BY PATRICK HAND
Jack Nicklaus headlined the marquee pairing on the final day of the 1960 Big Ten championship at Forest Akers Golf Course in East Lansing, Michigan. The blond, burly Ohio State sophomore was the reigning U.S. Amateur champion and was favored to win the Big Ten individual title.
His adversary, John Konsek, was well-known to Nicklaus, as they had been competing against each other since their adolescent years. Konsek was just four months older, but a senior at Purdue University (he started kindergarten when he was not quite 4 years old and throughout his schooling always was the youngest in his class). Both were 5 feet 10 inches and sported the then-fashionable crewcut. However, Nicklaus looked like the football player he had been in high school, whereas Konsek was bespectacled, at least 60 pounds lighter than Nicklaus, and looked like the science major he was at Purdue.
Konsek, too, played in the 1959 U.S. Amateur at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, where he was mentioned along with eventual champion Nicklaus, Deane Beman and Al Geiberger as top contenders. Konsek defeated Dick Chapman, who won the 1940 U.S. Amateur and 1951 British Amateur titles, in the third round before being upset by Gene Andrews, the 1954 U.S. Amateur Public Links champion.
The Big Ten championship was the third time Konsek battled Nicklaus head-to-head in the spring of 1960. In April, Nicklaus eked out a one-stroke win over Konsek in a quadrilateral meet on Nicklaus’ home course in Columbus. A week later, Konsek beat Nicklaus by four shots at Purdue. Lafayette, Indiana’s Journal and Courier called the match a possible “sneak preview” of the U.S. Amateur final at St. Louis Country Club in September.
As their respective teams’ No. 1 players, Nicklaus and Konsek would be paired for 72 holes over two days in East Lansing. On Friday, May 20, 1960, in the first round, Konsek carded a 68 on the 6,823 yard, par-71 Forest Akers course – one better than Nicklaus. In the afternoon, Nicklaus fired another 69, while Konsek shot 74 to fall four shots behind Nicklaus, as the two separated themselves from the rest of the Big Ten field.
Saturday’s weather was awful – cool, blustery, and rainy. Still, a gallery of approximately 1,000 followed the duo. Konsek could not match Nicklaus’ power. “I couldn’t bear to watch Jack hit those big tee shots,” Konsek said at the end of the long day. “He hit past me by 20 to 30 yards every time. I just tried to play par golf.”
“Had John turned professional, he definitely would be in the Hall of Fame by now.”
Jack Nicklaus, in 2004
However, Nicklaus had a hard time keeping his drives in the fairway and was not Konsek’s equal on and around the greens. In the morning, Konsek shot 71 to Nicklaus’ 73 to draw within two strokes. In the final round, Nicklaus could manage only another 73. Konsek shot 69 – remarkable for the conditions – to pull away for a two-shot victory. For the day, Konsek one-putted 17 greens. It was his third consecutive individual Big Ten title, as he led Purdue to its third straight team championship.
Two weeks later, Konsek graduated. He received the Big Ten Award as the senior who accomplished the most in scholastics, athletics, and leadership. Purdue golf coach Sam Voinoff asserted Konsek “would have brought credit to Purdue if he had never won a golfing match.” In June, Konsek and Nicklaus went to Denver for the United States Open. While Nicklaus contended at Cherry Hills – finishing second behind Arnold Palmer – Konsek struggled, shooting 75-81 to miss the cut.
Konsek returned home to Buffalo, New York. In a July 10 exhibition in Jamestown, he shot 70, three strokes better than PGA Tour star Mike Souchak (who won 15 tour events and finished in the top-10 in 10 major championships, including third place behind Palmer and Nicklaus at Cherry Hills).
Next, Konsek entered the Buffalo District Golf Association Championship. After beating Nicklaus and Souchak, and playing in the U.S. Open, Konsek was due for a letdown in a mere local tournament. However, it gave him a chance to renew his rivalry with fellow Buffalonian Ward Wettlaufer, who – unlike Konsek – had been selected to the 1959 U.S. Walker Cup team.
