The Salem Series: 1977 U.S. Senior Amateur
There was a certain symmetry in place when Salem Country Club hosted the 1977 United States Golf Association Senior Amateur September 19-24.
Twenty-three years after serving as venue for its most recent national championship, Salem would be serving as site for the 23rd USGA Senior Amateur.
“No one planned it that way,” said Ollie Cook, who was serving as general chairman for the first of three successive USGA championships coming to Salem, the next two coming in 1984 and 2001. “But it had a nice ring to it.”
The ’77 Senior Amateur would also, Cook and fellow Salem members would learn a few years down the road, serve as a test for USGA officials. They would learn soon enough if Salem was capable of hosting one of its “majors,” the United States Women’s Open.
In one way the weather did not cooperate, insomuch as it rained every day of the six-day championship and one day had to be postponed. The sun never appeared. But the inclement weather proved a benefit regards the Salem course’s standing with the USGA.
The USGA learned, after its two-decade absence from the Donald Ross-designed layout, that it, in fact, was not only a superb championship test, but that it, as well, drained beautifully.
As Cook noted in the Club’s 1995 centennial history book, “the course held up beautifully. Everybody loved the course despite the bad weather. Everyone agreed if it hadn’t been for Ross’s genius, the way he designed the greens so that they drained so efficiently, we would have had two or three days of rainouts, not just one.”
Virtually all the greens, Ross’s greatest trademark, slope back to front. Many have fall-offs on the side and back areas as well, complementing the drainage effect. Moreover, the fairways and bunkers, too, handled the rain far better than anticipated, requiring far less manpower to maintain that might otherwise be expected.
It also did not hurt Salem’s chances of hosting a future – and bigger – USGA championship when the week’s competition defined a great championship final between defender Lew Oehmig and the highly rated Dale Morey, a pair of exceptional “mudders.” Morey won the rain-marred (surprise) 18-hole final, 4 and 3, capping a week in which the High Point, North Carolina, resident captured the qualifying medal with a one-under pay total of 143.
It was Morey’s second USGA Senior Amateur victory in four years. He beat Oehmig in the ’74 final at Harbour Town Golf Links on Hilton Head Island, 4 and 2.
Morey at Salem won two tight matches and three relatively easy ones en route to the title, the most dramatic victory coming in the first round in extra holes against Robert Morris of Rockville, Maryland.
Morey appeared on his way to defeat on the 20th hole after he overshot the green with his approach and faced a seemingly impossible sand wedge flop shot back onto the green with a tight pin placement. A bogey appeared all but certain, but Morey surprised even himself by holing the shot for a match-clinching birdie three.
In a letter to Cook a couple weeks later, Morey wrote, “I found that the Senior Championship on this superb course was the best ever for the USGA. I consider Salem one of Donald Ross’s finest courses; a great test of golf.”
In a letter to the Salem CC Centennial Committee 18 years after his triumph, Morey wrote, “as the years have gone by I have come to appreciate Salem more and more. It was in 1977, and surely is today, one of the best courses in the United States.”
The USGA was sold without Morey’s laudatory comments. Soon thereafter the organization and Salem leadership connected and made a new partnership. Salem would host the 1984 U.S. Women’s Open, 30 years after Babe Zaharias’s historic U.S. Open win on the same turf.