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GOLF / DAN HAFNER : Finally, Sigel Is a Cut Above the Rest as a Professional

March 08, 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 make it as a pro golfer in his prime. At the time, his only ambition was to join the Tour. Missing his chance for a pro career was a major blow, but looking back he sees the injury as a blessing.

After a long recovery period Sigel became the king of the amateurs, winning consecutive U.S. Amateur titles, playing on a record nine Walker Cup teams and winning the British Amateur.

In addition, he was low amateur at least once in all the majors that permit amateurs.

"I wouldn't trade the amateur experience for all the money in the world, " said Sigel, who won Sunday at Ojai in only his fourth Senior event. "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 nor had a family."

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

That question can't be answered. But Sigel turned 50 last November and that was his chance for at least a shot at pro golf. A talk with Nicklaus gave him the final impetus and Sigel went to the senior qualifying school.

"Jack said I had a choice, but he added that I had won all the honors anyone could get as an amateur and they could never be taken away," Sigel said. "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.' "

But his four tournaments as a professional have established Sigel as the budding star of the 50-and -older set.

After serving notice with a first-round 65 in his third event, Sigel hit the jackpot Sunday at Ojai.

In an amazing performance, Sigel set a professional golf record when he came from 10 shots down in the final round, shooting an eight-under-par 62, then beating Jim Colbert on the fourth hole of a sudden-death playoff and reaching his first goal as a pro--winning a tournament.

It also meant that he no longer had to wait to find out if he was eligible for any given tournament. He is now exempt for a year.

After a grueling 5 1/2 hours Sunday, Sigel said he figured it would take about two days for his amazing feat to sink in. But he already knows for certain he made the correct move.

"I never played in more than 12 tournaments in any year as an amateur," he said. "And I never played from October to March. It's meant a change in lifestyle.

"I wouldn't be here if I didn't think I could do well. After three tournaments, I already was sure I belonged. I have been well received and treated great by the professionals."

Sigel was attending summer school as a sophomore at Wake Forest, following in the footsteps of Arnold Palmer, when the accident occurred. Just a few weeks before, he had won the Atlantic Coast Conference championship.

"Someone went out the door of our fraternity (house) 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 good pro, not a great one. And all the amateur honors would never have been mine.

"I was a finalist for the Sullivan Award one year 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."

The hand injury delayed Sigel's golf career a decade. By 1974 he was competitive and in 1977 he began his record-breaking Walker Cup tour. In 1982 he won the U.S. Amateur and repeated the next year to become the dominant figure among the non-professionals.

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