The Spirit of Amateur Golf

Written by Charlie Epps on 01 October 2011.

One of my greatest memories from the first Spirit International in 2001, when I was captain of the U.S. Team, was meeting the girls from behind the Iron Curtain. The Russian team must have shot 100, but it indicated what kind of event it was and was going to become.

It's a world event and really is the Olympics of golf.

During the first round of competition that year, I saw something I'll never forget. In fact, I remember rushing to the phone to call my good friend Dick Harmon about it.

"Dick, I just saw the best putting stroke I've ever seen," I told him.

He asked me who I was watching.

I told him: "Lorena Ochoa."

She was Women's Individual gold medalist in the inaugural Spirit International and her Mexico team won the Women's Team Championship. Her putting stroke was so pure, so smooth. It was absolutely effortless. After watching her putt at Whispering Pines 10 years ago, it was easy to see why she won 27 LPGA Tour events, including two major championships, and was the No. 1 player in the world for three years before she retired in 2010.

I had Robert Hamilton on my team, and he won the men's individual gold medal. He and Casey Wittenberg also took the bronze in the Men's Team division. The U.S. women just missed on medaling. Laura Myerscough and Meredith Duncan took fourth place. As a side note, Meredith had defeated my daughter, Mimi, in the championship match at the North and South Amateur at Pinehurst earlier that summer.

I was thrilled and honored to be the first U.S. Team captain. The golf from the top-10 teams in 2001 was excellent. But what always stands out in my mind is the overall experience. From the opening ceremonies and parade of athletes to the international atmosphere and nightly activities, it was all so unique and enjoyable.

It had the feeling of summer camp.

I'm equally proud to be still involved with The Spirit today. Prior to that first year, I had known Corby Robertson from my days as the head professional at Houston County Club. I knew his family, his heritage and I knew about all his success at the University of Texas as an athlete.

I also knew he had the financials to make The Spirit and Whispering Pines work. My hat is off to him: He's turned The Spirit into a very, very special event.

The Spirit is a great example of the purity of amateur golf. The golf culture is dominated by the professionals, but it's important that we pay attention to the amateur game, too. As a PGA member, part of my job is to promote the game better. Not just selling equipment or giving lessons, but getting more people playing the game.

It is a game, after all. And the definition of "game" is to amuse oneself.

The recently played Walker Cup was another great celebration of amateur golf. I hope the Walker Cup never becomes the Ryder Cup, which is too overly done.

The Walker Cup is about the game. The Ryder Cup is about the players.

The same can be said about amateur vs. professional golf. Shadow Hawk Golf Club and the Houstonian Golf & Country Club hosted the USGA Mid-Amateur Championship last month. It was yet another celebration of the game. I was disappointed that the crowds weren't larger for the final matches, but again, that's part of our challenge. We need to get more people interested in the gameā€”not just in the Tour players we see on TV.