On July 13, 1960, in BDGA qualifying at the 6,524-yard Park Country Club in Williamsville (site of the 1934 PGA Championship, won by Paul Runyan), Konsek had the greatest round of his young life. He eagled the first and second holes (both par-5s) and eagled the par-5 ninth for a 9-under 28 on the front nine. On the back nine, Konsek shot 33 for an 11-under round of 61, bettering the course record by three shots. Sixty-three years later, Konsek’s record still stands. A few days later, he beat Wettlaufer, 3 and 2, in the 36-hole final before a gallery of 3,000.
Later in July, Konsek won an unprecedented third consecutive New York State Amateur Championship. Despite limping noticeably from a pulled leg muscle, he took the last six holes of the 36-hole final to beat Ed Kaczor, 8 and 6. In August, Konsek joined Nicklaus, Beman, Charles Coe, William Hyndman, Don Cherry and Frank Taylor on the United States team in the America’s Cup, a competition with Canada and Mexico. Konsek went 3-2-1 as the U.S. rallied to a 21½-20 win over second-place Canada at the Ottawa Hunt & Golf Club. Right after that, Konsek received a key to the City of Buffalo from Mayor Frank Sedita, with a citation lauding him for the positive attention he brought to the city.
Konsek was poised for stardom, possibly to join Nicklaus in golf’s pantheon. But it would not happen. Konsek did not go to St. Louis for the U.S. Amateur, nor accept an invitation to the 1961 Masters. There would be no Walker Cup in 1961. Nor a lucrative sponsorship contract with Spalding to turn pro. At age 20, Konsek's meteoric rise was over.
“I think John missed the opportunity to be one of the greatest golfers of all time,” Nicklaus said in 2004.
Buffalo has not given birth to any renowned golfers. Winds off of Lake Erie to the west partly are to blame. The first Buffalo frost generally appears in late September or early October. Snow starts falling in mid-November. More often than not, there is a snowpack from before Christmas well into March, sometimes April. The ice on Lake Erie usually does not disappear until the middle of April. As a result, temperatures around Buffalo can be 20 degrees colder than a few miles inland. Hence, most years the Buffalo golf season is even shorter than northern New England or the upper Midwest.
It was in these environs that John Paul Konsek was born in September 1939. He grew up in Cheektowaga, a working-class inner suburb home to a substantial Polish-American community. In his youth, he often erroneously was called John Konsek III because both his father and grandfather were named John (but with different middle names). His grandfather John Barney Konsek was a bootlegger during Prohibition who later lawfully owned a tavern. His father, John Mathew Konsek, was a professional musician.
Konsek’s chance of unlikely stardom was enhanced by his father’s interest in golf. Not only was the father an avid and skilled player, but he also opened two driving ranges around Buffalo, where his son was introduced to the game when he was 7. Young John showed early promise. At age 10, Konsek shot 96 in a local tournament. He quickly established himself as a prodigy and the best junior golfer in Buffalo. In July 1952, at age 12, he shot 82 in local qualifying for the USGA Junior Championship and 77 at the BDGA boys’ tournament.
“He was pushed by his father,” remembers Jim Urbanski, 86, a retired American Airlines pilot living in Maui, who played with and competed against Konsek as a youth. He recalled when he was 15 and Konsek was 13, Konsek’s mother, Florence, gave them rides to Lancaster Country Club. “She said she wanted him to have experience playing with older players,” Urbanski recounted.
Konsek’s father enlisted the aid of Jack Pritchard, a longtime area teaching pro at Park Country Club. “When I became a teenager, around 13 or 14, I started taking lessons from him,” Konsek later recalled. “I was hitting everything right to left. Within six months, he had me hitting it straight, or he had me hitting it with a little fade. That changed my whole game. I was more consistent.”
