling for him. But I would never say the people in Pinehurst were against me. They were just really for Billy Joe.
"Billy Joe was a wonderful guy. He almost won the Masters. He almost won this and that other tournament. He almost won a lot of stuff. They loved him down there in Carolina and rightfully so."
That semifinal or sixth match victory of the tournament by Harris sent him back to the Pine Crest Inn for another check-in with Bob Barrett, Friday night.
Unfortunately, the potential showdown between Harris and his traveling companion, Charles Coody, did not materialize. Coody lost in the other semifinal match to Downing Gray of Pensacola, Fla., 3 and 2, ending the chances of the Texas-Oklahoma showdown.
This time Coody remained the extra day and spent the money for another night at the Pine Crest Inn despite losing. After all, Coody could hardly take off with their car and leave his friend, Harris, behind with no way to get home.
When they finally got under way late Saturday, Coody was riding with the newest U.S. Amateur Golf Champion, Labron E. Harris Jr., who won the big prize just five days short of his 21st birthday.
It did not come easily for Harris, however. He was five holes down at the lunch break after 18 holes of the 36-hole title match.
Harris said in the phone interview, "During the break I got a call from my Dad, who was playing in a tournament in Texas. He said, 'Son, I know you've got it in you to win.' I told him, 'I know I have it in me. I just have to get it out of me.'"
The course was playing at just under 7,200 yards for the 1962 U.S. Amateur, considerably shorter than Pinehurst No. 2 was stretched to for the 1999 and 2005 U.S. Opens.
Harris was facing an experienced amateur trouper, a man who competed on three U.S. Walker Cup teams and in numerous U.S. Amateur Championships. The young Oklahoma golfer had a considerable mountain to climb if he was to overcome a five-hole deficit with only 18 holes remaining.
But after each man won a hole during the first three holes of the afternoon session, Harris let it all out. What his father knew was in him came forth as if a flood-gate had opened. Starting on the par-5 fourth hole, Harris won five straight holes to even the match before they made the turn.
Then, after they halved the shortest hole on the course at the par-3 ninth, Gray came a cropper with his drive at the par-5 10th. Harris won that hole, that proved to be the deciding factor for the match and title.
Harris described that 10th by saying, "He drove right out of the fairway into a clump of love grass. They don't have that real tough love grass on Pinehurst No. 2 anymore. But back then it was impossible to get really free of that stuff. He could only whack it sort of back toward the fairway about 10 yards, so I won the hole."
They played along shot for shot until Harris went 2-up by winning the par-5 16th hole. Then Harris drove into the bunker left of the 17th green and lost that hole to Gray's par 3. Thus the two went to the last hole with Harris 1-up. They halved No. 18 at par and Harris was the national champion the first time the USGA held its Amateur Championship on Pinehurst No. 2.
Harris said he made many friends in Pinehurst, although he never returned to Pinehurst for 10 years after that big victory. He did compete on Pinehurst No. 2 once again when he played in the 1994 U.S. Senior Open.
"I remember the Barretts so well and Mr. Richard Tufts, who was our Walker Cup team captain the next year when we played at Turnberry in Scotland."
The 1963 U.S. team with Harris, Downing Gray, Billy Joe Patton and others, beat the team from Great Britain and Ireland, 12-8. Harris won both of his foursome matches and won one and lost one in the singles.
Even though Oklahoma is a state where the wind seems to blow constantly and strongly, Harris said of the Walker Cup matches at Turnberry, "I never saw the ball blown off a tee before I went to Turnberry."
Victory in the U.S. Amateur also serves as entre to many other things such as the next year's Masters and U.S. Open.
Harris recalled a wonderful trip he had to Japan with Deane Beman and Billy Joe Patton a month after his victory at Pinehurst. They made up the victorious U.S. team in the World Amateur team golf tourney at the Fuji Country Club.
In 1963 Harris finished tied for 32nd in the Masters while his buddy, Charles Coody, missed the cut. Both of them failed to make the cut at the 1963 U. S. Open that was won by Julius Boros in horrible weather at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass.
Harris turned pro in 1964, joined the PGA Tour and won once in a dozen years on tour. He then became an official on the administration staff of the PGA Tour and eventually the director of the Kemper Open tourney outside Washington, D.C.
Harris then turned a hobby into his profession. He has been a professional philatelist for many years.
There is no way you can compare the golfer of today with those who played when he was champion nearly half a century ago, according to Harris.
"I think equipment is so different it is hard to compare golfers of today with golfers when I played," Harris said. "I was using a persimmon driver with a steel shaft. When they step up there and drive 320 yards every time, I find it hard to compare. A 450-yard par-4 hole is a drive and a wedge now. It's not comparable to how we played.
"I was a fairly long hitter. I was about 20 yards behind Nicklaus. But I never averaged anything close to 300 yards off the tee, and no one else did either. In the last few years they have gone from averaging 290 yards off the tee to 320 yards and more. The technique is basically the same. It's the equipment that is the difference. But remember, the club makers develop these metal woods and all the clubs for the pros. They are the ones who benefit."
Pinehurst obviously benefited when Harris and friends came here in 1962 and staged an excellent U.S Amateur Championship tournament.
Robert Barrett, one of the two sons of the famous Pine Crest Inn owner, Bob Barrett, said a few weeks ago, "I remember Labron Harris very well. I watched that final match and the one with Billy Joe Patton. It was a really wonderful golf tournament."
This year's U.S. Amateur will be a show to remember if it comes close to the performance put on by some excellent amateurs nearly half a century ago.
Peter Barrett, the late Bob Barrett's other son and the current Pine Crest Inn proprietor, is now the one to check out and check back in some young amateurs who may have little money and no faith in their abilities to win.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His e-mail is email@example.com.
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