Profile of Golfer Sam Urzetta

Sam Urzetta was a golfer who pulled off a major surprise in winning the U.S. Amateur. His attempt at playing the PGA Tour in the 1950s was, alas, surprisingly unsuccessful. But he was a local legend in the city where he was born, raised, lived and died.

Full name: Samuel Urzetta

Date of birth: March 19, 1926

Place of birth: Rochester, New York

Date and place of death: April 8, 2011 in East Rochester, New York

His U.S. Amateur Victory

The headline on Life Magazine's article about the outcome of the 1950 U.S. Amateur tournament was, "Unknown wins amateur golf title." And in the body of the article, the publication referred to Sam Urzetta as "an unknown ex-caddy and janitor's son."

The "janitor's son" part was a key storyline that year, because the overwhelming favorite to win the championship match against Urzetta was Frank Stranahan. Stranahan was born into privilege, making the final vs. Urzetta a rags vs. riches match-up.

"Millionaire's son vs. janitor's son" read some of the pre-finals headlines. No wonder Urzetta was the heavy crowd favorite. There just weren't many in the crowd actually expecting him to win because Stranahan was so accomplished. Stranahan had already won the British Amateur and had multiple wins on the PGA Tour as an amateur.

Urzetta, 24 years old at the time, had only one big victory, the 1948 New York State Amateur Championship. But he was a long driver (Life Magazine said his drives "frequently covered from 275 to 285 yards") and appeared to be playing worry-free, nerve-free golf.

In the 36-hole championship match, Urzetta had a 2-up lead late but Stranahan managed to even it up by the final hole. So they continued into extra holes, matching scores on the 37th and 38th holes. Finally, on the third extra hole and 39th overall, Stranahan sliced a drive out of bounds and Urzetta claimed the trophy.

Urzetta dedicated the victory to his brother, who had been killed in World War II: "I won this tournament for my brother Joe. I really mean it. I won it for him. He was killed fighting in Germany with the 8th Division. He was a greater golfer than I'll ever be."

The 39-hole championship match was the longest-ever to that point, and remains tied for longest today.

More About Sam Urzetta

The New York State Golf Association Hall of Fame entry on Urzetta calls him "a golf legend in Rochester, New York." Urzetta was born in Rochester (on the same street where Walter Hagen had been born), raised there, lived there almost his entire life, worked as a club pro there, and died there.

Urzetta won the Monroe Invitational Championship, a prominent amateur tournament at a club just outside Rochester proper, in 1948, 1949 and 1950. He also won the Country Club of Rochester Invitational three times, and, in 1948, claimed his biggest win prior to the U.S. Amateur, the New York State Amateur. He was 22 years old at the time of that victory.

Urzetta attended St. Bonaventure University in the late 1940s and early 1950s, about two hours from Rochester. There he was better-known as a basketball player, though, than as a golfer: He led the nation in free-throw shooting percentage in 1948 and 1950. During the 1950 U.S. Amateur, there were newspaper reports that Urzetta was looking for tryouts with teams in the NBA. After he won that U.S. Amateur, the owner of the Minneapolis Lakers said he wanted to sign Urzetta. But Urzetta decided at that point to stick with golf.

Urzetta played on Team USA in the Walker Cup twice, playing the maximum four matches and winning all four. In the 1951 Walker Cup, he partnered playing captain Willie Turnesa in a foursomes win, and defeated Max McCready in singles. In the 1953 Walker Cup, Urzetta partnered Ken Venturi in a foursomes win, then beat John Langley in singles.

After Urzetta's 1950 U.S. Amateur win, his vanquished foe, Frank Stranahan, said, "I've played a lot of golf, but I have never seen an iron player to compare with him. That includes the pros."

It was expected that Urzetta would go on to a pro career. But he remained in the amateur ranks for several more years. In his U.S. Amateur championship defense in 1951, Urzetta lost in the fifth round. He lost in the first round in 1952, and lost in the fifth round in 1953.

He finally turned pro in 1954. Urzetta took a job as teaching professional at the Country Club of Rochester, and he also tried the PGA Tour. But he never had much success on tour.

Urzetta did play in 12 major championships from 1951 through 1968 (six of them before turning pro), making the cut in exactly half of them. His best finish was 12th place in the 1956 Masters, and that was also the best finish he posted in any PGA Tour event.

In 1956, Urzetta was promoted to head professional at Country Club of Rochester, a position he held for almost 40 years. He still played tournament golf, but mostly in PGA Sectional and state tournaments. He was a three-time winner of the Western New York PGA Section Championship, and was the WNYPGA Player of the Year in 1971.

Urzetta was named the WNYPGA Professional of the Year (in recognition of his club pro duties) in 1965. And he was given the section's Horton Smith Award (now called the PGA Professional Development Award) in 1977 and 1985.

He retired from his Country Club of Rochester head pro job in 1993. Urzetta was 85 years old when he died in 2011.

Today, Sam Urzetta is a member of the St. Bonaventure Athletics Hall of Fame (elected 1969), the Western New York PGA Hall of Fame (charter member, 1986), and the New York State Golf Association Hall of Fame (2015).

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