'It just hurts': Mid-Michigan's Jerry Gunthorpe lets late lead slip away in U.S. Senior Am final

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Grosse Pointe Farms — Shortly after noon Thursday, a trophy presentation was taking place in the middle of the 18th green at Country Club of Detroit. Jerry Gunthorpe, of mid-Michigan, stood off to the side, his shoulders slumped, shaking his head.

Thirty minutes earlier, Gunthorpe had a hold on the U.S. Senior Amateur championship. But back-to-back bogeys on Nos. 17 and 18 cost him what, easily, would've been the pinnacle of his golf career.

In many ways, in fact, it still was — not that there was any immediate consolation following a 1-up loss to Gene Elliott, of West Des Moines, Iowa, who's considered the top senior amateur golfer in the world, and who followed up his British Senior Amateur title earlier this year with the triumph in the shadows of Detroit.

Jerry Gunthorpe eyes his putt line on the 11th hole during the championship match of the U.S. Senior Amateur at Country Club of Detroit in Grosse Pointe Farms on Thursday.

"I would've liked to finish stronger and gave Gene a better finish there, but congrats to him," said Gunthorpe, 58, his caddie and son, Nathan, standing off to the side.

"Right now, it just hurts."

The only time Gunthorpe trailed in his match was after Elliott two-putted for par on the 18th, and Gunthorpe failed to get up and down from just over the green, his 8-foot putt to send the match to extra holes sliding by as a gallery of hundreds of friends, family members and club members watched from the back patio of the stately clubhouse. The match was tied after nine holes, and Gunthorpe led, 1-up, after eight holes.

Gunthorpe, whose previous best showing in competitive golf was a win in the Michigan Medal Play at Detroit Golf Club in 2004, was one of the last two men standing out of a field of 156 that started play Saturday. The tournament featured a record 2,565 entries.

U.S. SENIOR AMATEUR RESULTS

Despite the loss, he still gets several goodies for making the semifinals, including exemptions into the Mid-Amateur later this month, and the U.S. Senior Open and U.S. Amateur in 2022. He also is exempt into the Senior Amateur for the next three years.

The trophy, though, would've understandably been better.

"I don't know what happened," he said. "I don't know what happened.

"I guess I'll have to look back and see what happened."

For starters, the driver was off much of the day, with his miss being consistently to the right — including at the par-5 17th and the par-4 18th.

Jerry Gunthorpe reacts to a missed putt on the 17th hole which squared the match.

On 17, after he had taken a 1-up lead in the match after Elliott missed a short par putt on 16, Gunthorpe found himself behind a tree in the right rough, taking out the option of going for the green. He laid up to the left side of the fairway, and hit a decent enough approach into the wind, 30 feet short of the hole. But his putt came up 6 feet short, and he missed it, squaring the match.

Then, on 18, he found the right rough again, while Elliott, from the middle of the fairway, hit his approach first, 20 feet left of the flag, pin-high. While Gunthorpe had a decent lie and just a 9 iron in his hands, he couldn't take direct aim at a right pin, because of some tree limbs. He played left, caught a flyer, and the ball hit firm and bounced just over the back of the green.

Facing a ticklish downhill chip, he left it about 9 feet short and right. After Elliott two-putted for par, Gunthorpe missed and the match was over.

"That match was so tough that I am not sure, did I win?" said Elliott, whose trophy collection is massive, particularly from the Iowa circuit, but now he's collected his first United States Golf Association championship. "It just hasn't sank in yet.

"Whoever blinked … it just was one of those matches."

The bogeys at 17 and 18 were the only ones of the day for Gunthorpe.

Gunthorpe, trying to give Michigan a summer sweep of men's USGA amateur events after Canton's James Piot won the U.S. Amateur last month, was 2 under par through 16.

But his last three drives were wide right, and several earlier in the round.

"It's been hit and miss for the last three, four days, and I was able to get it around," he said, talking about the driver, which was good enough to get him through stroke play and five matches. "Gene is way too good to just get it around and win.

"I played decent for 16 holes and just couldn't hold on."

Gene Elliott poses with the trophy after defeating Jerry Gunthorpe, 1-up, to win the U.S. Senior Amateur at Country Club of Detroit.

Thursday marked just the second time in six matches that Gunthorpe even had to play the 18th hole, an impressive run for a guy who once upon a time came close to qualifying for the Champions Tour but never really tried again — deciding he didn't like the idea of the grind. In contrast to Elliott, who plays in nearly every tournament he can, Gunthorpe doesn't play a ton of high-level competitive golf. He's busy with his plumbing business, and he likes to follow his sons' golf exploits. Nathan played at Michigan State, and Nick, who is an alternate into the Mid-Amateur that Gunthorpe now is in, played at Grand Valley State. If he's playing many tournaments, they're usually at his home course, Owosso Country Club.

That's about to change, should he accept all the exemptions he now has coming his way in marquee tournaments all over the country.

It'll be tough to top this week, not just the play but the support he had, particularly Thursday. If Ovid, northeast of Lansing, has 1,600 residents, it appeared many of them called in sick Thursday.

Those memories will last a lifetime — even if it will, admittedly, take some time to forget about that finish.

"That's everything," said Gunthorpe, who played collegiately at Lansing Community College. "I'll never forget this week for sure. It's one the highlights of my career. It is the highlight of my career. I've played a lot of tournaments. Nothing that is of this grandeur, and I guess that alone is a pretty good thing to look back on."

Elliott, meanwhile, joins Arnold Palmer in the winner's circle at Country Club of Detroit. Palmer won the U.S. Amateur in 1954, springboarding his epic career. The club also hosted the 1915 U.S. Amateur, won by Robert A. Gardner.

The U.S. Senior Amateur also brings to an end a summer that was packed with high-level golf tournaments in Michigan, including a PGA Tour stop, two LPGA Tour tournaments, a Champions Tour event, and two Symetra Tour stops.

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tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984