Pacific Northwest Golf Hall-of-Fame member Don Krieger once offered insight into the differences between golf in previous eras and the game played today. "The good players in the 1950's and 1960's were shooting par or better to win tournaments. The players scoring in the mid-70s were not successful. Today, the senior golfers who are winning the events are those who maintained their ability to score in the mid-70s. The sub-par competitors from the earlier days are having trouble breaking 80. Why? The champions from other eras cannot putt."
John Harbottle is a case in point. Because of commitments to family and work during his so-called "prime years," Harbottle finished in the middle of the pack in most PNGA events. But in the 1980's and 1990's, he became arguably the Northwest's premier senior golfer.
Every golfer should be as lucky as John Harbottle. When his swing goes awry -- which isn't very often -- he doesn't need to look very far for advice. He just asks his wife, the former Pat Lesser. "Sometimes when I don't realize what's going on, she'll be able to point out the difficulties and she does not charge." Pat is certainly qualified to give advice, being a former U.S. Women's Amateur champion and winner of multiple Western Amateur and PNGA women's titles.
The Launch of a Wonderful Senior Career
Harbottle's first success in senior golf came in 1982 at age 51 in the U.S. Senior Open at Portland Golf Club. The Senior Open gave Harbottle a chance to test his skills in a new arena. "Portland Golf Club was suited to my game. It's very narrow and not really long, maybe a bit longer than my home course, Tacoma Country & Golf Club. I played really well in the practice rounds, shooting 72 in the second round. Only six scores were better that day and I realized I would have a chance at the amateur medal." Consistency, according to Harbottle, became his prime asset in his senior career. "Early in my career, I tried to draw the ball but usually wound up with a big hook. In the Seventies, I started trying to fade the ball. Now I don't often his hooks under pressure. The fade holds up under pressure situations."
He finished 42nd in the 1982 U.S. Senior Open, after winning the low-amateur medal. As the low amateur, he would normally have qualified for the U.S. Senior Amateur, but he was too young. A player must be 55 or older for that event.
In his first opportunity to participate in the U.S. Senior Amateur in 1986, Harbottle reached the finals. The tournament had begun with 1,400 amateurs, each aspiring to win the 32nd championship at historic Interlachen Country Club in Edina, Minnesota. Interlachen was the same course where Bobby Jones won the U.S. Open in 1930 en route to his fabled "Grand Slam."
In regional qualifying, Harbottle blazed around Sahalee Country Club in Redmond, Washington, in an even-par 72 to become the Northwest's top qualifier. Once at Interlachan, Harbottle advanced from the 36-hole stroke-play qualifying to match play. On his way to the final, Harbottle, defeated Ed Tutwiler, a former Walker Cupper, in the third round, and Robert Wylie, a two time Canadian Senior Men's Champion, 4 & 3, in the fourth round.
In the next round, the 55-year-old Harbottle met his match, falling to R.S. "Bo" Williams of Ocala, Florida. While Williams' wife was attending a relatives wedding in Akron, Ohio, he was defeating the Tacoma dentist. At the start of the week, Williams said his chances to win were "none, no chance, very little," since he was participating in his first USGA event. Harbottle had his chances, but Williams was too steady and too good, hitting 11 of 13 fairways on the driving holes and 14 of 16 greens overall en route to the title.
"Bo was just too tough," said Harbottle. "But it's been a wonderful week." Since the tournament was beset with some disastrous weather, Harbottle added facetiously, "I can't remember a week when I have had so much fun splashing around in water."
In 1988 when Harbottle entered the realm of regional senior golf, he immediately became the player to beat. And, as it turned out, rightly so, as he dethroned reigning PNGA Senior Men's Amateur champion, George Holland, at Rainier Golf & Country Club in Seattle. Harbottle shot rounds of 75-71-74, for a four-over-par total of 220. Holland, seeking to tie George Beechler's record of three PNGA senior titles, fell short despite a closing round of 73 on Rainier's testing, well-groomed layout.
Taking His Shots at Amateur Championships
With that victory under his belt, Dr. Harbottle set his sights on the 1988 U.S. Senior Open at Medinah Golf Club in Chicago. After making the cut, he placed a commendable third among the amateurs. The event was won by Gary Player after an 18-hole playoff with Bob Charles. Medinah was grueling that year, with lightning-fast greens, 100-degree heat, and high humidity.
To top off his highly successful 1988 campaign, Harbottle traveled to Milwaukee Country Club for the U.S. Senior Amateur. Enjoying improved weather conditions on the second day, Harbottle and Richard Goerlich Jr., of Tampa tied with medalist honors at 148. The lack of rain on Tursday morning was worth about two strokes, according to Harbottle. "The wind blew on the second day, but the rain was what made it so hard that first day, because I didn't have to be concerned about my grip slipping." Harbottle lost in the fourth round to James McMurtrey of Danville, California.
