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February 12, 2013

West column: 1979 champ Walsh laments USGA's Publinx decision

BEAUMONT —

    Few golfers in Southeast Texans would have reason to pay much attention to an unpopular ruling the United States Golf Association handed down on Monday. But, as a former United States Amateur Public Links Champion, aka the Publinx, Dennis Walsh professed to be highly disappointed that a national championship which has been in play since 1922 is being phased out.

    “It’s a shame,” said Walsh, who hoisted the Publinx Trophy in Portland, Ore., in July of 1979 at age 35. “I don’t understand why they would do something like that.”

    For those not familiar with the Publinx, it was created as an opportunity for regular guys who played all their golf on public courses. The idea was to have a national championship for working stiffs who couldn’t afford to belong to private clubs.

    Over the years, however, more and more star college players began to dominate the event. The PGA Tour’s hottest player, Brandt Snedeker, for example, won the 2003 Publinx with a 10&9 blowout in the finals. Most of the collegians, like Snedeker, had access to exclusive private clubs through their schools, but technically met the criteria of being a “bona fide public course player.”

    As a result of the college factor, the USGA has decided to terminate the men’s and women’s Publinx events after 2014 in favor of national four-ball championships.

    “I really don’t like that,” Walsh said. “If college players are the problem, why not just make them ineligible to play in the Publinx. They still would have the U.S. Amateur. The USGA needs to rethink some stuff and go back to its roots. Don’t squeeze out public course players.”

    Walsh is rightfully proud of being a Publinx champion. It was, after all, a national championship. The year he won, there were 4,170 entrants from coast to coast. To enter, they had to have a certified handicap index of 4.5 or less, then they had to advance through a regional qualifier to get to Portland.

    To win the Publinx, Walsh had to survive 36 holes of medal play that trimmed the field to 64, then he had to win six matches, including a 36-hole finale. The Groves native did it in grand style, shooting a two-under par 140 to share medalist honors, then was never more than one over par in any match on the way to taking down six opponents.

    In order, he defeated Ted Brodzik 2&1; Arthur Fujita 6&4; Art Diaz 3&2; Jeff Short 1 up; Jodie Mudd 2&1 in the semifinals and Eric Mork 4&3 for the championship. If the name Jodie Mudd sounds familiar, it should. Not only would he capture the next two Publinx titles, the Kentuckian went on to win four times on the PGA Tour. In 1990,  he authored  the unique double of winning the PGA Tour championship and the season-ending Nabisco Tour championship. It enabled him to finish fifth on the money list.

    “Jodie was clearly the best player I faced,” Walsh said. “But I got ahead, stayed ahead and never made any mistakes to help him break through. I played really well the entire week and I had the advantage of being first to tee off every day because I’d been the medalist.

    “I’d finish early, get in my rent car, drive up to Mt. Hood and take in the sights. I really enjoyed exploring the mountains. They were so beautiful and being there gave me peace of mind. I’d get back to the room, get about five hours sleep and be ready to go. One unusual thing I remember is that I carried my own clubs until the 36-hole final.”

    That wasn’t the first Publinx for Walsh — he remembers playing as far back as 1966 in Seattle — and it wouldn’t be his last. Four years after his victory, the USGA retroactively gave past champions a 10-year exemption from local qualifying. He never came close to winning again, but he did tie for medalist honors in 1987 at Cincinnati.

    “Actually, there were some times when I played as well as I did in Portland, but goofy things can happen to you in match play,” he said. “I let a couple of matches really get away and once, at Bear Creek in Houston,  the guy who beat me was the luckiest human I’ve ever seen. I was probably playing as well as I ever have when that happened.

    “But it was a lot of fun, a lot of great memories and I met some nice guys. One match in particular I remember was against a guy out of Texas A&M named David Ogrin who would go on to play on the tour. We tied a hole with triple bogey and he went on to beat me.”

    The only downer about Walsh’s win in Portland was the timing. A few years after he won, the folks who run the Masters began extending an invitation to the Publinx champion. Walsh, however, says he never lost any sleep over not getting to play in the Masters.

    “To be honest, I can’t imagine myself teeing it up in the Masters. I’ve never been a great putter and I’d probably have embarrassed myself on those greens. I’d probably have shot 90. Tee to green, I’d probably have been fine, but the greens would have eaten me alive.”

    Missing out on the Masters aside, what’s important is that Walsh’s name is on a trophy with the likes of Mudd, Billy Tuten, Billy Mayfair, Tim Clark, Trevor Immelman, Hunter Haas, D.J. Trahan, Chez Reavie, Ryan Moore, Colt Knost and Snedeker.

    Too bad the USGA is taking away the chance for another amateur to come out of nowhere and join the game’s elite.  

    Sports editor Bob West can be e-mailed at rdwest@usa.net.

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