Double Vision At Bel-Air

Immediately following his one-stroke victory over Bob Clark for the 92nd Southern California Amateur Championship, a smiling Craig Steinberg was philosophical about the sites of his two victories in the Southland's most prestigious amateur golf event.

In 1988, the year after the former USC All-American finished fourth in the big one at his home club, Braemar, Steinberg won at Annandale GC. Annandale clings to the San Gabriel Mountain foothills, almost in the shadow of the Rose Bowl.

Bel-Air CC, host course for the 92nd renewal of the nation's oldest continuously conducted amateur championship, is in a similar venue, weaving its way to a par 70 through the canyons of the Santa Monica Mountains on the opposite side of the L.A. basin. Here, Steinberg fashioned a three-over par 283 that included two of the tournament's nine sub-par rounds.

I know," he said, chuckling lightly, "It would seem that these hillside courses fit my style of play or something, but I really can't explain (the two wins) in that way. I've never thought one type of course was really better for me than another."

Topographical considerations did come into play, however, in Steinberg's performance.

The slightly-built, 33-year-old has always been a steady player, and when in a position to jump onto a lead at the end of a competition, often does. When he's playing well, that is.

This summer, Steinberg, by his own admission, wasn't playing well. Certainly not like in '88 when he won the Southern California Public Links title, made the quarterfinals of the California Amateur and moved all the way into the semifinals of the U.S. Mid-Amateur before losing.

This year, he couldn't make it past the first round of match play in the CGA or the Trans-Mississippi, and failed to gain the U.S. Open sectional after six previous successes. He hadn't, he felt, played will in six month.

As Steinberg related to Los Angeles Times' Rich Tosches, "I went to the range (at Woodley Lake GC near his home) to hit some balls after work, but it was closed. So, I just took a sand wedge and parked my car on the dirt and started hitting stray balls back over the fence into the range. Because I was hitting off dirt, I had to use a punch shot, with a short backswing.

"All of a sudden all of the feeling came back. I started hitting more solidly than I had in a year, by taking that shorter backswing, making my swing more compact."

His "recovery" continued at a Bel-Air practice round (Steinberg was exempt from qualifying by virtue of his 1988 victory), and by the time that championship rolled around the father of two and attorney-to-be was ready.

Nobody was ready, however, for Clark's opening salvo during the tournament's grueling 36-hole first day.

Steinberg played well, all right, with rounds of 69 and 71 for even par and a tie with defending champion Pat Duncan (72-68) of Rancho Santa Fe GC. But they were a stunning five shots behind Clark, the 1969 NCAA champion who is a member at Bear Creek CC.

Clark, 44, won his collegiate title as a junior at Cal State L.A. He turned pro a year later, but stayed tour-active for only a couple years. He tried again in the late 70s, then all but gave up the game for a decade.

His return seemingly has yet to peak. Enjoying, as most player did, the unseasonably cool weather during the finals, he roared to a 68-67 — 135 that first day. That marked the lowest 36-hole total in more than 15 years.

But on Saturday, Steinberg's second 69, combined with a 74 from Clark set up the head-to-head battle on Sunday.

Only a double bogey at No. 15 and Clark's corresponding birdie three to erase Steinberg's two-shot advantage prevented the eventual winner from taking the lead into the final round. Clark bogeyed the 18th by hitting the yawning bunker fronting the green at No. 18, slipping back into a tie.

Meanwhile, Tim Todd of Yorba Linda and San Diego State, matched the tournament's best round of 67 (it was Saturday's lowest score). He moved into contention ahead of Duncan, who had a 73 to fall four strokes back, tied with 1989 SCGA Mid-Amateur champion Mark Johnson of Sun Valley. The list of contenders essentially ended there as it was another five strokes back to eventual fifth-place finisher Chris Tidland of Alta Vista (who would become the only non-Mid-Am-aged plate winner) and Steve Navarro of PGA West.

With Sunday's final round came more dramatics at the 15th hole. Bel-Air's back nine is universally regarded as the tougher side and the 448-yard par four is the No. 1 handicap hole. Where it had crippled Steinberg Saturday, it all but leveled Clark this time.

Clark, who said he'd been hitting the ball well all season despite playing in just two tournaments, had a three-stroke lead by the time the final group had reached the 11th tee. Steinberg and Clark were still three apart four holes later.

Clark sailed his second shot at No. 15 far left and past the green. It stopped in the rough behind a tree directly in line with the pin. He had to punch out and wound up with a triple bogey seven. Despite a bogey of his own there, Steinberg had regained his tie. He grabbed the lead for keeps at the 17th when Clark bogeyed again.

A 10-foot putt for par at the final hole could have forced a playoff, but Clark sent it just past the hole.

Asked if he had tired toward the end of the tournament, Clark said it wasn't a factor. "I feel I'm in the best shape of my life," he said, "but I did feel the pressure. The ball started flying high on me, into the wind."

Actually, no one among the 54-hole leaders had a memorable round. The best score of the day was 72 by Tidland, who slipped past his fellow collegian, Todd, by a stroke when Todd skied to 80.

Among the most notable nonqualifiers were 1990 California Amateur champion Charlie Wi of Wood Ranch (who missed by a stroke), Jim Camaione of Crystalaire (who missed the title by a stroke at Annandale three years ago), and reigning Mid-Amateur champion Mitch Voges of Spanish Hills (who was forced to withdraw by illness after only nine holes).

None of the regional qualifying winners were really a factor, though all six made the cut — Randy Cross of Glendora, Bruce Campbell of Red Hill, Kemp Richardson of El Niguel, Dan Gimbel of Bakersfield, Mark Kearns of Lawrence Welk, and Chris Zambri of Sunset Hills.

The cut, made at an even 32 players, was 153, four stokes higher than last year at Wilshire CC (Duncan's winning total then was also four strokes lower than Steinberg's; Steinberg's Annandale total, incidentally, was 286, with his only subpar round coming on the final day).

Steinberg's strong play this year continued with respectable finishes in the Pacific Coast Amateur (eighth) and the U.S. Amateur qualifying (second). He has other SCGA events ahead, but for the second year, his law studies will preclude playing in the U.S. Mid-Amateur. "I'm in law school just for general interest," Steinberg explaned, adding that he would decide whether to practice law after his studies are complete, sometime in 1994.

"In the first part of the summer, I'd shoot a 72 and know that was the best I could have shot that day," he analyzed. "I'm shooting 72s now and knowing I could have made a better score — just like Saturday's (third round) 69. It could have been a 65." That round contained two three-putt greens and a double bogey.

Comparisons and retrospection aside, once again at Bel-Air, Steinberg was prepared to tackle the terrain and the field when he was in the hunt. He has his name on the SCGA's venerable "Big Bertha" trophy twice to attest to that.

In the President's Flight Ted Bohler of Balboa Park, a seven handicapper, and Brookside's George Matakovich, who played to a five, tied at 140, then Bohler won on the second playoff hole. Bohler was a member of Balboa Park's runner-up finishers in Thursday Team match play.

Eleven-handicapper Leo Charron of Pala Mesa made up a three stroke first round deficit to beat Len Shonka Jr. of Chevy Chase by two strokes with a 140 in the Vice President's flight. Charron had led the qualifying at Chula Vista, too.

Maurice Norrington's battle with John Macis, both of San Dimas Canyon, continued. The two shared medalist honors in qualifying at their home course. Macis, a 14-handicapper had a two-stroke lead after the first day of the finals, but Norrington used all of his 18 strokes the second day for a four stroke victory in the Secretary's flight.

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