The modern era of the golf professional – in which the professional started spending much more time on the games of members than on his own – ushered in completely during the third 25-year segment of the Michigan Open Championship.
Many still managed to play especially well in competition though, and Randy Erskine, Lynn Janson, Buddy Whitten and Jack Seltzer were the names seemingly always at the top of the leaderboard in the Michigan Open.
Erskine led the way, winning five times (1976, ’78, ’79, ’84 and ’85). Janson won twice (1974 and ’80). Whitten won back-to-back in 1982 and ’83. Seltzer won once in 1987 after losing on the final hole in ’86 to a dramatic Tim Matthews birdie.
Erskine and Seltzer, in fact, are playing in the 100th Michigan Open in large part because it is the centennial celebration of a championship that means a lot to them.
“Last year I said this is my last year, but I didn’t realize this year was 100 years,” Erskine said. “I have to play in that. The golf courses are just so long for me now. If I make the cut it will be amazing.”
Seltzer said his wife Pam had to talk him into it.
“I haven’t played the last two years, but it is the 100th, and it is the Open, and that tournament has always meant a lot to me,” he said. “Pam was right. I don’t want to miss this one. I think I got one more in me, even at (age) 66.”
Janson, who has vision issues and hasn’t played in the Open since 2008, said he entertained the thought of playing in the 100th, but it was fleeting. Whitten has lived in Pensacola, Fla., in recent years, and saves his trips to Michigan for visiting grandchildren, the children of his son Chris, the head men’s golf coach at the University of Michigan.
Erskine, by the numbers the most dominant player in the Michigan Open during that era, first made a splash on the state seen as a Wolverine. The Ohio native raised in Battle Creek is currently a Lake Orion resident, but he played collegiate golf at Michigan where he was part of a Big Ten championship team.
He followed that with a five-year off-and-on run on the PGA Tour from 1974-79, and his best finish was a tie for fifth when he came home because the tour stopped in Grand Blanc for the 1977 Buick Open.
In the 1980s he settled into the club professional life working 10 years at Washtenaw Country Club in Ypsilanti and 25 years at Great Oaks Country Club in Rochester. He won his first two Michigan Opens on the familiar grounds of the University of Michigan Golf Course while still a tour player, but he said the one Michigan Open win that stands out in his memory was in 1984.
“It was the first year that The Bear (at Grand Traverse Resort) was open and I played two practice rounds, never broke 80 and won money in the group,” he said. “I thought I had lost my game and that I would miss the cut.”
Things improved. He shot 75 in a pro-am and went on to win the championship on a course that the original developer had asked Jack Nicklaus to make as tough as possible.
“If you missed the fairway back then the long grasses were over a foot tall and you lost your ball,” Erskine said. “You had no options. It was so hard that you survived your rounds there.”
The five wins in the Michigan Open are the highlights of his career, Erskine said.
“I think they show I was a good player for a long stretch of time, and that probably means more to me than anything,” he said. “The competition was so strong, too. Lynn, Buddy, and the great young kids kept coming. I played pretty consistently for a long time. I’m pretty proud of that.”
Erskine, who will be 69 on July 8, is still very competitive in the senior set. He won the PGA Senior Stroke Play Championship last year by shooting rounds of 64-66-64 for a record 22-under par total at PGA Golf Club in Port St. Lucie, Fla.
“I can still play with the guys my age,” said the member of the Michigan PGA Hall of Game and the Michigan Golf Hall of Fame. “The kids bomb it past me 100 yards, but with the guys my age I can relive the feel of competing and competing well.”
Janson’s lasting Michigan Open competition memory is winning his first Open in 1974 at Bedford Valley in a loaded five-golfer playoff.
“It was me, Thom Rosely (1964 Open champion), Gene Bone (1965 and ’66 Open champion), Al Mengert and Bob Ackerman (1975 and 2003 Open winner), who was an amateur then and came back and won it the next year,” Janson said. “It went three holes before I made a 25-footer for birdie to win it.”
He said winning the Open was a goal he set when he first started in competitive golf.
“It is rewarding that winning the Michigan Open is a part of golf history now,” he said. “There have been some really renowned players that played in Michigan and in the Michigan Open. It is fun to think about it for my family, and talk about it with golfers and to look at that trophy once in a while.”
Janson, a member of the Michigan PGA Hall of Fame and the Michigan Golf Hall of Fame, had a memorable playing career. He was an All-American at Michigan State, won the Michigan Amateur in 1968, won the Michigan PGA Championship four times and qualified for and played with the world’s top players in seven U.S. Opens and seven PGA Championships.
