On paper, it all sounded so simple. Travel to England during the second summer of COVID-19 (with England quarantine rules in effect) to play in the Senior Amateur Championship and the British Senior Open.
What could possibly go wrong?
For Gene and
Elliott, plenty. But it turned out to be a most rewarding sojourn, nonetheless.
The catalyst for this trip was fellow competitor and close friend Dave Nelson. He was going to play the Senior Amateur by virtue of advancing to match play in the 2019 U.S. Senior Amateur and he persuaded the Elliotts to make the trip. The three of them would play and laugh in the English countryside. “It will be the trip of a lifetime,” Nelson promised the Elliotts.
The journey began on Saturday, June 26. Elliott, 59, had just finished runner-up at Los Angeles Country Club in the George Thomas Invitational, outfoxed by his Iowa friend and rival, Mike McCoy. Traveling with his wife/caddie
DaLena, their red-eye flight to Chicago was delayed, meaning they missed their connecting flight to Des Moines, Iowa. Instead, they flew to Omaha, Nebraska, where
’s daughter picked them up. Remarkably, Elliott’s golf clubs made the journey safely.
To gain entry into Great Britain, he and
had to be tested for COVID before leaving America. They had appointments scheduled for Sunday afternoon, but those were missed due to the flight debacle. Fortunately, they found not one but two places in Des Moines where they could be tested and get on-the-spot results. Each test they took was very stressful; the entire trip was riding on the outcome.
On Sunday night – tested, packed and ready to go – Elliott got a call from Nelson. He tested positive for COVID. The traveling threesome suddenly became a twosome.
Their travel luck, such as it was, continued Monday as their flight to Chicago was delayed by two hours. They missed their connection to London, but they were rebooked on an overnight flight and arrived Tuesday.
The reward for their effort thus far: five days in an airport hotel in London, with food brought in. The British government called twice each day to verify their whereabouts and health, and they were tested for COVID twice during this lockdown. For exercise, they walked the stairwell of the hotel. Practice swings and putts in their hotel room killed very little time, and the same was true of in-room yoga. Fortunately, Wimbledon tennis was on television, and England was making a captivating run at the European soccer championship. When those events weren’t eating away at time, Netflix stepped up and did the rest.
“She was already wife of the year for doing the quarantining with me to let me play here and, as well as she caddied, I owe her big time.”
GENE ElLIOTT ON WIFE/CADDIE, DaLENA
Finally, on Sunday, July 4, they were released and made their way north to Ganton Golf Club, a gem of a course located east of Leeds in England which was the site of the Senior Amateur. The goal was to avenge a playoff loss in the 2019 championship after close calls in the two prior years. Elliott arrived as just one of two Americans in the field as well as the highest ranked senior player in the World Amateur Golf Rankings.
by his side pulling a trolley, Elliott got off to a decent start but found himself in 14th place after 36 holes. He noted that the tournament had switched to 72 holes since it was last contested at Ganton in 2014, and he surmised that the scores were going to be higher. Two rounds of 1-under-par 70 just might win.
In round three, he signed for the first 70 and rocketed up the scoreboard, one shot behind the leader, England’s Andrew Woodhead.
The final round was full of drama. Elliott birdied the first hole while Woodhead, playing in the final pairing with Elliott, made double bogey. Elliott had grabbed the lead and was playing with confidence. He eagled the 285-yard third hole, driving the green and canning a 12-footer. A birdie on No. 10 got him to 4-under for the day and in command.
“Then Ganton decided it had had enough of me,” quipped Elliott afterward. A shanked 5-iron on the 14th tee led to a bogey, followed by bogeys on 15 and 16. Elliott was in real danger of letting it slip away. On the stiff 233-yard par-3 17th, Elliott blocked a hybrid but recovered with a fantastic flop shot to 8 feet. The usually silent
looked at him and in her sternest voice said, “You need to make this.” He did, hitting what he termed “the best putt all week.” He had a one-shot lead headed to the last.
Then things got weird. After hitting a good 3-wood 20 yards beyond Woodhead, there was some sort of commotion in a greenside bunker. An R&A official raced on to the green, frantically waving his hands trying to stop play. Woodhead had addressed his ball and was ready to swing when Elliott screamed, “Stop!” Confused, the Englishman did as instructed and the twosome waited in the fairway.
It seems that an older gentleman had collapsed face first in the bunker. The R&A officials, radios blaring, thought he might have had a heart attack. It turns out he had simply fainted, and they got him up and out, face bloodied and pride wounded.
Twenty minutes after play stopped, Elliott hit an 8-iron to 20 feet. He rolled the putt down to 6 inches and the trophy was finally his after three consecutive top-five finishes. He closed with the needed 70 and finished at 6-over-par 290 on a very demanding track.
“This win is up there with the best I’ve ever done,” he said. “I value golf over here, and what the R&A does to put on this event. It means a lot to win this great championship.”
He also acknowledged
DaLena: “She was already wife of the year for doing the quarantining with me to let me play here and, as well as she caddied, I owe her big time.”
Payback for the wife of the year was to begin the following week. In search of air conditioning – Great Britain was in the middle of an Iowa-like summer heat wave – they checked into the Belfry Hotel & Resort, an upscale facility famous for hosting four Ryder Cups. More importantly, it had a spa and, hopefully for the Elliotts, air conditioning. They were wrong on the air conditioning. In fact, for the duration of their voyage, they never had air conditioning at all. They did some touristy things and played a few rounds of golf, but mostly they decompressed and rested for the week ahead – the Senior Open Championship at world renown Sunningdale Golf Club near London.
They arrived at Sunningdale on the Sunday prior to the tournament, and had to wait 90 minutes in the blazing sun to get credentialed and tested (once again). Elliott played practice rounds on Sunday and Monday, took Tuesday off, and then played a final prep round Wednesday.
The gun went off Thursday, and Elliott was out early.
was a spectator, as Elliott got a caddie who knew the course and yardages. He opened with a 3-over-par 73 that included a mid-round double bogey-bogey-bogey stretch. He had a later tee time Friday, which meant he would know exactly what was needed to make the cut. “It was a grind,” he said once home, reflecting back. “I wasn’t playing badly, but I wasn’t playing great.”
The cut would come at 5-over par, and after he double bogeyed 16, he would need two pars to play the weekend. With a 2-over-par 72, he made it on the number.
England’s Trevor Foster would be Elliott’s competition for low amateur. Foster took a three-shot lead over Elliott after 36 holes. That margin remained after they both shot 73 on Saturday. Elliott could muster only another 73 in the final round, while Foster did almost everything he could to allow Elliott to pass him. Foster shot 40 on the backside Sunday, and a hard-fought bogey on 18 was enough to clip Elliott by a single shot.
Asked to reflect on the experience once he was back in the United States, Elliott recalled Nelson’s promise that it would be “the trip of a lifetime.”
“It was one hell of a trip of a lifetime,” Elliott observed, before pointing out that another one awaits. He will defend his Senior Amateur title at Royal Dornoch in 2022.
And the wife of the year will once again be on the bag by his side.
Top: Gene and
Elliott with their spoils at the Senior Amateur Championship