Bowen Sargent (UVA Athletics photo)
By Rick Woelfel
The players who have journeyed to Portsmouth, Va., for the 63rd annual Eastern Amateur traveled a variety of routes to get there. Many are college players. Some are junior golfers whose games have shown promise.
And then there is Bowen Sargent, who will put down his coaching mantle this week to assume the role of competitor.
Sargent has spent 15 years as the men’s golf coach at the University of Virginia. He’s compiled an impressive record in that span. His teams have reached the NCAA championships 13 times and advanced to the finals on seven occasions.
Early in his tenure in Charlottesville, Sargent played a lot of competitive golf himself. But that changed as recruiting protocols did.
“We used to just recruit rising juniors,” Sargent recalls. “Then, for about six years, we were recruiting three or four classes, so the demand almost quadrupled in those years in terms of recruiting, so I didn’t play a lot of golf competitively.”
With the recently enacted NCAA recruiting legislation having narrowed the scope of the recruiting window, Sargent now will have more time to play himself. He notes that stepping into the competitive arena himself enhances his appreciation for those who have brought their games to an elite level.
“You gain a respect for how good the guys have gotten and I think that was evident this weekend on the PGA Tour with Matt Wolff and (Collin) Morikawa and those guys,” he says.
Sargent notes the caliber of golf at the Division I level has risen over the course of his coaching career, but the sport’s challenges remain as daunting as ever.
“The players have gotten so much better, certainly at our level,” he says, “and then too, (competing) shows you at times how hard the game can be.
“Sometimes when you’re a coach, obviously, your role is to analyze and dissect players and their games and how to improve them and make them better but sometimes you can get lost in thinking that kids should always perform well. It’s a game, they’re kids and it doesn’t always come off exactly like they want to or you want them to perform.”
Sargent notes that weekend television coverage of PGA and LPGA Tour events focuses on the leaders and that even elite players have period when they struggle with their games. He says one of the challenges he faces as a coach is getting is players to accept the reality that they won’t be at their best every time out.
“We have the luxury of having Dr. (Bob) Rotella here in Charlottesville,” he says. “You’re always walking a line as a player between expectations and the actual outcome. You’re constantly battling that. As a good player, you expect good results although obviously, it doesn’t always come, so you’re always walking that line of expectations versus reality.”
The 72-hole Eastern Amateur gets underway on Thursday. The tournament has been played at Elizabeth Manor Golf and Country Club in Portsmouth since its inception in 1957, save for 1977 and 1999.
Elizabeth Manor is the work of renowned architect Dick Wilson, who concluded his work there in 1951. Lester George did a redesign in 1998. For the Eastern, the layout will play to approximately 6,500 yards and a par of 70.
There figure to be a lot of players in red numbers this week. Nick Lyerly of UNC Greensboro shot a 16-under 264 to win by five shots here a year ago and a total of 31 players broke par. Lyerly is not defending, but Alston Newsom of Virginia Commonwealth, who shared runner-up honors a year ago, is on hand. Peter Gasperini of Radford, who was part of a tie for fourth last year, is also in the field, which consists primarily of college players but also features a smattering of mid-am and high-school competitors.
The tournament features a distinguished list of past champions. Tom Strange won the inaugural event before going on to a distinguished career as a club professional; 18 years later his son Curtis followed in his father’s footsteps by winning the Eastern Amateur title himself.
Future PGA Tour Commissioner Deane Beman, who had a lengthy amateur career prior to turning professional himself, won claimed this championship four times in a five-year span between 1960 and ’64.
Lanny Wadkins won this championship in 1969 before going on to win the U.S. Amateur Championship the following year.
Meantime, Steve Melnyk, who was the reigning U.S. Amateur Champion at the time, won the 1970 Eastern Amateur title.
Ben Crenshaw won back-to-back Eastern titles in 1971 and ’72. Vinny Giles went home with the title a year later before giving way to Andy Bean. Arron Oberholser emerged victorious in 1998.
No champion has successfully defended since Braxton Wynns in 2002-03.