In 1953, Konsek competed with Nicklaus for the first time at Southern Hills in Oklahoma at the U.S. Junior Amateur. Both were 13 years old and among the youngest in the field. Konsek advanced to the fourth round before losing to 17-year-old future pro Rex Baxter Jr., who would win (Konsek and Nicklaus are two of only a handful of players ever to qualify for the U.S. Junior five years in a row; neither ever came out on top). In September, Konsek won his first notable event outside of New York, taking the 14-and-under division of the Bubby Worsham Memorial Tournament at Bethesda Country Club near Washington, D.C.
“Just watching him hit balls in practice was a pleasure. At 15, he could hit his 2-iron like a laser.”
In August 1954, at age 14, Konsek shot 65 in qualifying for the BDGA junior division (18 and under) at the Grover Cleveland Park course, on the former site of the Country Club of Buffalo, where John McDermott won the 1912 U.S. Open. In 1955, Konsek won the New York State Intersectional High School tournament as well as the BDGA junior title. In 1956, he repeated as high school state champion, before graduating from high school at age 16.
Konsek traveled to Fargo, North Dakota in August 1956 for the International Jaycee Junior Golf Tournament, then a top competition for youngsters. The field included Nicklaus, Canadian Gary Cowan (who would win two U.S. Amateur championships) and Jack Rule Jr. from Iowa (fresh off a runner-up finish at the U.S. Junior Amateur). In a 2015 interview, Rule said neither he nor Nicklaus was considered the tournament favorites in Fargo, but that Konsek “was the player to beat.” Konsek was off his game and finished ninth in the 72-hole medal-play event (Rule beat Nicklaus in a playoff). That summer, Konsek qualified for the first of his four U.S. Amateur championships.
“I recall John as being a very nice young man who was aware of his ability, but never once gloated,” Urbanski said. “He hit lots of balls. Small crowds would form to watch him at his driving range, I among them.” Jim Ely, 88, a retired dentist from Buffalo, was also an admirer. “Just watching him hit balls in practice was a pleasure,” Ely recalled recently. “At 15, he could hit his 2-iron like a laser.”
Konsek planned to attend Canisius College, a Jesuit institution in Buffalo. However, he was offered – and accepted – a full scholarship to play golf at Purdue. As a freshman, he was ineligible to play under the NCAA rules at the time. He chose to major in chemistry and pursued a difficult curriculum.
During the summer of 1957, 17-year-old Konsek upset veteran amateur stalwart Frank Strafaci in the second round of the U.S. Amateur before losing to past and future U.S. Amateur champion Coe on the 18th hole. Konsek won the New York State Junior Amateur championship and then headed to Columbus, Ohio to play in the International Jaycee tournament. There, on Nicklaus’ home turf, Konsek and Nicklaus had an epic battle at Ohio State University’s Scarlet Course, a demanding 6,810-yard layout.
After one round, Nicklaus’ 71 was two better than Konsek. In the second round, Konsek shot 72 to take a two-shot lead over Nicklaus, which Konsek maintained after 54 holes. In the final round, Nicklaus eagled the 14th hole but bogeyed 15, 17 and 18. He finished his round before Konsek, who also struggled but arrived at 18 needing a par to force a playoff. However, he hooked his approach and made double bogey to finish second to Nicklaus.
Konsek returned to Purdue for his sophomore year. He loaded up on labs in the fall semester to give him more time to concentrate on golf in the spring. In 1958, Konsek raised his game to a new level. He won the Big Ten individual title and led Purdue to the team championship. He qualified for his first U.S. Open at Southern Hills, where he missed the cut. At the NCAA championship at the Taconic Golf Club in Williamstown, Massachusetts, Konsek advanced to the final, where he was defeated by future pro star Phil Rodgers of the University of Houston. That summer, Konsek won the New York State Amateur for the first time.
While attending the University of Iowa, Rule competed against Konsek in Big Ten play. “He was a wonderful iron player,” said Rule, who won twice on the PGA Tour in the mid-1960s before retiring at age 28, in a recent interview. “Through the college years, he was a formidable opponent. Certainly, he had a much better college career than I did.”
