EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP, N.J. — Kel Devlin is among the 64 players who advanced to match play in the 61st U.S. Senior Amateur on Sunday at Hidden Creek Golf Club.
But he’s the only competitor who once received a 45-minute lesson from Ben Hogan, is named after a winner of The Open Championship and is the son of an eight-time winner on the PGA Tour, Bruce Devlin, a native of Australia.
Devlin, 55, of Weatherford, Texas, qualified with rounds of 73 and 71 to finish at 2-over 144. “I think I hit 14 greens yesterday, which is good because ball-striking is not one of my strong points,” said Devlin. “Today was a little scratchy, probably because of nerves. I haven’t played in anything like this for 20 years.”
The first USGA championship Devlin played in was the 1978 U.S. Amateur at Canterbury Golf Club in Cleveland, Ohio, as a freshman at Texas A&M. “I advanced to match play there and drew eventual champion Mark O’Meara in the first round,” Devlin recalled. “I shot 5-under for 15 holes and got beat 4 and 3. I hit it inside him every hole but his putts filled the cup up like a gallon bucket with water. But that’s match play.”
Devlin later turned professional, but quit the game in 1991 after numerous attempts to qualify for the PGA Tour. “I played in six Qualifying School Finals and made the cut every time,” said Devlin. “I lost in a playoff once and missed by a stroke two other times. I was just not a good putter.”
After being reinstated as an amateur, Devlin returned to the game, advancing to the first round of match play in the 1995 U.S. Amateur at Newport Country Club in Newport, R.I. But his jobs at Callaway and then Nike Golf, where he helped build the company’s golf division as the senior global director of sports marketing, left little time to play.
It wasn’t until earlier this year, after playing well during an event at the Champions Golf Club in Houston, that the competitive fires started burning again. “Craig Smith, who won the 2012 Tennessee Open, said to me afterward, ‘I don’t know why you don’t try to play some competitive golf. You still hit it a decent length, your short game is really good and I don’t know how you say you couldn’t putt.’ That was impetus for me to start practicing.”
Encouraged by his son Kris (who also played at Texas A&M) and his wife Cathy, Devlin entered qualifying for this year’s U.S. Senior Amateur at Royal Oaks Country Club in Dallas. “The Friday before that [qualifier], my son said, ‘Dad, I don’t think you can use your irons or wedges.’ I showed them to the USGA that Monday and my son was right. So I went to the range and hit a few balls with irons my son got from Nike (where he works). I shot 73 and got in.”
His memorable meeting with Hogan took place in 1978, when Devlin was18 years old and caddieing for his father at the Colonial National Invitation in Fort Worth.
“I had made it past local qualifying for the U.S. Open that year, so the plan was to caddie for my dad each day and then go practice at Shady Oaks Country Club (in Fort Worth) afterward,” Devlin explained. “That Tuesday my parents and I went there and my dad asked the head pro if Mr. Hogan was out on the course. He was, so we jumped in a cart and watched him play the final three holes. I remember that vividly. He hit two shots off each tee and two approach shots but never tried a putt. My dad said to him afterward, ‘Boy, Ben, you still look like you’re hitting it great.’ Mr. Hogan, who was 65 years old, replied, ‘Well my trajectory is still off.’ That tells you what a perfectionist he was.”
Devlin and his father went to the practice area. “After he played, Mr. Hogan would walk nine holes for exercise,” recalled Kel. “As he was coming down 18 he saw my parents sitting in the cart. I didn’t see him but he said to my father, ‘Bruce, tell your son to loosen his grip pressure a little bit.’ My dad said, ‘You go tell him.’ Now dad’s first round at Augusta in 1962 was with Mr. Hogan, they traveled together a few times and they played practice rounds together for 10 years, so he knew him more than most people. So Hogan came to me and said, “Son, are you trying to choke that golf club?’ Of course I laid the sod over the next couple of shots as he watched me hit balls.”
Hogan spent 45 minutes with Devlin, going over his swing. “He told me to relax my left arm and make sure to turn my left shoulder under my chin.”
Devlin then asked the legend for more general advice. “He told me there’s not enough hours in the day to perfect the physical side of the game. And once you get that, it’s only 10 percent of it. That was his way of telling me it’s all in your head. He was totally right.”
The moment remains etched in Devlin’s mind. “Of everything I’ve done in golf, from playing with Bernhard Langer when he shot 63 in the Australian Masters to being around my dad and all the great players, that 45 minutes was the coolest thing that ever happened to me.”
Even Devlin’s father Bruce admitted as much. “My dad said to me, ‘You have no idea now but one day you will realize just how cool that was. Because he just doesn’t do that.’”
Devlin’s namesake, the late Kel Nagel, defeated Arnold Palmer to win the1960 Open Championship at St. Andrews. But to Devlin, he was more than a famous golfer or a friend of his father’s.
“He was the greatest gentleman to ever play the game,” said Devlin. “I played with him once in a pro-am for The Legends of Golf Tour at Onion Creek Club in Texas. He thanked everybody that day, including every single volunteer on every tee. We all need to do that in golf, every one of us. To carry his name is really cool.”
Devlin’s father still retains the competitive spirit that led him to 27 professional wins around the world.
“My dad is 77 years old now but real healthy. He still goes out and shoots par. My brother [Kurt] is very good and my son hits it well. For the last 10 years, it’s been my dad and myself, the old guys, against the two young guys. I think we’re like 35 and 1 against them.”
The senior Devlin was an encouraging parent who never pushed Kel, his brother or his sister Kerrie into golf. “He wanted us to find our own way. He was always accessible if we wanted to go with him to the golf course. But he was never an overbearing parent. After I turned pro I went through a period when I had to make some fundamental changes. That was hard for him because as my teacher he had to tear everything down, but the way we worked through that was great.”
“This is really cool,” said Devlin. “I came here to make match play and have a good time. The biggest thing for me is staying in the present and not getting ahead of myself. Match play will be fun. I haven’t done it in a long time.”
Devlin carried those lessons into a first round comeback victory today that saw him win in 19 holes, with birdies on the 17th and 19th.
New Jersey native Tom Mackin is a frequent contributor to USGA websites.