A native of East Lansing, he will be 70 in December and is still working in golf and teaching the game as the PGA professional and owner of Hastings Country Club.
Whitten worked at Blythefield Country Club near Grand Rapids 28 years before moving to his hometown of Pensacola, Fla., where he worked with Champions Tour player Jerry Pate, PGA Tour player Joe Durant and LPGA player Allison Fouch among other students. He is retired from teaching, but still finds time to volunteer with the local First Tee Program.
He said he remembers few details about his back-to-back Michigan Opens beyond the weather that welcomed the golfers to the original resort course at Grand Traverse Resort, which is now called Spruce Run.
“It never got above 50 degrees that first year, the wind was blowing 40 miles per hour and it was raining sideways,” he said. “I know the last round I went through two rain suits. I had to buy a new one at the turn in the golf shop. Mine had stopped working. Water was coming right through it.”
Whitten, who served in Vietnam as a medic and played college golf at Southern Mississippi, became a club pro after just missing PGA Tour Qualifying three consecutive times. He won the 1979 PGA Professional Championship then known as the National Club Pro Championship, and in 1983 made big news while playing as a club pro qualifier in the 65th PGA Championship at Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles. He shot a 66 to take the early first-round lead and shared his story before the nation’s media. Hal Sutton shot 65 later and was a wire-to-wire champion.
It wasn’t Whitten’s last elbow rub with the best golfers in the world. At age 50, 20 years ago, he qualified for the Champions Tour, which was then called the Senior PGA Tour, played a full season and finished 54th on the money list, just short of keeping full playing status.
As for the Michigan Open, the five-time Michigan PGA Player of the Year threatened many more times after his back-to-back wins, and has great respect for the history of the championship.
“Michigan has a great golf history and the Michigan Open is a big part of that,” said the Michigan PGA Hall of Fame and Michigan Golf Hall of Fame member. “It didn’t take me long to learn about it when I first started playing there, and now with Chris coaching at Michigan I’ve learned more about the history and golfers like Chuck Kocsis (three-time Open champion). It’s a big deal.”
Seltzer was part of one of the most dramatic moments in Michigan Open history in his 1987 win. He stepped up to the No. 9 hole, a treacherous par 3 over water at The Bear and made a hole-in-one and his favorite Michigan Open memory.
“I just had bogeyed 8 to fall into a tie for the lead, and I was hitting last. I made the ace and shot 32 on the back nine and won. I finished 6-under for the tournament, and I remember it was the first time at The Bear that the winner had finished under par.
“It was the year after I led or was tied for the lead all the way until the last hole and finished second. I was in the last group with Lynn Janson and Tim Matthews, and I remember on 18 Tim hit it in there to like six inches and made birdie. It was the only time I didn’t lead. So coming back the next year, making the hole-in-one and winning was gratifying, really gratifying.”
Seltzer, who continues to teach the game with his Jack Seltzer Academy at The Jewel of Grand Blanc, said the Michigan Open has always been the high-water mark for him.
“It always was,” said the Michigan PGA Hall of Fame and Michigan Golf Hall of Fame member. “I’ve won the three majors for the Michigan PGA, but to me the really big deal was the Open. You think about the history when you look at the (James Standish Trophy) – that beautiful tray with all the names on it – Walter Hagen, Al Watrous, Horton Smith. I have my name on it. You have got to be kidding me. It is a big deal.”
While Erskine, Janson, Whitten and Seltzer stood out in the third 25-year span of the Michigan Open, several other notables were champions along the way.
Mike Souchak, a 15-time PGA Tour winner who worked as the golf professional at Oakland Hills Country Club for six years after his tour days, won the 1967 Michigan Open. The former Duke University football player held the PGA Tour tournament scoring record for 46 years (257 in the 1955 Texas Open) until Mark Calcavecchia beat it by one shot in the 2001 Phoenix Open.
George Bayer, one of golf’s famous long-ball hitters and a longtime PGA Tour player, worked at Detroit Golf Club in the 1970s before become a Champions Tour player. He won the 1973 Michigan Open.
Ed Humenik, Detroit native and University of Michigan golfer with a long ball reputation, parlayed a Michigan Open win in 1988 to a short career on the PGA Tour and two wins on the Nationwide Tour.
Bob Ackerman, who is being inducted into the Michigan Golf Hall of Fame this year, won the 1975 Michigan Open as an amateur and the 2003 Michigan Open as a veteran pro. He was the first amateur to win it in 29 years (Chuck Kocsis, 1946), just the fourth all-time, and it was 38 more years before another amateur won (Tom Werkmeister, 2013).
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