In 1959, Konsek repeated as Big Ten champion. That summer, he won the inaugural Porter Cup at Niagara Falls Country Club, later won by the likes of future major champions Ben Crenshaw, Phil Mickelson, David Duval and Brian Harman. Also, Konsek was victorious at the Monroe Invitational, a long-running amateur tournament in Rochester won in recent years by future pros Dustin Johnson, Thomas Pieters and Taylor Pendrith.
Konsek finished just about all of his course work in the fall of his senior year, but stuck around for the spring semester because he wanted a crack at Nicklaus. The two did not meet in 1959 – Nicklaus’ first year of college eligibility – because Nicklaus took off from school to prepare for and play in his first Masters (he missed the cut).
“He looks neither way. He talks to no one. He sees no one.”
Toward the end of Konsek’s magical spring and summer in 1960 – the night before he trounced Kaczor to win his third straight New York State Amateur title – he spoke with George Beahon of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. Beahon noted that Konsek was 5 feet 10 inches and weighed 144 pounds, several pounds less than at the beginning of the tournament.
By all accounts, Konsek was polite and personable, but in competition he was intense and of single purpose. “Walking the fairways, John Konsek might be wearing blinkers instead of horned-rimmed glasses,” Beahon wrote. “He looks neither way. He talks to no one. He sees no one. He knows only one thing. The name of the game is pressure and it’s better to put it on the other player.”
The stress of two matches per day over several days and his leg injury may have taken a toll on Konsek, enough for him to let his guard down while talking candidly to reveal the inner workings of his mind. “It’s tough in the favorite’s role. It’s a different type of pressure from going up against the name player,” Konsek told Beahon. “That’s why when I walk off that first tee, no matter who the gallery is for, the other golfer is my enemy. I don’t care if it’s my Dad. I don’t care who they’re for or against. If I start letting up, I let him off the hook. You can’t do this. You can’t give him any breathing room. He closes in too fast. Everybody in the tournament was shooting at me. They got nothing to lose. They’re all free-wheeling. Once they tee off, they shouldn’t be scared. That’s why it’s my job to climb on their backs right away and stay on their backs. I’ve been there two years. That’s why everyone shoots at me.
“I’m glad I’m getting out of this.”
On a beautiful morning this past June, John Konsek, M.D., age 83, was interviewed at the dining room table – his wife of 60 years, Marlene, nearby – of their comfortable but modest house in a Pawleys Island, South Carolina gated community, near the Atlantic Ocean. They are healthy, active octogenarians whose greatest joy is extensive travel to see their three sons and their six grandchildren.
“Over a 30-year period, there was a lot of change in how we managed malignancies,” said Konsek, looking back on his career as an oncologist. “Malignancies that were incurable in the 1970s became curable in the 1980s and 1990s. Testicular cancer, for one, was incurable in the 1970s. By the late 1980s and 1990s, people with metastatic disease from testicular cancer and to the brain were curable because of the advances that were made.”
After the America’s Cup, at the end of August 1960, Konsek nearly overcame a five-shot deficit after 54 holes at the Porter Cup, but missed a 3-foot birdie putt on the final hole to finish second to Wettlaufer. Konsek then put away his clubs to enter the University of Buffalo Medical School, forgoing his best chance to win the U.S. Amateur. Years before, he decided he would rather be a doctor than a golfer. “I started thinking about medical school when I was in high school,” Konsek said. “I wasn't sure whether I was smart enough to do it.”
Even in his youth, Konsek refused to define himself solely by his skills on the golf course. During the winter of 1955-56, as a high school senior, he passed on the opportunity to head south for golf so he could play sixth man on the Cleveland Hill High School basketball team. Konsek also was an accomplished musician, playing saxophone in a band composed of high school students that did dance gigs. “I did not want to play golf year-round,” he said. “When I was growing up and playing tournament amateur golf and the fall of the year came, I was ready to put the clubs away until spring, because I was sick of it.”
“Once I had success in 1960 and I graduated from college, (Spalding) offered to sponsor me. I can’t remember the details of it, but I think it had to be a three-year contract, about $25,000 a year. And they would double my winnings, as I recall.”
