At the Wannamoisett Country Club in Rumford, Rhode Island, Connor Howe of Georgia Tech (right) and Gordon Sargent of Vanderbilt University (center) get into the swing of things at the 2021 Northeast Amateur Invitational Golf Tournament.Photo Credit : Alex Gagne
The final pairing in the 59th edition of the Northeast Amateur Invitational Golf Tournament featured two young men from California. Dylan Menante, age 20, the smaller of the two at 5 feet 9, was from Carlsbad. Noah Norton, 22, an even 6 feet, 185 pounds, was from Chico. They stood on the first tee at the Wannamoisett Country Club at 11:47 a.m. on Saturday, June 26, 2021, a warm and pleasant day; were introduced to a small crowd by 82-year-old Joe Pieranunzi; stepped forward, one after another, and bombed a pair of 300-yard-plus drives straight down the middle, high and long, perfect, easy as if they were combing their hair, tying their shoes, turning their car radios to a favorite station.
And away they went.
Hit the white ball. Walk down the perfect grass. Hit the white ball again. Walk. Three thousand miles from home, the other side of the country, here in this small piece of the smallest of the 50 states, Rumford, Rhode Island, right next to Providence, not so far from Newport, this was where the dream existed on this particular weekend. Fame, fortune, endorsement deals, maybe a green jacket or two could be seen in the far-off distance—a golf vision, a golf hope, a possible reality.
Hit the white ball. Walk. This was a dress rehearsal for the future.
“I gave him his first golf club when he was a year old,” said 59-year-old Dean Menante, Dylan’s father and caddy for the day. “One of those oversized plastic clubs with the oversized ball. Hah. That was the start.”
“My father and grandfather took me out to Sunset Hills Golf Course in Chico when I was 5 years old,” Noah said. “There were only two par-three holes. That’s where I started. I fell in love with the game. When I was 14, I won the city championship in Chico. That was a great confidence boost. It told me I could play this game at another level.”
This was a look at that other level.
Tiger Woods once walked down the fairways of this tight little masterpiece of a golf course, 6,960 yards of adventure, par 69, stuffed into 89 acres at Wannamoisett in 1914 by celebrated designer and architect Donald Ross. Dustin Johnson walked here. Jordan Spieth. Patrick Reed. Justin Thomas. Luke Donald. Justin Rose. Brooks Koepka. Bryson DeChambeau. Say any famous male golfer’s name. Probably walked.
“We’re ranked as the fourth most important amateur tournament in the world by the PGA,” tournament chairman Ben Tuthill said. “That’s from a field of over 700 tournaments. We’ve been called ‘the Amateur Masters.’ I don’t know if it’s true, but I like that.”
Dylan, a junior at Pepperdine University, part of the team that captured the NCAA Division 1 championship trophy 24 days earlier in Scottsdale, Arizona, was the leader by a stroke, seven under par, to start the final round of this four-day tournament. Noah, who had graduated from Georgia Tech a month earlier and planned to turn professional at the end of the summer, was a stroke behind.
Stretched across the course were 90 other top-ranked amateurs, mostly from similar circumstances, young and hopeful and very good at their sport. They came from everywhere in the country, drawn to different events during the summer, opportunities to see how they would do. This was the one New England stop, the bargain of bargains for spectators with free admission, easy parking. Every player in the field was a lottery ticket possibly to be cashed. Every player was good.
“We were going over the names for the Ryder Cup,” said Chris Holzwarth, a Wannamoisett member. “Eight of the 10 players played here. Collin Morikawa stayed with us. Dustin Johnson stayed with the Rogers. Jordan Spieth stayed with Ben Tuthill… That’s pretty good. Eight out of 10.”
Hit the white ball. Walk.
“I have my instructions,” father/caddy Dean Menante said. “I just keep my mouth closed. Unless he asks me something.”
This was important.
The pictures on the wall of the well-appointed rec room at Wannamoisett tell the history of the tournament. The 58 past champions are captured in stock portraits, everybody wearing a blazer and necktie, each young and earnest face staring straight into whatever might come next. This could be a presentation on any country club wall in the world, past winners of the annual four-ball or B-flight net title, but even a casual follower of golf history can pick out the difference here.
“See where it all changes?” asks Kevin McNamara, a Providence sportswriter.
“Ben Crenshaw” is the correct answer. “1973.”
The pictures from the first 11 years—the tournament started in 1962 as a quiet Chamber of Commerce move to add a golf event to the Rhode Island sports calendar—show a line of competent, but provincial, amateur champions. Dick Siderowf, Ronnie Quinn, Jerry Courville… New England’s best. Most of them are older, some middle-aged. Good golfers all, but with local, regional boundaries to their notoriety.
