TAMPA, FLORIDA | Tug Maude and John Sawin are, apart from their unrelenting love of amateur golf, fundamentally different people.
Maude lives in the area near Atlanta, Georgia, working as a senior manager for Comcast. Sawin lives more than 2,000 miles away on the Monterey Peninsula in California where he is vice president and director of golf for the Pebble Beach Company.
At any given tournament, you will likely find the gregarious Maude holding court around the breakfast buffet or the 19th hole until shortly before his tee time when he might get in a couple of range balls or a few ceremonial practice putts. Sawin spends well more than an hour preparing, using foam rollers to loosen his muscles, picking out the right music so he can focus and eating a nutritious breakfast, mostly keeping to himself throughout the process.
Maude’s inclination, which has softened in his recent return to mid-amateur golf, is to fire at tucked hole locations, trying to collect as many birdies as he can while figuring out the rest as he goes. Sawin is data-driven and puts a high priority on fairways and greens.
But despite the differences in their personalities, there are few friendships in the amateur game more powerful than the one they share. Having grown up together as juniors at Merion Golf Club in the greater Philadelphia area, the two have stayed close since their teenage years no matter the circumstance.
“We couldn’t really be more different,” Sawin said. “The thing we have in common is our love for golf, that’s been our bond over the years. But as different as we are as people, it makes each one of us better. There are things Tug does, like having an outgoing personality, not getting overly analytical, not worrying as much about consequences, that have helped me.
“He’s balanced me out over the years and I think I’ve balanced him out, too.”
Sawin was the second of five kids in his family and would mirror his summer golf schedule around Maude’s, who is two years older, once the latter got his driver’s license. If not for Maude, Sawin says he likely would have stuck with lacrosse. Maude had immense athletic talent from a young age, playing multiple sports and diving into golf during his time at the Haverford School, just a mile and a half from Merion, along with Sawin. In his first summer as a golfer, a 13-year-old Maude broke par.
“The East course is where we learned to make pars,” Maude said. “And the West course, which was shorter and a little easier, is where we learned how to make birdies.”
Scott Nye, the longtime head pro at Merion, can recount innumerable stories about the two of them, none that makes him laugh more than a promise he made to the two youngsters more than two decades ago. There used to be an event called the Merion Junior Invitational at which juniors from local clubs would converge on Merion’s West course for a competition. Nye jokingly told the boys that he would find a way to get them to Pine Valley if they won. They did win, but there was no trip to the famous George Crump design in New Jersey.
“And now John is a member at Pine Valley,” Nye said.
The two friends, now in their late 30s, took divergent paths in golf after strong All-Delaware County junior careers. Sawin went to Princeton University and delved deep into amateur golf during his 20s as he won the Stocker Cup, the Pennsylvania Amateur, the Travis Invitational and a handful of club championships at Merion and San Francisco Golf Club. Maude went to Wake Forest where he injured his knee twice playing intramural sports and didn’t get an opportunity to hit a single official shot for the Demon Deacons.
“That’s kind of Tug in a nutshell,” Sawin said. “He loved playing flag football, basketball, all of the fun sports that you probably shouldn’t be doing if you are going to take golf seriously.”
After graduating, Maude was player of the year for the Golf Association of Philadelphia. During a job interview in which he played a round of golf at Merion with a prospective employer, Maude shot a 62. He was performing so well at the time, he felt compelled to try professional golf rather than work a normal day job.
After toiling for three years on mini-tours, Maude played sparingly. He tried a local qualifier for the 2013 U.S. Open, the major championship held at Merion, but didn’t get through to sectionals. Due to starting a family and focusing on his career, it was the last competitive golf he would play until 2018.
“I don’t want to say that I missed playing competitively because I really didn’t,” Maude said. “But a few years ago, I was watching the Masters with my daughter and she started looking at some of my old trophies and I was telling her that I used to be pretty good. I just got the itch again.”
Logic would say that a golfer needs a handful of tournaments under his or her belt to get back into the rhythm of competition, but the relief of not playing the game for a living immediately turned Maude into a dangerous player.
It started at the 2018 U.S. Amateur Four-Ball at Jupiter Hills Country Club, Maude’s first appearance in a USGA championship. He teamed with Sawin, emerging from a field of more than 250 players to reach the round of 16 where the friends ran into the buzzsaw that was eventual champions Cole Hammer and Garrett Barber.
“Cole and Garrett were playing outstanding golf the whole front nine,” Sawin said. “Cole made a 60-footer early in the round. On the sixth hole, a drivable par-4 where you can’t see the green from the tee, all four of us hit the green and then Garrett made about a 50-footer.
“Tug just kept saying to me, ‘You know, I’m not that impressed. We’ve got these guys.’ He was doing it in a really respectful way, but he was trying to pump us up the whole round. That’s just kind of the way he is. I love that about him.”
"He’s playing the best golf of his life. It’s because (Tug) has everything else around him in a great place and he understands his game better.”
In his first individual tournament back, Maude won the Travis Invitational as Sawin had before him. The next event, he reached the semifinals of the Pennsylvania State Match Play Championship. Then Maude led for most of that year’s Stocker Cup before Joseph Deraney overtook him late in the tournament.
“Shoot, this game is almost too easy,” Maude said. “Man, I remember thinking that I should start playing a lot more if this is how it was going to go.”
He is back in competition mode once again, competing last weekend at the Gasparilla Invitational in Florida, one of the premier mid-amateur events on the calendar each year at Palma Ceia Country Club. The short yet diabolical Donald Ross layout shoehorned into a South Tampa residential area was a test for Maude’s more measured approach to his game.
Maude turned 38 years old on Saturday of the final round and nearly celebrated it with a victory, but his 4-under total came up one shot short of Chip Brooke. He had finished in 10th place at the event in 2020.
“If you look at who he is now, he’s playing the best golf of his life,” Sawin said. “It’s because he has everything else around him in a great place and he understands his game better.”
One of the joys of mid-amateur golf is that it is not solely about the competition. It’s the practice rounds with friends, the beers after the round and the banter in between shots. In that regard, Maude has found an ideal fit for his personality.
If you ask around, most every player calls Maude one of the most likable mid-amateurs in the game. He leads the field each week in strokes gained laughs per round.
“I think there are a lot of people rooting for him to play well because they just love being around him,” Nye said. “He gets on the range and he gets the chatter going. He’s just having fun, and that’s what the game is supposed to be about.”