‘Up and Down’ the Iowa Golf Scene – R&A, USGA Champion Gene Elliott
Championships in U.K., U.S. Catapult Elliott to the Top of Senior Amateur Golf in 2021
For Gene Elliott, the view from the summit of senior amateur golf is a majestic one. His journey to the mountaintop has been a long and steady climb, compiling season after season chock full of achievements and distinction at local, regional and national levels of golf.
But a magical 2021 season is set apart from the others, one that propelled him to the pinnacle of senior amateur golf.
“I’m not sure this has sunk in yet,” Elliott said. “The 2021 year was the most rewarding and most memorable in my 45 years of playing tournament golf.”
Elliott became only the second player to claim both the R&A Senior Amateur Championship and the U.S. Senior Amateur Championships in the same season, joining Paul Simson of Raleigh, NC, who accomplished the feat in 2010. Only one other Iowan has claimed the U.S. Senior Amateur title, that being Boone native Dr. Ed Updegraff in 1981. He is also one of only three players to win the U.S. R&A (United Kingdom) and Canadian senior amateur championships.
Elliott’s extraordinary year propelled him to the number one position as the globe’s top-ranked senior amateur player, according to the World Amateur Golf Rankings and AmateurGolf.com.
“I don’t feel like I’ve reached a plateau yet,” Elliott said. “This year was so special in so many ways. Yet I feel like there’s more out there. I still want to compete. Golf is such a hard game, you have to battle the course, your swing, your emotions and your body. You’re only as good as your last event, last round and last shot.”
He tuned up for a red-hot summer season by capturing the Golfweek Senior Amateur Championship in April at PGA West. In early July, Elliott captured the R&A’s Senior Amateur Championship, overcoming a difficult Ganton Golf Club layout, Covid- 19 protocols that included self-isolation for several days, and Ireland’s fast-closing David Mulholland by a single shot.
The victory qualified Elliott for the Senior Open Championship two weeks later at England’s Sunningdale Golf Club, where he was one of two amateurs to survive the cut. He eventually tied for 70th in a field filled with the best of senior golf professionals.
After spending nearly one month in England, the 59-year-old Elliott and his wife/caddie Dalena returned to the United States in time to prepare for the 66th U.S. Senior Amateur contested at the Country Club of Detroit. A steady145 total qualified Elliott for the match play segment of the tournament but earned the 38th seed and a challenging bracket draw.
His path to the finals would include matchups with some of senior amateur golf’s top players, including fellow Iowan and close friend Mike McCoy. Elliott needed an 18-footer to force extra holes against McCoy in the round of 32, then won the first extra hole. He nipped former Senior Amateur champion Doug Hanzel of Savannah, GA, in the round of 16 and dispatched local favorite Tom Gieselman of Commerce Twp. MI, in the quarters. Elliott defeated another nationally ranked and familiar foe Craig Davis of Chula Vista, CA in the semifinals to set up the championship final with another fan favorite Jerry Gunthrope of Ovid, MI.
Elliott never led in the closely contested championship match until Gunthrope failed to convert a 12-foot putt for par on the final hole, rallying from one down with two to play.
“To win my first USGA championship in this fashion is just a capstone to a fantastic season,” Elliott said. “Going into the championship, I felt loose and relaxed. I knew I had a tough side of the bracket, including Mike, but didn’t get ahead of things. Match play is such a grueling format, you have to survive and endure.”
The U.S. Senior Amateur victory comes with a basket full of rewards. Elliott will be exempt from sectional qualifying for the U.S. Open, two U.S. Amateurs, two U.S. Mid-Amateurs and a ten-year exemption into the U.S. Senior Amateur. Plus, he is an automatic qualifier into the 2022 U.S. Senior Open, where he will be paired with defending champion Jim Furyk.
A dominant force in Iowa golf for decades, Elliott’s career can be expressed in segments of junior and collegiate golf, professional, amateur and senior amateur. His 29 major Iowa tournament victories include three Iowa Amateur titles, four Iowa Senior Amateur titles, six Iowa Mid-Amateur victories, six IGA Four-Ball victories and two Iowa Open championships.
In 1998, he captured the Porter Cup and Terra Cotta Invitational on the national amateur stage and holds two Canadian Senior Amateur titles. He’s played in 37 USGA championships and competed at high levels in U.S. Senior Open, U.S. Amateur and U.S. Mid-Amateur competitions. He was the stroke play medalist at the 1999 U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach.
The competitive fires burned early.
Born in Fairfield, IA, Elliott started grooving his swing as a preschooler with plastic clubs. The home of Glen and Eilene Elliott backed up to a city park, where eight-year-old Gene moved on to junior clubs and would hit shag balls as a youngster from one end of the park and back, a distance of about one hundred yards.
“One day Dad came out and challenged me to really take a rip at it and I responded with a 150-yard bullseye, right through the neighbor’s picture window as they were having dinner. It took an apology and a new window to set things straight,” Elliott said.
The family moved to Bettendorf, IA where Glen Elliott’s business, Elliott Equipment Company, began to expand. Today, Gene is the CEO of a second-generation family business that provides garbage trucks and street sweepers to municipalities. While in the Quad Cities, Gene’s game started to develop as a junior member of Crow Valley Golf Club. In the mid-1970’s, the club hired a new golf professional, Butch Harmon, who would later move on to become one of the game’s legendary instructors and swing coach for Tiger Woods. Harmon sparked Elliott’s competitive spirit to new levels.
“Butch was the Dan Gable of golf in those days,” Elliott said. “He was such a great motivator and had the magnetism to push you beyond your limits. Besides the swing, he worked on your confidence, your course management and the ability to trust yourself.”
Harmon and Elliott played together in several pro-junior events, winning a prestigious title in Chicago and the Iowa state event in 1976 at Des Moines Golf and Country Club. None other than Arnold Palmer was on site to give an exhibition that day and presented the winners with their trophy, and a photo opportunity as Harmon’s father, Claude Harmon, the 1948 Masters Champ, was a close friend of Palmer.
As a prep senior at Bettendorf High School, Elliott captured the 1980 Class AA state medalist although the team title went to Clinton, led by future PGA Tour member Greg Ladehoff. He was a solid performer on the University of Iowa golf team from 1980-84 and played two seasons with Guy Boros, the son of three-time major champion Julius Boros. Elliott played professionally for several years in the US, Canada and internationally before regaining his amateur status in the mid-1990’s. His professional career included 12 starts on the PGA Tour and three made cuts, including a T7 at the 1986 St. Jude Classic in Memphis.
Looking forward, Elliott is anxious for the 2022 season. He’d like to add the Australian Senior Amateur to his lengthy list of titles, defend his two major amateur championships and continue to play at the highest levels of senior amateur golf.
“There are so many correlations to the game of golf and the game of life,” Elliott said. “Talent can take you only so far – you have to work for the rest of it. And you need a team to be successful in golf, in business, at home and in life.”
“Up and Down” the Iowa Golf Scene
A regular feature column written by IGA Foundation board member Mark Gambaiana, Up and Down the Iowa Golf Scene is designed to take the reader beyond the headlines and scoreboards to share stories of those who help make Iowa golf so rich and rewarding. Profiles will spotlight those who advance the game through volunteerism, service, extraordinary achievement, competition, human interest and the many other dimensions of golf in Iowa.