Jeff Wilson has certainly had an amateur career like no other amateur that I have ever known of. He’s been medalist in countless US Am’s, US Opens and Mid Am’s and now this years Senior Open, Senior Amateur and California State Senior Amateur.
He’s won every single Senior Amateur event he’s played in since turning 55 earlier this year. As he has said repeatedly after his victories, he’s put the time in, and has worked harder than ever on his game. He started off at a very high level, and has gained some distance off the tee, and is a real force now in Senior golf, as well as still being one of the countries best mid am’s.
I remember playing in the US Amateur at Chambers Bay in 2010 and seeing Jeff shoot a 61 at the second course to win medalist honors at age 48. His golf accomplishments are too long to cover here, but certainly you get the picture that this guy is not afraid to play well on the biggest stage in golf, and seems to play his best golf on this stage.
When it was announced that the California State Senior Amateur would be played at the Preserve this year, I knew it would be my best chance to end my career drought of never having won a California State title (I have 3 runner-up finishes). I didn’t know if Jeff would enter the event, but suspected he would. In years past when we would both compete in the Stocker Cup at the Preserve, that I would usually post better results than Jeff, and the course was especially to my liking.
I did envision that we would end up being paired together in the last round, and also with John Pate in 3rd place coming into the last round was no surprise. So the stage was set, with Jeff one shot ahead of me, and two ahead of John, it was game on. There is ALWAYS extra pressure when you are in the last group, have a chance to win, and are playing with the best senior amateur in the world. So YES the heartbeat was up on the opening tee shot, which historically has been a tough one for me at the Preserve. But not on this day, I somewhat calmly fired a 20 degree hybrid down the middle and followed it up with a solid 7 iron to the back of the green for an easy two putt par. Jeff on the other hand went let and long with his second shot, and had a tough 12 footer for par, that most in the lead would not have made, he did.
Again on the second hole I smoked an 8 iron to a back pin leaving it 15 short of the pin, while Jeff again went long and left. He was faced with a very difficult putt that he ran 15 past the hole and ended up with a bogey. My good start continued when I made the birdie putt to jump out one shot ahead of Jeff.
The third hole we both made routine pars, followed by a BIG mistake Jeff made on #4 after a perfect tee shot, leaving him 220 to the pin, he rope hooked a hybrid left of the big tree in the high grass. He then chipped back over the green, chipped long again, and ran his par putt 10 feet past the hole. Meanwhile I had a 10 foot straight uphill birdie putt that hit hit poorly and walked off with my first par on that hole, after making birdie on #4 the previous 2 days. Jeff calmly stroked his 10 foot bogey putt into the hole and off to #5 we went.
The Preserve has changed the grass they use in the Fairways making them very speedy, and faster than most courses greens. The uphill 5th hole plays anywhere from 380-330 yards depending on where the tee’s are placed. In the last round the tee was up, so a 3 metal was the proper club for me. I riffled a good one down the right center and watched the ball funnel right and into a fairway bunker that I have never been in before. Jeff followed me in the same bunker. I was left with a poor lie in the bunker to a steep uphill green with a huge false front. I clipped one of the best fairway bunker shots of my life, and knew it was going to be close to the pin. As we began walking up to the green a ball started rolling off the green and down 100 yards down the fairway. That was my ball that apparently had stopped on the green, and then somehow began rolling again. Meanwhile Jeff hit his shot long, and was faced with an impossible putt at the hole, which would have rolled off the green and down the hill. Jeff chose to putt sideways to about 35 feet, where he calmly rolled in his putt for a par while I missed my 10 foot par putt, and my lead was back at one shot.
On the sixth hole Jeff hit a very poor 7 iron that landed in a very bad lie in the right bunker. I blasted my 7 iron to the middle of the green and was left with a VERY fast 30 footer. Jeff blasted out to 18 feet, while my 30 foot birdie putt did a 360 lip out, that certainly looked like it was going in. As expected Jeff drained his 18 foot par putt.
The 7th hole would end up with my ball stopping 3 feet from the hole, while Jeff pulled his second shot to within 8 feet. I fully expected him to make this putt, but this time it rolled over the right edge and he’d settle for par. My 3 footer was not super easy as it had a little turn to it, and I could not afford to bang it. I gentle rolled it in the middle to get back my 2 shot advantage on Jeff going to the reachable par 5 8th hole.
Looking back on this pressure packed duel with Jeff, I knew that I needed to get as big a lead as possible before his A game arrived, which it most certainly did. But not on the 8th hole where he drove it in the fairway bunker, and played up in the next fairway bunker leaving him a very tough 100 yard shot that he hit to the back of the green leaving him a 60 foot birdie putt. Meanwhile I mashed a drive and hit a beautiful high towering 23 degree hybrid onto the green that released to the back of the green. I will admit I was not feeling super good about this uphill then downhill 70 footer. I yipped it long to the front of the green, and then yipped the 20 foot birdie putt to 2.5 feet past the hole, followed by another yip rolling it 3 feet past the hole. I 4 putted for a bogey, while Jeff two putted for a saving par, and cut the lead to one shot. On a hole that I thought I may gain 2 shots on Jeff, I lost one. This was a critical mistake that hurt me in the end.
