If you follow golf in California, or even in the United States the last 50 years you probably know who Gary Vanier is. His accomplishments are too long to list here, but one of my favorite memories of Gary is when he was playing one of Johnny Miller’s sons in the US Amateur at Pebble beach in 2000 when Gary was about 50 years old, and Johnny Miller was on the coverage team. Johnny during the TV broadcast made a snide comment about Gary having a bag full of rescue clubs. An hour later in the match young Miller was shaking Gary’s hand in disbelief that he lost to this “old man” with 4 rescue clubs in his bag. Well young Miller isn’t the only player to shake his head after playing Mr. Vanier.
Gary has made a career out of beating accomplished players in major amateur events. After a brief stint on the PGA tour, where Gary lead a PGA tour event after 36 holes, he never really gave himself the years to mature as a pro golfer. I believe he would have won on the PGA tour given more time out there. But instead Gary used his Stanford education to create a very successful securities business, leaving him some free time to hone his amazing golf game and win probably over 100 amateur events in his storied career (which is not close to being complete).
In my early days as an upcoming amateur I had nothing but respect, and yes a bit of fear when even being around him. Despite being quite affable once you know him, many see Gary as quiet and standoffish. Over the years of knowing Gary better and better, I’ll say he’s got a great sense of humor, he’s respectful, a very good man and one hell of a competition.
When I am asked what my greatest golf accomplishment is, I never need to think long about it. I have won bigger events than the SF City Golf Championship, but the History of this 100+ year old event is special and meaningful in the laurels of amateur and professional golf. Big names like Tom Watson, Johnny Miller and Nate Crosby never won the event. So when asked about my best golf accomplishment it clearly was in 1999 when I played someone that had won a record six final matches, and had never lost in a finals before, that being Gary Vanier. It’s true I had a dream in 1999 before the event that we would end up playing in the finals that year, and I would be victorious. What a dream it ended up being as we were in different sides of the brackets it was possible, but with 62 other players making match play, it was a SUPER LONG SHOT.
But match after match we marched on, and in those days the semi-final match was 36 holes followed by a 36 hole final. Gary and I both made the semi final matches and won in tight hard fought battles which is super fatiguing both mentally and physically, which does not leave a lot in the tank for the next day when you wake up in the morning and your legs are tired and you don’t feel like you are rested at all. In 1999 I had just turned 40 and Gary was 49, so fatigue was going to play a part in our match.
The anticipation of playing Gary that day came quick, as I did’nt have a week to think about playing him which was a good thing. It was a quick turnaround and off we went exchanging blows. I reached the 17th hole 1 up and proceeded to birdie 17, 18, 1, 2 and the 4th hole, while only gaining one hole on Gary. He was and is the toughest match play competitor I’ve ever know or played. He NEVER seems to give you a hole, even when he’s out of position he finds a way to make you earn each and every hole.
Gary closed the gap on me late in the round and took a one up lead on the 12th hole with an eagle 3. I squared the match on the 14th with a par, and took a one up lead into the 17th hole after I made a birdie 3 on the 16th.
With about 500 people watching us and surrounding the green, I can clearly remembering how nervous I was inside, and how I needed to calm myself to hit a 7 iron to a front right pin. My shot took off on a perfect line, and landed 4 feet from the hole. After Gary missed his 20 foot birdie attempt, I settled over my putt knowing that I had 4 feet from accomplishing something I never thought possible growing up as a kid, reading about this great championship. When that 4 foot putt went into the middle of the hole it was the greatest golf moment in my life. The opportunity to play and beat the best the game has to offer is something that I could only dream of, that day changed my life forever in becoming a City Champion.
So when I knew I was playing Gary in the Quarterfinals of the Senior City Championship on Sunday, I knew I needed to bring my very best game. Gary will turn 70 this year, and still has a lot of game, and I’m sure has already shot his age hundred times. In the City Championship when we are paired in groups of 4 in match play, you always get a preview of who you’ll play next. In Gary’s match against my pal Mike Staskus, I watched Gary get up and down from a short sided bunker on 15, that would have put him one down, instead he hit a miraculous shot to a foot and tied the hole. He was unflappable on the back nine and won his match with Mike on the 17th hole.
For those of you that were not outside this weekend, let me tell you it was cold and windy. And since we are super privileged to be playing at TPC Harding Park, the rough is super thick and long getting ready for the PGA Championship this coming May.
Knowing you need your very best game to beat another player does add pressure, and to perform under pressure you need to have the confidence that your game is ready and prepared for these bigger moments. We play and practice to put ourselves in position to play under more pressure than we are accustomed too. And match play in the City Championship creates that kind of pressure.
I happened to get off to a good start by almost holing my second shot leaving a 4 inch conceded birdie for a one up lead. On the second hole I hit another long straight drive leaving me with only a wedge to the green. Gary hit his famous rescue to the left side of the green and ended up making a 8 foot putt for par to tie the hole. Gary then two putted from 100 feet on #3 while I 3 putted. He then made a 40 footer on #4 to take a one up lead. I was thinking to myself, here we go, the battle is on.
My mindset was do nothing different as I knew my game is solid. I just needed to keep hitting solid shots and putts and forget about what the other guy is doing. That’s not easy to do, but after pulling even on #5 and going back one up on #6 I had the confidence to play some of my best golf in many years.
Here is a quick summary of the holes to follow, second shot close on #7 lipped birdie putt, Gary missed green chipped to 4 feet and he made par. On #8 wind howling in our face, pin was back left playing 192 yards, I hit a solid 5 iron that ended 20 feet from the hole. Gary missed green chip to 5 feet and made the tying par putt. On #9 into the wind I hit my third shot from 70 yards to 4 feet and won the hole with a birdie to go two up.
My best hole was the par 5 number 10 with a good drive a 4 rescue I knocked it on the green in 2 shots and made the putt for eagle to go 3 up. On the 11th hole I hit a very good shot to the back of the green while Gary was in the bunker, and was expecting him to hole out the bunker shot, which he almost did. After a halve on 11, I made a 4 foot birdie putt on 12, and then a winning par putt from 10 feet on the 13th to go 5 up and put the match out of reach. I did three putt 14 from long range, but came back to win the 15th hole for a 5&3 win against a very very tough competitor. I know if I had not made the 10 foot par putt on the 13th hole, this match may still be going. When you have a chance to get another arrow in Gary, you must not give him extra chances.
Gary is one of my favorite golfers, and I consider him to be a close friend. We have played in many best ball events together and honestly I cannot remember us ever not winning when paired together.
He is super deserving and should be inducted into both the NCGA and Olympic Club Hall of Fames, which should occur soon.
Next up I have a date in the semi-finals on Saturday with the SUPER long hitting Larry Salk.
I did want to personally thank the friendly spectator whom came out in the freezing weather in shorts to watch our match. I’d use your name if I had remembered it, sorry about that, but please leave a comment here.
I highly recommend any golf fan to come out to any of the matches next weekend to see how amazing Harding Park looks, it really is an amazing place.
Down below the photos is courtesy of Mike Benham, thanks Mike for coming out. Gary and I are wearing many layers of clothing, and this is a good shot of my side saddle putt on its way on hole #2.