Crossing the Border

Canadian Gary Cowan traveled south to become a rarity: a two-time Amateur champ from outside the U.S.

For more than 15 years, the reminders of Gary Cowan’s prolific amateur career were relegated to storage, packed away in boxes, bags and plastic containers.

The Canadian golf legend finally did something about that a few years ago. In a renovated room of his Waterloo, Ontario, home, Cowan started to sort, polish and frame 40 years worth of mementos and awards. It was a project long overdue.

Down a few steps, he shows a visitor his new trophy room, filled with photographs, flags, trophies and cups. Displayed prominently on one wall is a large reproduction of the Royal Canadian Golf Association’s “Century” edition of Golf Canada magazine, proclaiming Cowan Canada’s Male Amateur Golfer of the Century.

Cowan, now 63 and displaying few lingering effects of a 1997 stroke, comes at last to the item that best symbolizes his outstanding career: a framed photograph of the 9-iron shot he holed for eagle to win the 1971 U.S. Amateur and collect his second Havemeyer Trophy in five years.

“I had some great moments,” says Cowan, one of 17 players to win the U.S. Amateur twice in its 102 playings, “but nothing tops winning the greatest prize in amateur golf. To have your name on the same trophy as Bobby Jones, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods is an honor. To have it there twice? Very special.”

Few would contest Cowan’s status as the greatest amateur in Canadian golf history. He rose to prominence at 17, winning the Canadian Junior title, and took the Canadian Amateur five years later. Internationally, he represented Canada 19 times in team competition, including at the 1962 World Amateur Team Championship, when his 280 was the lowest individual total and helped Canada to finish second, behind the United States.

“Gary was a ferocious competitor,” says Nick Weslock, a national squad teammate, “but playing for the flag brought out the best in him. He was very determined in those events.”

Cowan took a similar intensity south of the border. In addition to the Amateur, he won the North and South Championship in 1970 and tied Deane Beman for low amateur at the 1964 Masters.

“Every accomplishment was a sort of progression,” he says. “It spurred me to try and push the envelope further. Even as a kid, I was like that. “

At age 10, Cowan began spending his summers at Kitchener Rockway Golf Club working with professional Lloyd Tucker.

“Lloyd was a fundamentals guy,” says Cowan. “He kept the game simple.”

If Tucker provided the foundation, Canadian star Sandy Somerville supplied the inspiration. The 1932 U.S. Amateur champ was a hero to Cowan and encouraged him to compete in the U.S.

His first three U.S. Amateurs (1958, 1962 and 1963) ended in disappointment. But at Merion in 1966, Cowan played terrifically, shooting a 67 on the final day for an early clubhouse lead (the Amateur was a stroke-play event from 1965-72).

Still, Cowan’s prospects for the title appeared dim. Beman, then a 28-year-old   insurance executive, carried a two-shot lead to the 72nd hole. It looked as if the future PGA Tour commissioner would become the Amateur’s first three-time winner since Jones.

A stunning chain of events by Beman followed: a missed 3-wood approach in the bunker right, a sculled shot over the green and a chip from the rough that failed to reach the green. Beman was numb. He gathered himself sufficiently to get up and down, but his double bogey meant an 18-hole playoff the next day.

“I was absolutely shocked,” says Cowan. “I was preparing my runner-up speech when it all happened.”

In the playoff, Cowan opened a two-shot lead at the 15th, scoring a birdie to Beman’s bogey, but gave it back at the 16th with a triple bogey. “I was sick,” says Cowan, “but I had to put behind it me. … I told myself, ‘Two pars and you’ll win.’ “

He was right. Beman’s miss from two feet at the 17th gave Cowan a one-shot lead with one hole to play. Beman failed to convert his birdie attempt at the 18th and Cowan two-putted for par to secure the title, the first U.S. Amateur for a foreigner since Somerville 34 years before.

“It was an unbelievable feeling,” says Cowan. “But I started asking myself on the way home, ‘Where do I go from here?’ I’d just won the biggest prize in amateur golf. Then Sports Illustrated came out with an article, [that] made my victory look like a fluke. I thought, Okay, let’s show the world it was no accident.”

The 1971 Amateur was played at Wilmington (Del.) Country Club. Cowan had a three-stroke lead after 70 holes and a second Amateur seemed certain.

But Eddie Pearce, a 19-year-old from Wake Forest, made a birdie at the 18th and Cowan bogeyed the 17th, narrowing his edge to one shot. Then, at the 18th tee, Cowan’s driver let him down.

“I tried to turn the ball right to left but I gave it a hard pull,” he says. “The ball landed in the bunker, but it was going so hard it hit and jumped out in the rough, just past a tree. It was a great break.”

Cowan had recently worked with pro Al Balding on his technique from trouble spots; he reviewed those lessons. With 135 yards to the flag, he chose a 9-iron. Then he played the greatest shot of his life. The ball landed on the green, rolled up an incline and went straight in the hole for an improbable eagle 2.

In the press room, the first foreign-born player in nearly 70 years to win two U. S Amateurs didn’t wait for a question. “I asked if there was anyone there from Sports Illustrated,” he smiles.

Cowan didn’t defend or turn pro in 1972. With a growing family, the insurance sales representative evaluated his priorities and knocked golf down the list. “It was time for new challenges,” he says.

A three-year stint playing senior pro golf in the 1990s ended with his stroke, but Cowan remains upbeat.

“I’ve got no regrets,” he smiles. “I’d say I had a pretty good career.” Indeed.