by David Shefter
Harry Rudolph III was labeled as a “can’t-miss” prospect coming out of high school in the late 1980s. Today’s Internet recruiting services likely would have listed the La Jolla, Calif., native as a blue-chip, five-star athlete.
His golf game could be compared to a baseball pitcher with a 95-mph fastball or a running back with 4.3 speed.
He was good enough to earn medalist honors at the 1987 U.S. Junior Amateur, where he advanced to the quarterfinals. Good enough to reach the round of 16 at the 1987 U.S. Amateur as a high school junior. Good enough to beat San Diego city rival Phil Mickelson on more than one occasion.
“We were the No. 1 and 2 recruits in the country,” the 40-year-old Rudolph recalled.
Rudolph’s success didn’t stop there. It carried into the collegiate ranks, where in 1992 he was a first-team All-America in leading the University of Arizona to the NCAA Division I championship. Rudolph’s teammates included future U.S. Open champion Jim Furyk, two-time U.S. Amateur Public Links champion David Berganio Jr., and two-time U.S. Amateur runner-up Manny Zerman.
That year, Rudolph was better than all three. He won the West Regional and finished second to Mickelson of Arizona State individually at the NCAAs.
So naturally, everyone thought Rudolph was bound for stardom in the professional game.
For some inexplicable reason, it never happened.
Whether it was misfortune – he missed making the 72-hole cut at the finals of the 90-hole PGA Tour Qualifying School one year by one shot – or inability to adapt to the lifestyle, Rudolph never translated his amateur success into pro stardom.
And so in 1999, Rudolph called it quits. For most of the next 10 years, the clubs stayed in a closet while he figured out where his life was headed.
He got married, bought a restaurant and had two children, but golf always remained in the background.
He found a regular game with guys who wouldn’t ask him why he still wasn’t playing professionally.
Rudolph was in golf’s version of purgatory. Still classified as a pro, he couldn’t play in any amateur competitions, even though he had long since stopped playing for cash. Several times, he had clicked the online amateur reinstatement form, only to stop filling out it halfway through the process.
Then a round in San Diego with Gary Hallberg, the first four-time first-team All-American in NCAA history and a member of the 1977 USA Walker Cup Team, changed his outlook. Hallberg whipped Rudolph that day, but the latter rediscovered his passion to compete. Rudolph came home and immediately filled out the reinstatement form that evening.
In less than a year – April 2009 to be exact – Rudolph was a reinstated amateur. And it didn’t take long for Rudolph to display the talent that had made him a junior and amateur phenom two decades earlier.
A month after being reinstated, he was the medalist at a local U.S. Open qualifier at San Diego Country Club. Later that summer, he qualified for the U.S. Mid-Amateur.
This summer, Rudolph reached the finals of the California State Amateur, an event he won in 1991, and he qualified for his first U.S. Amateur in 20 years, losing in the first round of match play at Chambers Bay to Hudson Swafford, a college player 20 years his junior, in 19 holes.
Those performances helped Rudolph earn a spot on California’s team for the 2010 USGA Men’s State Team Championship, to be played Sept. 14-16 at Mayacama Golf Club in Santa Rosa, Calif. He will be joined on the three-man team by Randy Haag of Burlingame and Jeff Wilson of Fairfield, the latter a five-time USGA stroke-play medalist (including last month’s U.S. Amateur) and low amateur at the 2000 U.S. Open.
“It’s an honor for me personally,” said Rudolph. “To be the only guy from Southern California and to be one of three guys from California, which is a pretty big state, is an honor. I think we make a pretty good team, which gets me excited about the possibility of competing not only for a title, but a USGA title. Those don’t come around very often.
“California has never won [the State Team Championship], which motivates me for sure. We’ll all take some pride in representing the state.”
From the time he was 6 and competing, Rudolph carried on a special local rivalry with Mickelson. Both extracted the best from each other. In qualifiers for the U.S. Junior, it was often Mickelson and Rudolph grabbing the spots.
When Mickelson visited Harry’s Coffee Shop in La Jolla a few years ago with wife Amy, Rudolph pulled a photo from the plethora of framed images hanging in the diner. “That’s you with the smaller trophy,” Rudolph told Mickelson. The PGA Tour star just laughed.
Just six months apart in age, Mickelson and Rudolph battled throughout their amateur careers, first locally and then nationally on the American Junior Golf Association circuit and in USGA competitions.
”Looking back on that, I didn’t know I was going against potentially one of the greatest golfers of all time,” said Rudolph. “Had I known that, I might have cut myself some slack for losing to him every once in a while.
“As junior golfers, we got the best out of each other. We used to putt for tees back when you had to buy your tees. They didn’t have tees out there. I remember we used to play for 10 tees. Our competition was huge.”
In 1987, Rudolph was the medalist at the U.S. Junior Amateur, reaching the quarterfinals where he was defeated by Hans Albertsson, who ironically, will be in this year’s State Team field representing New York. A month later at the U.S. Amateur, a then-16-year-old Rudolph won two matches before being ousted in 19 holes by Louisiana State University star Chris Webb.
Colleges took notice. Mickelson went to Arizona State while Rudolph enrolled at Oklahoma State, but he never was comfortable in Stillwater. Coach Mike Holder allowed Rudolph to immediately transfer to Arizona prior to his junior season, where his roommates were Berganio and Zerman.
“Coming into the spring semester, my two roommates were like, ‘We’ll be gone for the next couple of weeks. We’re headed to Augusta to play in the Masters,’ ” said Rudolph. Berganio had won the 1990 APL and Zerman was the runner-up to Mickelson at the U.S. Amateur. “I was like, you [jerks]. You could at least invite me to be your caddie.”
