As the match progressed, the sky cleared and the crowd grew. By noon the sun appeared. Approximately 9,000 persons crowded every vantage point. – From the Seattle Times, Aug. 24, 1952.
Certainly, it was a day to remember for the thousands who lined the fairways at Seattle Golf Club on Aug. 23, 1952, for the 36-hole match-play final of the U.S. Amateur.
The most important amateur golf event in the world was being played in the state for the first time, and the title was being contested by two players from Washington: Al Mengert, a 23-year-old hotshot from Spokane, and Jack Westland, 47, a steady old pro from Everett.
It was a back-and-forth match, with Westland leading 1-up after 18 holes. Mengert rallied, taking a 1-up lead with nine holes left.
The record shows Westland came back for a 3-and-2 win, becoming the oldest champion in U.S. Amateur history. He was elected a U.S. congressman later that year and he served until 1965. He died in 1982 at age 77.
But the record doesn’t tell the whole story about the Amateur final, and that has gnawed at Mengert for more than half a century.
With the U.S. Amateur finally back in Washington for 2010, starting Monday at two Pierce County courses, Mengert, now 81, spoke from his Central Oregon summer home about his disappointing finish in 1952.
“I’ve kept it quiet for 58 years, but I guess I can tell it now,” Mengert began.
Although his amateur career was relatively brief, it was one of the most remarkable in Northwest golf history – The Pacific Northwest Golf Association on Mengert, a 2001 Hall of Fame inductee.
Mengert could not have been more confident as he drove to Seattle for his Amateur practice rounds. He was on his way to being the top amateur player in the world, having just won the Northwest Open in Spokane the day before by nine shots over his boyhood idol, Bud Ward, a two-time U.S. Amateur winner.
Mengert’s four-round score was a record 23-under 265, a Northwest Open mark that was never topped. A few months earlier, he had tied for 34th at the Masters, beating Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson in the final two rounds, while serving an Air Force stint that had kept him off the golf course for more than six months.
“I had to get leave just to play, and I didn’t have the money to get there,” Mengert said.
He hitched a ride in the nose of an Air Force plane from his base in Montana to Pensacola, Fla., then took an overnight bus to Augusta, Ga.
Exhausted and out of practice, he proved he could still play against the world’s best.
But Mengert had a bigger issue as the U.S. Amateur dawned. He got the flu. Still, he kept advancing, despite having to play two rounds a day.
“As the week progressed, I got more run down,” Mengert said. “I kept winning, but I wasn’t playing that well in my mind, not like the week before.”
After blowing a 5-up lead in a first half of a 36-hole semifinal against Don Cherry, Mengert recovered and won 3-and-2 to earn a shot against Westland, who was second in the 1931 U.S. Amateur to Francis Ouimet.
Mengert never felt right in the Saturday final. His health wasn’t good and he was unhappy with his game. Through 18 holes, Mengert was 1 down.
“So, I went to the range and practiced during the break,” Mengert said. “My dad told me to take a break and have some lunch, but I kept practicing.”
That was his big mistake, because it was getting hotter and, as Mengert said, “It’s not like today, where there’s water to drink on the course.”
Mengert felt progressively worse, yet took a 1-up lead with nine holes to go. But dehydration caught up with him. He couldn’t focus on the ball. “It was swelling up when I looked down,” he said.
On one hole, Mengert said he advanced an easy chip just a couple of inches.
Suddenly, par was good enough for Westland. He made seven straight after trailing by one and won.
“I just completely ran out of gas,” Mengert said. “It was the worst nine going back to my junior days.”
Mengert somehow made it through the awards ceremony. “I said I didn’t know what happened,” he said. “I didn’t want to say I felt sick, so I just kept it to that.”
Mengert was bedridden for more than a week, and was forced to scratch from the Canadian Open, an event he had been long looking forward to.
The loss in the Amateur still pains him.
“I suffered the mental stress of letting Jack beat me when I wasn’t feeling well enough to play,” Mengert said. “I know if I had water, or had I rested, that I wouldn’t have had that disastrous finish. It’s really a sad story.”
Playing in the final group at the Masters with Sam Snead and coming down the 18th fairway as the final group, that’s got to be the highlight of my career – Al Mengert, on the 1958 Masters.
Mengert became the No. 1 amateur in the world later in 1952 when he won the Mexican Amateur. He then turned professional, never getting a chance to redeem himself at the U.S. Amateur.
“I used to joke that Tiger Woods got $40 million when he signed after turning pro, and I got $1,000 from MacGregor (sporting goods),” Mengert said.
Mengert became one of the great club-pro players in history and competed in 27 major championships. He beat Snead when paired with him in the final group of the 1958 Masters, but Arnold Palmer beat them both and Mengert tied for ninth.
Mengert led the 1954 U.S. Open through 45 holes and was the first-round leader at the U.S. Open in 1966. He has been paired in majors with Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player.
Meanwhile, Mengert was the director of golf at some of the nation’s finest golf courses and became renowned as much for his teaching as his playing. Among his students were current coaching gurus Butch Harmon and Jim McLean.
Mengert, who lives in Arizona in the winter, played his final round of golf at age 72, shooting a 66. That was a good round to go out on.
“I’ve had a great life, and lived in a lot of great places,” he said.
“The Amateur is sad for me, but I learned from it, and I built from it.”