The ninth hole was a disaster for me all three rounds. In each round I followed a perfect tee shot with a blocked short iron to the right, and in the last round I hit the 9 iron shot on the green still while both Jeff and John missed the green way right. Jeff chipped down to 10 feet, and watched as I yipped my first putt 12 feet short, yipped the next one 2 feet by and almost missed my bogey putt. As expected Jeff rolled in his 10 footer for par, and my lead was GONE.
Where did Jeff’s A game show up? It showed up on the 10th hole as he made a nice birdie putt to go one up on me, followed by a solid par on the 11th hole to go two up as I again 3 putted from the front of the green.
On the 12th hole my legendary caddie Kenny Howe said, lets play the next 7 holes 3 under par, and see what happens. So that was the plan, to have a goal to shoot for and stop worrying what Jeff was doing, I could not control that. So on the 12th hole I rolled in a nice 15 foot putt to cut the lead to 1. We both made very solid pars on 13 and 14. The toughest hole on the course is the 15th hole, we both hit great drives, and with the wind picking up it was time to hit a great golf shot. I had 186 yards to a back left pin, and decided to fire my 5 iron at the middle of the green, which I did. Jeff had probably a 7 iron that he hit a little left and on the green 30 feet away. We both had difficult putts. My uphill 60 footer almost went in, leaving me a stress free par 4 on this tough hole. I figured Jeff would need to hit a very good putt to leave himself inside 5 feet. Seeing his putt it looked like he may have hit it too hard, but when it arrived at the hole, it slammed in for a crazy good birdie to go back two shots up on me with three holes to go.
The 16th hole was playing 142 yards uphill into a breeze, Jeff hit first and hit a perfect 9 iron stopping 5 feet from the hole. I knew that I needed to match him to stay alive. My nine iron hit pin high and pulled back to 15 feet from the cup, where I drained this VERY important putt. Knowing that Jeff would probably make his putt, I was prepared to see what magic I could come up with on 17 and 18. Somehow Jeff missed his short putt, and the lead was back to 1 with 2 to go.
On the 17th hole you need to chase your 2nd shot down the hill and onto the green. My shot needed to be one foot further right and it would have rolled onto the green, instead somehow it stopped in the rough leaving me a very tricky 90 yard shot that I thought I hit perfect. It stopped quickly, and I was left with an impossible 50 foot putt uphill and then severely down. Meanwhile Jeff was in the right rough and hit a magical flop shot to 10 feet from the hole. My birdie putt rolled 12 feet past the hole, and quite obviously I knew that I needed to make this putt to have any chance going to the last and final hole. I rolled in the 12 footer, and thought perhaps Jeff would open the door for me, but that thought was quickly dispelled after he drained hi 10 footer for birdie, it was off to 18 two back.
We both hit great tee shots, but mine stayed in the fairway and his rolled into the rough. I had the perfect 9 iron 142 yards away, and never gave up or got down on myself. I executed a very good shot that to my eye looked very close. Jeff then out of a poor lie, hit a shot that squirted right and seemed to be heading down the false from of the green. Somehow his ball stopped in the collar of the green, if it had not, it would have rolled 40 yards down the fairway. But he was still left with a VERY tough 40 foot putt that went up over a ridge, and then down hill with about 6 feet of break. When he first hit the putt it looked ok, but not perfect. As It made its turn down the hill I could tell it was going to be good, it rolled past the hole, stopped for a second and then backed up into the hole for a closing birdie 3 and the championship. I had a 3 foot birdie putt that I made on the 18th hole which finished me in 2nd. This 2nd place finish would be my 8th runner-up finish in the past 13 months in major amateur events – NCGA Senior Amateur, NCGA Match Play, NCGA Senior 4 ball, USGA 4 Ball qualifier, NCGA 4 Ball, British Senior Amateur, NCGA Valley Amateur, Cal State Senior Am to add to the list.
Coming in second is nice, but when you have as many seconds as I have, they become disheartening, and very disappointing to be in contention so many times and only have one major win over this period of time (The 2018 SF Senior City title).
But I did it to myself, I made 16 birdies over 3 rounds that should have been enough to capture this title. But I followed those birdies up with 12 bogies and one double. Meanwhile Jeff had 9 birdies and an eagle with only 7 bogies on his card for three days.
I made 10 bogies with a 9 iron or less from the middle of the fairway over 54 holes. That is not going to get you a W. I had many yipped putts, and many great putts that went in. I experimented with CBD oil to see if it would calm my nerves down and allow me to putt better. I am not sure it did?
Perhaps I will never win a California State Championship, but I won’t give up trying. I’ll train harder this off season than I have ever trained before. I will take my weaknesses in my game and try to make them my strengths. I will do whatever I can to continue to compete at this game that I love for as long as possible.
My congratulations to Jeff Wilson, he is a great champion and a great person!!