VILLAGE OF PINEHURST, N.C. – Rick Cloninger hasn’t forgotten Payne Stewart’s memorable putt to win the 1999 U.S. Open on Pinehurst No. 2’s 18th green.
In town this week to compete in the 61st Senior North and South Amateur, Cloninger walked those hallowed grounds, taking time to soak in the statue of Stewart’s “Moment in Time” behind the famed green. Cloninger roamed the halls of the Pinehurst Resort Club, marveling at the images on the walls and the memorabilia from Stewart’s triumphant week.
And now Cloninger’s name will adorn the same walls of the historic Resort Club.
Cloninger, a decorated golfer from Fort Mill, S.C., who has won mid-amateur titles in three different states and made the cut in his first U.S. Senior Open appearance in 2008, fired a 4-under 68 on the tournament’s first day and never looked back, carding an even-par 72 in Wednesday’s second round before a 1-over 73 on Pinehurst No. 4 on Thursday sealed his victory at the 61st Senior North and South Amateur.
“I’m 55, and everyone who’s 55 followed Payne,” Cloninger said moments after putting the finishing touches on his wire-to-wire win. “He was our age, and to be put on the wall of champions in this clubhouse is something that is truly special. This is a dream come true.”
Cloninger, who won by two strokes over John Sajevic, was incredibly consistent over the course of the Amateur, missing just seven greens in regulation. He opened with 26 straight holes without a bogey.
“I really hit the ball solid,” he said. “I knew I had to hit the greens because when it’s soft out there like this, it’s difficult to judge where to hit the ball.”
Defending champion Paul Simson, who has won four of the last five North and South Senior Amateurs, was tied for third with three others after an even-par 72 left him four shots back of Cloninger. Simson is considered one of the best amateur golfers in history with more than 200 wins to his credit.
“I knew I had to go through Paul to win here,” Cloninger said. “His record is one of the best in the history of amateur golf, and especially now at the senior level. He doesn’t age.”
Noreen Mohler, of Bethlehem, Pa., held off Kim Eaton and Mina Hardin to capture the 55th Senior Women’s North and South Championship. Mohler shot 75 at Pinehurst No. 5 for a three-day total of 221, making birdie on 17 and a 5-foot par putt on 18 to clip Eaton by a stroke. Hardin, who finished third after a 76, triple-bogeyed the 16th hole, hitting her tee shot out of bounds.
“The first day, I shot 71 and everything felt easy,” Mohler said. “Stuff just happened for me. The last couple of days I kind of struggled, and I thought I was out of it after 12 today. But Mina made triple on 16 and that kind of let me back in.”
Frank Costanzo was another wire-to-wire winner in the Men’s Super Seniors Division, shooting 73 on Pinehurst No. 8 to clip Southern Pines’ Gary Strickfaden by a single stroke. At 70 years old, Costanzo, of Savannah, Ga., finished with a three-day total of 1-under 215, nearly shooting his age in the first two rounds.
“I tried to shoot my age, and I almost got it a few times,” he quipped. “Gary birdied the first two holes and made it very dicey. We just had a great match. It was nip and tuck the whole way.”
Pinehurst member and highly regarded amateur Patty Moore won the Women’s Super Senior’s Division, adding another Putter Boy trophy to the two she won as champion of the women’s open division in 2000 and 2007. Moore finished with a total of 224 to beat Taffy Brower by two shots.
“To win here is always a highlight to your year,” Moore said. “When I look back at everything that happened this year, I’ll look fondly at that beautiful trophy.”
Defending super seniors champion and five-time Senior Women’s North and South Champion Nancy Smith was third.