The picture of Crenshaw stops all that.
He is the 1973 champion, blond and bright-eyed, 21 years old, longish hair flopping over his forehead and down his neck. He is from Austin, Texas, where he already has reached a level of fame as a three-time winner of the NCAA championship at the University of Texas. Three-time winner? Three in a row? Who does that? (No one, as it turns out, though Phil Mickelson would win three in his four years at Arizona State.) He is a certified choice as Golf’s Next Big Thing, which he will validate later in the year when he wins his first professional tournament in his first try, the San Antonio Open. He is a star.
“Ben Crenshaw changes everything,” McNamara says.
Wannamoisett member Bob Kosten, chairman of the tournament in its early years, would take vacation trips to different sites to recruit top amateur talent for the Northeast field, mostly without success. Crenshaw became his No. 1 target in 1973. The coach at the University of Texas wouldn’t even allow Kosten the chance offer an invitation, so Kosten went to a college tournament in North Carolina, introduced himself to Crenshaw on the practice tee, and made his pitch. No money was involved, couldn’t be, but the promise of hospitality was piled as high as possible.
Why come to Wannamoisett? A host family awaited. (Nice people. You’ll love them.) An Atlantic Ocean awaited. A challenge awaited. This was a different kind of course from those racetracks in Texas and the West; it was clever and tricky, sand traps and slippery greens, old trees and quirks, a different sort of puzzle. Fun was a definite possibility. Do you like baseball? Maybe a Red Sox game in Boston? A look at the mansions in Newport? Do you like Italian food? Real Italian food? There is this place called Federal Hill.
The result was magic. The kid from Texas stayed with the family of member Harry Carr, loved the experience, loved the tight 18-hole layout, led from wire to wire, finished with a 65 that not only won the tournament but also set the course record. A different level of credibility was established for the Northeast Amateur. Just like that.
Crenshaw would go from there to win a couple of Masters, win 19 times on the PGA tour, finish second twice at the British Open, once at the PGA tournament, and third at the U.S. Open on the way to a place in the World Golf Hall of Fame. Wannamoisett would go from there to be a place to visit for a list of celebrated players.
“A time in our golfing lives when we didn’t have a care in the world,” Crenshaw later wrote about the Northeast experience. “We were seeing a different part of the United States, but in a setting amongst such friendly, warm people who couldn’t do enough for us—well, those happy thoughts will stay with us for a long, long time.”
Future U.S. Open champions Curtis Strange from Wake Forest and Jerry Pate from the University of Alabama entered the field the very next year. Nine of the top 10 finishers were from outside New England. The change happened that fast. The same way the Cape Cod Baseball League became a place to see major leaguers from around the country before they became major leaguers, college standouts playing for the Cotuit Kettleers or the Brewster Whitecaps or the Wareham Gatemen, the Northeast Amateur became a place to watch the next—no, the original—Tiger Woods, Freddie Couples, or Dustin Johnson before they became what they became.
Woods played in 1993, staying with his father, Earl, in the upstairs guest room of member George Baker. A case of mononucleosis stopped the 17-year-old phenom’s golf at 27 holes, but he and his father stayed until the end of the tournament. (“Earl told me his son was going to be the best golfer in the United States,” Baker says. “He said that sitting right on my couch.”) Couples played in 1980 and established his playboy image early, spending more time in Newport than on the practice tee. Johnson, tall and athletic, fearsome off the tee, killed his chances in 2006 by pounding a drive at the 17th hole over a fence and onto the street, but came back to win in 2007.
Johnson and his father, Scott, stayed with the Rogers family in 2006. There were four kids in the family, all under 14. Older brother Tim became Johnson’s caddy, and youngest brother Ben became “B,” Johnson’s little buddy. Older sister Claire, who years later described this weekend as the social media manager for Golf Digest, took notes. Dustin won the long drive contest in flip-flops. Dustin played basketball in the driveway. Dustin emptied out his golf bag to clear out old granola bars when he heard B was allergic to peanuts. Dustin celebrated his 22nd birthday with a cake Claire’s mom made. Oh, yes, and Dustin went to the driving range.
Because of its small footprint, Wannamoisett doesn’t have a full driving range, its members asked to hit only irons, so Claire’s mother took their guest and Tim to the nearby Atlantic Driving Range. It was a moment.
