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By Julie Williams, Golfweek
BLUFFTON, S.C. – Geographically, it’s tough to pin down just where Duke Delcher and amateur-golf cohort Tom McKnight dreamed up the Players Amateur. En route to the 1999 U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach, Delcher and McKnight had a what-if conversation.
“The flight was too long, we had too much time on our hands, and we came up with the tournament somewhere between Savannah and San Francisco,” Delcher said.
Back then, Delcher and McKnight were mid-amateurs still battling college players who would go on to become notable PGA Tour players. Delcher, now 58, can remember lining up against Lucas Glover and Matt Kuchar, among others. Delcher didn’t play college golf but was a member of the 1997 U.S. Walker Cup squad that defeated Great Britain & Ireland at Quaker Ridge Golf Club in Scardsale, N.Y. McKnight made the 1999 Walker Cup squad, which lost at Nairn (Scotland) Golf Club, a year after he advanced to the final match of the U.S. Amateur, falling to Hank Kuehne.
One could say that the Players Amateur, conducted by the Heritage Classic Foundation and now sponsored by Nautica, took off so quickly at the turn of this century because of Delcher and McKnight’s insider knowledge. Part of that airplane conversation was the consensus that both had played so many amateur events through the years that they were overly qualified to host one of their own.
“We thought we could put on an event that would be top-notch,” Delcher said. “...We wanted to make it better and different than all the others.”
Set on the outskirts of Hilton Head Island – Delcher and McKnight are Lowcountry transplants, from Philadelphia and Galax, Va., respectively – the Players Amateur is, appropriately, a player’s event. Entrants do not pay a tournament fee to play the 72-hole event and are fed and housed throughout the week.
“We really try to structure the event for the players,” Delcher said. “Having been one, we think we sort of know what works.”
The tournament began in 2000 at Belfair Golf Club in Bluffton but moved to nearby Berkeley Hall in 2012. Belfair members were gracious hosts, Delcher said, but the Players could hit the next level in fundraising at Berkeley Hall, a club that both men helped develop in the early 2000s.
As for the Players’ charitable legacy, Delcher ballparks that about $250,000 has been raised for various charities since the tournament’s inception. Chunks of that money go to Bluffton Self Help, Hospice Care of the Lowcountry, Berkeley Hall Charity Cup, the Boys & Girls Club of Bluffton and the South Carolina Junior Golf Foundation. In 2012, the Players Amateur 2 Club formed to give donors a chance to make pledges for tournament rounds – $2 for every 2 made during the tournament. Sixty sponsors have joined the 2 Club this year.
Delcher reminisces about the tournament’s success through its first 15 years not with incredulity but with gratitude. The Players’ spot in amateur-golf lore has been helped greatly by the caliber of champion that continues to take home the trophy. Among the most notable are Rickie Fowler, Bill Haas and Jonathan Moore.
The Players also draws amateurs like Todd White, a 46-year-old high school history teacher from Spartanburg, S.C. White, a member of the victorious U.S. Walker Cup team in 2013, considers Delcher and McKnight kindred spirits.
"For me, I'm out there and I relate (to the college players) pretty well," White said. "I really enjoy challenging myself against that age group because they're the best in the game."
White has only missed the Players three times in its 15-year history, and has collected a handful of top-10 finishes. To White, the tournament feels like a tour event, which is exactly what its founders had in mind.
"It's very similar to the elite of the elite," White said. "They take such good care of the players."
For the past several years, tournament director Steve Wilmot has been perhaps the Players’ greatest steward. Wilmot, who recently completed his 28th year as the tournament director for the PGA Tour’s RBC Heritage, helped garner a standing sponsor exemption for the Players winner. It’s one of only eight exempt spots in the limited-field Heritage, played at Harbour Town Golf Links on Hilton Head Island. It helps keep the Players on the map because for elite amateurs, a Tour exemption is a coveted prize.
Wilmot is a gateway figure for many Players competitors. He jokes that the hustle of bringing together the Heritage each year results in a loss of 15 to 20 pounds, but it all comes back during Players week. It’s Wilmot’s chance to sit down with the Tour’s next generation of players, and just because he lunches with one at noon doesn’t mean he won’t sit down with another an hour later.
“We wish there was more crowd control and we wish we had more parking issues, but we’re selling tomorrow’s stars,” Wilmot said. “It gives us an opportunity to truly sit down and get to know these kids.”
Wilmot’s favorite Players story dates to the early days of the tournament. He was paired with a shy, polite young player in an early-week contestant-amateur tournament who kept to himself most of the day but impressed Wilmot nonetheless.
“His mom and grandfather were following him on this round,” Wilmot said. “After the round I went up to his mom and introduced myself. I said there should be more gentlemen like this on the PGA Tour.”
Turns out, the young man was Lucas Glover, who would win the U.S. Open less than 10 years later. Wilmot said that as with many former Players stars, he still calls Glover a friend. Many more have consulted Wilmot for advice on getting into other Tour events at the beginning of their careers – how to find exemptions and write letters to be considered for them.
“We’re trying to run an amateur event as close to a professional event (as possible),” Wilmot said of the Players.
It’s a steppingstone for the next generation that is brimming with character of its own.