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U.S. Amateur Akin to a Double Win : Voges Delivers Title for Son’s Birthday Gift, Shows He’s Back on Course After Surgery

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If you want to understand the depths from which Mitch Voges has risen to win the U.S. Amateur Championship, try this:

Kids, get your parents’ permission, OK?

First, rupture three discs in your back. How? There are countless ways. Try jerking an anvil off the ground while keeping your legs perfectly straight. And twist your upper body a bit in mid-lift.

That oughta do it.

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Now, grab a golf club, go outside and swing it as hard as you can. Really whomp away for a minute or so. Feels like a badger is burrowing into your spinal cord, doesn’t it?

Voges ruptured three discs in his back over a period of time and was having severe problems in the early 1980s. He tried to keep playing golf, but the pain would get so intense that it would make his knees buckle.

Golf, the game he loved more than any other, was about to become a memory. But that wasn’t the worst part.

“I played enough golf that I’d be happy if I never picked up another club,” Voges said in 1986, a year after major back surgery fused the damaged discs and put him back on a golf course.

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“But when I couldn’t pick up my 2-year-old girl or my get into a pillow fight with my 6-year-old son, my quality of life just wasn’t there.

“I could have done without playing golf again. But I couldn’t have done without playing with my children.”

Last Sunday, in the steaming, thick air of a Tennessee summer on a day he will never forget, Voges got to do both.

The 41-year-old golfer from Simi Valley capped a long but often unrewarding amateur career by winning the biggest prize there is to win. He won the U.S. Amateur by overwhelming a talented field all week and then, in the 36-hole championship match, simply pounding his opposition into the ground with a stunning display of golf.

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The victory lifted Voges to heights he never really imagined. First, a berth on the prestigious U.S. Walker Cup team. Voges leaves Thursday for Ireland and will represent the United States in a series of matches next week against the best amateur golfers in Europe.

The victory also brought Voges automatic berths into next year’s Masters, U.S. Open and British Open.

And it all came, seemingly, with great ease.

Playing against South African and University of Arizona senior Manny Zerman on The Honors Course in the town of Ooltewah, Voges ended the match-play competition early.

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He beat Zerman--the 1991 Pacific-10 champion--7 and 6, forcing ESPN broadcasters to scramble crazily for a half-hour, filling in planned golf time with ad-libbed thoughts and old highlight films.

They could have just showed parts of Sunday’s match over again. Voges was a one-man highlight film.

Throughout his most memorable of days, Voges had the company of his son Christian, who was at his father’s side. That was important, not just for moral support, but because Christian was carrying the golf clubs.

Four days earlier, Christian celebrated his 13th birthday, and his father was about to deliver the mother of all birthday presents.

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Voges went 4-up on Zerman through the first 18 holes, stamping the day his on the 11th hole, a 562-yard, par-five monster. Voges rocketed his third shot from 155 yards and the ball hopped gently three times across the green and dropped neatly into the cup for an eagle.

A clenched fist rose slowly into the air and Voges held it aloft for several seconds as Christian eased up alongside, wrapped a thin arm around his father’s waist and hugged him, his head resting snugly on his father’s shoulder as the two strolled slowly down the fairway.

It was not, however, the most emotional hug of the day.

That came during the afternoon round on the 12th hole when Zerman, down seven holes after a four-hole birdie blitz by Voges to start the afternoon round, conceded the match.

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Father and son took a step toward each other and hugged the hug of a lifetime, a heavy, loving, rib-bending embrace that went on and on before a roaring crowd of 2,000 at greenside and a national television audience, Voges lifting his son off the ground and holding him as both pairs of eyes filled with tears.

“I’m just so happy for him,” Christian said on national television. “I love him so much.”

Voges’ wife and daughter quickly joined the celebration on the green and when Voges finally spoke, the words came much harder than his birdies had.

“I played this game all my life just for this chance, the chance to pull the trigger when it really matters,” Voges said in a halting voice. “And you always wonder, under these conditions, under this kind of pressure, whether your swing will hold up, whether you’ll duck hook it or shank it. You always wonder.

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“I won’t wonder anymore.”

Voges learned the game early and already had a solid swing by the time he made his way to Birmingham High.

He set a school record by shooting 65 at Braemar Country Club and graduated in 1968. A golf scholarship to Brigham Young followed and Voges played on a talented squad that included future Professional Golfers’ Assn. star Johnny Miller.

Voges turned pro after college but his interest waned, he said, and several years later he regained his amateur status. His steady game has carried him into dozens of top amateur tournaments, but when match play began, Voges usually faded away.

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In 14 appearances in the California Amateur championships, he has made it to the quarterfinals of match play only once.

It is a style of golf that baffles him.

“It wasn’t until this July that I began to really examine the problem,” he said. “My brother Chris worked with me and helped me, showing me that it was all in the mental approach to match play. The nuts and bolts of it is that he taught me to concentrate on what I’m doing and forget about the other guy and forget about the match.

“Bobby Jones always preached in match play to ‘Play against old man par.’ I always heard that, but never really listened to it. Now I know what it means.”

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Voges, the director of golf at the Spanish Hills Golf and Country Club in Camarillo--a 430-acre project under construction just off the Ventura Freeway that officials hope to open for play next August--returned with his family from his greatest triumph Monday night. What he did next offers a glimpse of the man, a look at his list of priorities.

Exhausted from a daylong ordeal that began in remote Tennessee with interviews with TV stations and Sports Illustrated and ended more than 15 hours and 2,000 miles later, Voges dropped his luggage inside his Simi Valley home and headed back out the door to fetch a pizza for his hungry family.

“What we went through all last week was so special,” Voges said. “To walk side by side with your son during your greatest moment on a golf course, well, it was just overwhelming.”


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