“Dustin was wearing athletic clothes,” Claire wrote for Golf Digest. “Except for his height, no one batted an eye when he stepped up to the mats—until he started hitting.” Tim remembers people gathering around them and watching Johnson’s swing. “They had no idea who he was, but soon realized he was something special.”
Famous winners of the tournament were players such as John Cook (1978 and 1979), Hal Sutton (1980), David Duval (1992), Notah Begay III (1995), Luke Donald (2000 and 2001), Anthony Kim (2004), and Collin Morikawa (2017). More famous, just as famous, were players who did not win. Everybody played. Jordan Spieth. Patrick Reed. Jim Furyk. Justin Thomas. Webb Simpson. Justin Rose. Brooks Koepka. Everybody. Jason Day finished last. Everybody. Two of Jack Nicklaus’s sons played. Raymond Floyd’s son played. Lexi Thompson’s brother. Everybody.
Even a famous figure from another sport altogether: Tony Romo, the former Dallas Cowboys quarterback, now a CBS announcer. A solid golfer, a past winner in some of those celebrity tournaments, he always talked about the possibility of playing professional golf. He played in the Northeast in 2019, at 39 years old, twice the age of some of his opponents.
“I’ve always said that the kid playing quarterback for the high school team on Friday night has the same feelings that I had [with the Cowboys] on a Sunday afternoon,” he said. “That kid feels the importance of it, the butterflies. Here it’s the same thing. They want to get it in the hole as quickly as they can to try and go on to become the player they want to be someday.”
The results were not good for Romo. He did not become the player he wanted to be. He shot 71, then 79 on the first two days of the tournament, then dropped out on the third day after 15 holes, citing a back injury. He was 11 strokes over par, last in the field when he withdrew.
The tournament was not held in 2020 due to Covid-19 considerations.
Dylan menante, the 2021 leader, did not stay in a member’s house. He and his father talked about doing it, but felt uneasy with the lingering concerns about the virus. They checked into the Hilton Garden Inn in Providence, visited friends, walked around the Brown campus, took a visit to the Titleist factory in Acushnet, Massachusetts, a trip a lot of the golfers made.
Noah Norton followed the traditional route. He and two of his Georgia Tech teammates set up shop across the street from the course in the home of Chris Holzwarth and his wife, Patti. This was Noah’s third trip to the Northeast and his third time with the Holzwarths. His teammates were rookies.
“I put them in the basement, three beds down there” Patti said. “Laid in a lot of snacks. They can watch television, play basketball in the driveway, whatever. They can enter and exit through the bulkhead. Do whatever they want.”
The Holzwarths’ son, Rio, a senior-to-be at Providence College, a member of the golf team, was 21, pretty much the same age as the three visitors. He had an off-campus apartment in Providence. The visitors spent the bulk of their time there. Rio was now the social chairman.
“He’s grown up with this tournament,” said his father, Chris. “We’ve had players stay with us for a number of years. Morikawa stayed with us. Very nice. Quiet. Serious. Rio, who was in high school, caddied for him when he won. Rio’s grown up with all of this, made a lot of friends. We used to have to do more with the kids, but now it pretty much runs itself. They go and hang out with Rio.”
Rio was the caddy this time around for Noah. There was a hope that maybe he could bring the same good luck that he brought for Morikawa. One stroke off the lead? There were possibilities on this final day. Had to be.
Or maybe not.
Noah bogeyed the first hole. Dylan parred. Noah bogeyed the second hole. Dylan parred. Noah birdied the 137-yard par-three third, but bogeyed the fourth and the sixth and then the seventh and eighth holes. Dylan parred all of them, 10 pars in a row to start his round. The head-to-head match in the final pairing was done, finished.
Dylan was a metronome. He clicked through the problems presented at each hole with precision. His drives landed on fairways. His approach shots landed on the green. His first putts finished off birdies on 11 and 13. His second putts on every other hole finished off pars. His 67 at the end left him at two-under for the day, 11-under for the tournament, and with a new blue blazer for that picture on the wall. Noah finished with a 72, tied for eighth place.
“This is important for me,” Dylan said. “I finished second in four tournaments this year. In three of them I lost in playoffs for the championship. I was nervous all day. I wanted to win.”
“I spoke only when he asked me questions,” said his father/caddy. “He did all this on his own.”
Hit the white ball. Walk down the perfect green grass. Hit the white ball again. The 60th Northeast Amateur will be held this year at Wannamoisett from June 20 to June 25. This will be a week after the U.S. Open is held at the Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, featuring the best professional golfers in the world, rich and famous now, but back in New England, not so far from where their trip began.
Everybody has to start somewhere.