His admission to Purdue paved the path for his future. “When I got the scholarship to Purdue, the first thing that came through my mind was that all the money that my parents could save by not having to pay for tuition and books and everything could be put towards medical school,” he said. His stellar college career did not dissuade him from that mission, nor did the promise of riches if he turned pro.
“Spalding was interested in me while I was in college,” Konsek said. “Once I had success in 1960 and I graduated from college, they offered to sponsor me. I can't remember the details of it, but I think it had to be a three-year contract, about $25,000 a year. And they would double my winnings, as I recall.” That was an extravagant sum of money for the time. To illustrate, in 1960, Bob Goalby earned $24,988.71, which was good for 13th place on the PGA money list. Spalding would not have made such an offer if it did not view Konsek as a sure-fire bet for stardom and a beacon for sales of its equipment.
Konsek’s father urged him to turn pro, but he was unmoved. “Do I want to do this all year round, and make a career out of playing all the time?” he remembers asking himself. “Do I want to play professional golf all year round, with the traveling and everything? That didn't appeal to me that much.” Nor did the other option if the PGA Tour didn’t work out. “I certainly did not want to be a club pro because I knew what that life was like. That was not easy at that time. They weren't making a lot of money. They weren’t even respected like they are now.”
Konsek did not completely quit golf, at least not immediately after embarking on his medical career. In July 1961 – between his first and second years of medical school – he ventured to the Onondaga Country Club in Syracuse in an attempt to win his fourth consecutive New York State Amateur Championship. He had not played while attending to his medical studies, but still advanced to the final, where he was beaten by Don Allen, 5 and 4. However, three weeks later, Konsek rebounded to win his second Porter Cup, by five strokes. He played the Porter Cup again in 1962 and 1963.
In 1964, Konsek graduated from medical school and was preparing to move with Marlene to Chicago to start his residency and fellowship. “A guy called me and says, well, why don't you stop in Rochester and play the Monroe Invitational on your way out of town?” Konsek recalled. “And I did, and I won. That was surprising because I hadn't played hardly at all in the previous two years.”
After completing his residency at the University of Chicago, Konsek was drafted and assigned to the Hahn Air Base in Germany. In 1967, he offered one last glimpse at what might have been, demonstrating an innate greatness he seemingly could summon on command after a long layoff.
“I hadn't played any golf, but the Air Force found out that I could play,” Konsek said. “The military, if they find out that you're pretty good in sports activity, they will promote it. Since I was in Europe, the British Amateur came up. You didn't have to qualify for it. You could just send in an application and play.”
The Air Force sent Konsek to the British Isles in a jet trainer. He went to St. Andrews for three days to get his game in shape, and then to Formby, near Liverpool. No longer a high-ranking amateur, he drew a formidable first-round opponent in Rodney Foster, a 25-year-old Englishman who was on the 1965 Britain and Ireland Walker Cup team and played in the 1966 Masters. Foster would go on to play in four more Walker Cups. Konsek won the match, 2 and 1. The next day, he beat David Black of Scotland, 2 and 1. In the afternoon, Konsek overwhelmed England’s Peter Snodgrass, 7 and 6.
In the fourth round, Konsek faced Scotsman Bill Murray. They were all square after 17 holes. On 18, Murray sank an 18-foot putt to win the match (Murray would defeat 1965 U.S. Amateur champion and future PGA Tour star Bob Murphy in the fifth round before losing to Marty Fleckman in the quarterfinals). It was Konsek’s last foray into world-class golf.
After completing his military service and residency, Konsek and his family settled in Neenah, Wisconsin, near Appleton. “I did not want to stay in academic medicine,” he said (in medical school, he co-authored an article for a journal with the dense title “Relationship Between Adenosine Triphosphate and Cation Transport in the Human Red Cell”). He wanted to treat patients, and he joined a practice. He would stay in Neenah until retiring in 2000.