The Rippling River Resort (now called the Resort and the Mountain) in Welches, Oregon, was the setting for the 1990 PNGA Senior Men's Amateur Championship. Normally the tournament is a 54-hole stroke-play event but, due to horrible wet weather and sloppy playing conditions, the event was abbreviated to 18 holes. Dr. Harbottle shot a remarkable six-under-par 64 to win the event by five strokes over Ken McLennan of Peninsula golf Club in Port Angeles, Washington. The round by Harbottle was doubly amazing because of the adverse playing conditions and he had two bogeys during the round.
When he won the 1991 PNGA Senior Men's Amateur Championship, Harbottle became the first champion to successfully defend his title since Beechler, of Prineville Golf & Country Club in Oregon, defended in 1968. Harbottle's third victory in the last four years came after he posted scores of 73-74-76, a seven-over-par 223, on the difficult, tree-lined Richmond Country Club in British Columbia. Harbottle's total was three strokes better than the reigning Washington State Senior Men's Amateur champion, Jerry Fehr, of Sand Point Country Club in Seattle, who shot 77-76-73, 226.
The 17th renewal of the PNGA Men's Master-40 Amateur Championship was held on Quilchena Golf & Country Club in British Columbia. Defending champion, Jim Sparkman, and 1990 champion, Rick Weihe, led the 144-man field into 18-hole qualifying. Dr. Kirk Smith of Everett Golf & Country Country Club, a two-time PNGA Men's Mid-Amateur champion in 1989 and 1990, shot a five-under-par 67 to capture medalist honors by five strokes over Quilchena's club president, Pat Scrutton.
En route to the final, Weihe defeated Sparkman, 5 & 4, Lee Knight of three Rivers Golf Course in Kelso, Washington, 4 & 3, and Steve Sander of Broadmoor golf Club in Seattle on the 19th hole. In the lower bracket, Harbottle bested Gib Smith of Canterwood Golf & Country Club in Gig Harbor, Washington, Wayne Samples of Port Ludlow Golf Course, 3 &2, and Herb fritz of Vancouver Golf Club, 5 & 3. Harbottle added the Men's Master-40 title to his three Senior crowns by defeating Weihe, 2 &1, in the final.
Returning to the National Spotlight
Harbottle was co-medalist in the 1988 U.S. Senior Amateur, and spent the next five years attempting to get back to the main event. In 1993 it wasn't easy for him to qualify for the national tournament as he had to survive a playoff at the qualifying site to earn the second and final spot from the region. Of his fellow competitors from the state of Washington, Harbottle said, "It's a good area. We've got some darn good seniors. Guys like Bob Jacobs and Wayne Samples."
Harbottle won his fourth PNGA Seniors title in 1993 at Black Butte Ranch in central Oregon. His three-over-par 219 over 54holes came at Black Butte's Glaze Meadow and Big Meadow courses. The opening-round lead was shared by Don Hodgen of grants Pass, Oregon, and Arnold Groth of Seattle, who matched scores of 73. Groth's score was remarkable because it equaled his age.
Day two loomed ominous as dark storm clouds shrouded the morning and afternoon rounds. Harbottle took advantage of the tough conditions, posting a two-under-par 70 for and even-par two-round total of 144. Three strokes back was Black Butte's own Dean Daugherty, who fired an even-par 72 for a 147 total. Jacobs also charged to the top of the leader board with a 72, putting him four strokes back at 148.
The contestants encountered cloudy but dry skies with some sun breaks during the final round. While Dougherty and Jacobs struggled early, Harbottle's steady play allowed him to build a comfortable cushion. However, a late run by Bill Gunderson of Renton, Washington, who fired a three-under-par 33 on the final nine holes, narrowed Harbottle's lead. Harbottle sealed the victory by making a 40-foot downhill put over two tiers for a birdie on the 213-yard 17th hole. With that putt, and a par on the final hole, Harbottle finished with a one-under-par to earn the win.
In the field for the 1993 U.S. Senior Amateur, there were five former champions and several previous runners-up vying for the title. While most of the qualifiers were bunched in the low 150s after two rounds, Harbottle had no trouble making the match-play rounds. He led all qualifiers, setting a U.S. Senior Amateur record with a qualifying score of four-under-par 136 after rounds of 68-68. In earning his USGA gold medal, Harbottle bested the old medalist mark by six strokes and outdistanced the qualifying field by a whopping seven shots. Unfortunately, he lost a marathon second-round match to Anthony Cullinane of Chevy Chase, Maryland, on the 24th hole.
Of his efforts in the 1993 U.S. Senior Amateur, Harbottle said, "In the first two rounds of match play, I was so charged up I didn't hit a bad ship until the extra holes. I was three over par for the six playoff holes when I lost, and I suppose there was a bit of fatigue, too, considering my first-round match had been 23 holes."
The game that brought John and Pat Harbottle together as teammates on the golf team at Seattle University in the 1950's played a key role in keeping them that way. They continue to play golf together at least once a week, and spend a lot of time practicing in between rounds at Tacoma Country & Golf Club, where they've been long-time members. "That makes Pat happy when I come home from work and head to the golf course. That makes it nice. She's not against me spending all my daylight hours away from work over there. In fact, she encourages, it."