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GOLF / DAN HAFNER : At 50, Sigel Finally Going Against the Best

March 06, 1994|DAN HAFNER

The Senior PGA Tour and a challenge issued by Jack Nicklaus have given Jay Sigel an opportunity to answer, at least partially, a question that has been asked many times.

For nearly two decades, Sigel has been the best amateur golfer in the world--the best, according to Lee Trevino, "to come down the pike since Bobby Jones."

A freak accident in 1963, in which his left hand was badly cut, deprived Sigel of a chance to become a professional golfer. At the time, his only ambition had been to join the PGA Tour. Missing this was a major blow, but looking back he sees the injury as a blessing.

After a long recovery period, Sigel became the premier amateur, winning consecutive U.S Amateurs, playing on a record nine Walker Cup teams and winning the British Amateur. In addition, he was low amateur at least once in all of the major tournaments that permit amateurs to enter.

"I wouldn't trade the amateur experience for all the money in the world, " said Sigel, who is playing in his fourth senior event this week at Ojai. "I'm not just talking about the tournaments I won. It's the people I met, the honors and a lot of other things.

"More important, I might never have met my wife or had a family."

But always, there was the question: Could Sigel have made it against the likes of Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player?

Sigel turned 50 last November, giving him a chance to partially, if belatedly, answer that question. He was already thinking about taking his best shot as a pro on the senior circuit. But it took a talk with Nicklaus to provide the final impetus that sent Sigel into the senior qualifying school last fall.

"Jack said I had a choice," Sigel said, "but he added that I had won all the honors anyone could get as an amateur and they could never be taken away. But unless I gave it a try, I would never know if I could make it in the pros. 'You have the ability,' Jack said, 'but it's up to you.' "

Sigel finished 11th at the school, meaning that he needed a sponsor's exemption or at least have three who placed higher than him not enter a tournament for him to be eligible for the event.

"I never played in more than 12 tournaments in any year as an amateur," Sigel said, "and I never played from October to March. It has meant a change in lifestyle.

"I wouldn't be here if I didn't think I could do well. After three tournaments, I know I belong."

Sigel was attending summer school as a sophomore at Wake Forest 31 years ago when the mishap occurred. Only a few weeks before, he had won the Atlantic Coast Conference championship.

"Someone went out the door of our fraternity in front of me, and I reached out to catch the door before it closed," Sigel said. "Instead of catching the frame, I rammed my left hand through the glass. The doctor that sewed me up quit counting after 70 stitches. He'd reached par.

"The hand didn't stop hurting for five years and I didn't start playing a good game again for 10 years. By that time, I had a family and an insurance business. It was really a blessing. I probably would have been just another pro, not a great one. And all the amateur honors would never have been mine."

By 1974, he was competitive, and in 1977 he began his record-breaking Walker Cup streak. In 1982, he won the U.S. Amateur, then repeated as champion the next year.

"I was a finalist for the Sullivan Award one year," Sigel said, "and was sitting next to the winner, Edwin Moses. He was astounded to learn that I paid all my own golf fees and earned only trophies when I won. He wanted to set up a foundation to pay my expenses. I finally made him understand that probably the only real amateur sport left is amateur golf."

Sigel has already shown the 50-and-older group that he belongs. At Naples, Fla., two weeks ago, he opened with a 65 to lead the tournament, then stayed in contention until the final nine before finishing sixth.

Golf Notes

Jay Sigel, Australian Graham Marsh and England's Tony Jacklin will join the Senior PGA Tour this year. In 1995, Hale Irwin plans to come aboard, and the next year, Hubert Green and Gil Morgan will both turn 50.

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