Oncology was not even a specialty when he started, Konsek said. His medical career coincided with remarkable innovations in the treatment of cancer. “Over that 30-year period, there was a lot of change in how we managed malignancies,” he said. “The ability to treat patients and prolong life because of new medications just blossomed over the years. My practice just grew and grew and grew because of the early treatments that were available that were not available in the 1960s and in the 1950s. Breast cancer got a lot of publicity during the 1970s because of the advances that were made in the treatment and potential cure of people who had early breast cancer. Lung cancer was a bugaboo until well into the 1990s, when a lot of the biologics came out.”
“My [handicap] index right now is about 2.0. The lowest index that I’ve had is 0.2, and that was a year ago, just before I had another hip replacement.”
John Konsek, 83
After moving to Wisconsin, Konsek joined a club, but he played infrequently. “By that time, three kids came along, and their interests were other [than golf]. I gave up my membership in 1979 and I didn't play at all until I retired. I quit for 20 years.”
In retirement, John and Marlene Konsek moved to Pawleys Island, and John resumed playing golf. Once again, he regained his touch. Konsek plays at the True Blue Golf Club and the Caledonia Golf & Fish Club near his home, often enough to know he has shot his age more than 800 times. “Of course, as you get older, it’s easier to do,” he said. “My [handicap] index right now is about 2.0. The lowest index that I’ve had is 0.2, and that was a year ago, just before I had another hip replacement.”
Konsek shies away from most competition, but reported that the previous weekend he had played with his eldest son (also named John, and also a physician) in the member-guest at his son’s club in upstate South Carolina. “But I don't like to do those because I end up giving shots to 25-year-olds that are outdriving me by 80 yards,” he said with a laugh.
“Had John turned professional, he definitely would be in the Hall of Fame by now,” Nicklaus said in 2004. Nicklaus also is reported to have said the best thing that ever happened to him is that Konsek went to medical school. Konsek had to settle for induction into the Purdue Intercollegiate Sports Hall of Fame in 2003, and the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame in 2005. For the latter, he received a plaque and a photo of the 18th green at Park Country Club commemorating the 61 that he shot in 1960. “From the time that I had played it in 1960 until the time when I was inducted, they had two revisions of that golf course,” Konsek modestly noted. “And that golf course is almost 800 or 900 yards longer than it was when I played it. But it was a tough golf course at that time.”
After 1960, Konsek did not reconnect with Nicklaus until the 2001 U.S. Open. “My eldest son, knowing that I had played in the Open at Southern Hills in 1958, surprised me with tickets for the U.S. Open at Southern Hills,” Konsek said. Jack and Barbara Nicklaus also were spectators at Southern Hills, following their son Gary, who was in the field. “I saw him in the gallery, and I went over and said hello to him,” Konsek said. “We talked for five minutes,” mostly about their hip replacements. “So that was the last time that I’ve seen him.” Konsek and his future wife Marlene had spent time with Jack and Barbara Nicklaus at the 1960 America’s Cup matches in Ottawa. He was impressed, and touched, that Barbara, unprompted, asked about Marlene by name, remembering her from their only meeting more than four decades earlier.
Konsek has no regrets about choosing medicine over professional golf. “The highs and lows of golf are very fleeting, very acute,” he said, lapsing into medical jargon. “The highs and lows of treatment strategies, and successes or failures, are not that acute. They’re more chronic. The things that you could do, the things that you could see over the long term that were having an effect, those were probably more satisfying than golf. At least for me.”
Elite golfers’ contributions to humanity are limited. They provide entertainment to people who follow their sport. The sportsmanship most show to each other, seen and unseen acts of kindness to fans, and participation in and donations to charities are qualities to be emulated. However, as an oncologist, Konsek made more valuable contributions to mankind than he ever could have made on the golf course. He extended and saved lives.
“That he gave up a probable Hall of Fame career to serve others, I think speaks volumes of his character,” said his old friend Urbanski.
Patrick Hand is the author of “The Age of Palmer: Pro Golf in the 1960s, its Greatest Era” (Canoe Tree Press 2023)
Top: The bespectacled John Konsek is the center of attention following his triumph in the 1961 Porter Cup.
Courtesy NIAGARA FALLS GAZETTE