Rudolph would earn his own honors as a senior. He joined David Duval, Justin Leonard and Mickelson as 1992 First-Team All-Americans. He led Arizona to its first – and to this day only – NCAA golf title. Had he stuck around the amateur game for another year, he might have represented the USA in the 1993 Walker Cup.
But Rudolph was ready to turn professional. He believed he was ready for stardom. And judging by his amateur success, who would have doubted it?
“I was eager to turn pro,” he said. “[The Walker Cup] wasn’t a consideration for me.”
The Dream Ends
Today when a top collegiate football or basketball player fails to meet expectations in the pro ranks they quickly get labeled as “busts.” Everyone expects stars to transition easily to the next level of competition.
Harry Rudolph III certainly expected success once he started playing for pay in 1992. And he traveled the globe in an attempt to make a comfortable living. He played in Asia, South America, Australia, Canada, and the U.S. He would spend as many as 35 to 40 weeks a year on the road. One year he gave up fully exempt status on the Asian Tour when he earned a Nike Tour (now Nationwide Tour) card.
In 1995, he qualified on a Monday for the Nike Utah Classic in Provo and tied for first with Canadian Glen Hnatiuk and past Walker Cup Team member Franklin Langham. A win would have given Rudolph a two-year exemption and a place to play the rest of the year. He lost. The next week, he missed the cut and was again a man without a tour.
Then there was the year he missed the 72-hole cut at the finals of PGA Tour Q-School by one shot. Today, the 90-hole event doesn’t have a cut, but back then it did. Rudolph’s less-heralded college teammate, Jim Furyk, made the cut by a stroke and has forged a stellar PGA Tour career that includes the 2003 U.S. Open title and multiple Ryder Cup appearances.
“Essentially it’s like losing your job every December and going out in January looking for a new job,” said Rudolph. “I did that for seven years in a row.”
During his best professional year, Rudolph earned around $25,000. While some of his college teammates and rivals, including Mickelson and Furyk, were buying huge homes and driving fancy automobiles, Rudolph was just trying to stay above the poverty level.
As the heartaches and bills kept piling up, Rudolph eventually started working for his parents during the offseason to raise money to support his professional golf dream. But Rudolph quickly found himself spending more time in the restaurant than at the driving range. His parents needed the assistance and Rudolph needed the steady pay.
By 1999, he gave up his PGA Tour dreams. To this day, Rudolph can’t pinpoint why he wasn’t more successful on the golf course.
“Looking back on it, I probably gave up on it a little too soon,” he said. “If I were to do it again, I probably would have taken six months off and re-evaluated and re-energized [myself] to go for it again.”
Two years after putting professional golf in the rear-view mirror, Rudolph married his wife, Danielle, and the couple has two young daughters – Rhys, 6, and Shay, 4 – and a thriving restaurant that Rudolph operates with two of his siblings.
Clearly, Rudolph has turned the page in his life.
He spends as many as 12 hours a day at the restaurant. You might see him flipping burgers or greeting the regulars who frequent this San Diego area landmark.
All of these commitments don’t leave much time for golf.
But the game never completely left Rudolph’s mind or his heart. Sometimes he’ll hit the range for 45 minutes of practice after a hard day’s work.
Since regaining his amateur status last spring, Rudolph has enjoyed a golf renaissance. The game is once again fun. The love to compete never truly left, although when he shoots a 68 now, he isn’t compensated with a nice check.
“I’ll be lucky if I get a medal or [script] for pro shop [merchandise],” he said. “What I am realizing is it’s very expensive to play amateur golf. That’s something I wasn’t fully prepared for.”
And outsiders have been surprised to see Rudolph’s name popping up on leaderboards again. At last year’s U.S. Open local qualifier, a few people did a double-take, wondering if he was the same Harry Rudolph III who once dominated the amateur and collegiate scene.
Rudolph hasn’t been shocked by the recent success. He always knew he had the talent. While he doesn’t practice or compete as much as he did 20 years ago, the golf swing remains solid.
“He is the real thing,” San Diego teaching pro Dennis Sheehy told the San Diego Union-Tribune last June prior to the U.S. Open sectional qualifier, where Rudolph just narrowly missed advancing to play at Bethpage Black.
Sheehy, a former director of David Leadbetter’s European academies who coached major champions Seve Ballesteros, Ian Woosnam and Nick Faldo, met Rudolph at Harry’s Coffee Shop. The two struck up a friendship and coach-player relationship.
“There are so many facets that make up a star,” Sheehy told the Union-Tribune, “and he’s got everything. What’s most impressive is his lack of weaknesses.”
At least on the golf course. Off it, Rudolph must strike a balance between job, family and golf. Such is the life of an elite mid-amateur (25 and over) golfer.
Nevertheless, Rudolph says he cherishes his golf moments much more now. The opportunities to play in the U.S. Mid-Amateur and last month’s U.S. Amateur have him excited about the possibilities.
The State Team offers another chance to win a USGA title, which is definitely on his bucket list.
Ultimately, he’d love to qualify for a U.S. Open or play in a Walker Cup. And he understands that winning the U.S. Mid-Amateur, U.S. Amateur Public Links (he plays out of Torrey Pines) or reaching the finals of the U.S. Amateur would likely garner a Masters invitation.
But Rudolph also knows that those competitions require outstanding play and he isn’t about to put the cart before the horse.
“All of those things are out there,” said Rudolph, “but they require good golf and travel. I would love to play well enough to get in a few professional events.
“Who knows where it goes now. I am not looking at potentially playing [professionally again] at 50. We’ll see. It’s an interesting place to be.”
One thing is for sure, nobody is labeling Harry Rudolph III a “can’t-miss” prospect anymore.
And you know what? He’s plenty OK with that.