Lee Wielansky had an especially good vantage point to watch the American Express Tournament in La Quinta, Calif., on Jan. 21. He competed in the PGA Tour event. Wielansky is a Jewish recreational golfer who at 72 was the oldest amateur golfer in the 156-man field. He was also the winner of the pro-am portion of the tournament with a score of 34 under par.
Wielansky is a member of both the United Hebrew Congregation and Temple Emmanuel in St. Louis. He has played golf since he was 8 years old and carries a golf handicap index of 13. (The handicap is a number that represents a golfer’s ability on an average golf course.) The PGA West Stadium Course, host of the American Express Tournament, is not for the faint of heart. It has large, fast-undulating greens and a water-lined fairway on the 18th hole.
At his home courses in Missouri (Westwood Country Club and Boone Valley Country Club), Wielansky plays with friends. Last weekend, his playing partners were PGA pros, and he teed off being watched by huge crowds. The setting and TV cameras recording every shot and loud applause (or groans) from the gallery are enough to unsettle a player who’s not used to performing in front of thousands of onlookers. Wielansky said he just tried to focus and played his regular game.
“I just more focused on just taking my regular swing, my regular routine, just playing my game,” he said. “I was trying to stay relaxed. I was trying not to get out of my normal rhythm or what I normally do because I hit it shorter than everybody else in my group. I got hot for nine holes, which made a big difference.”
He continued, saying “my pro partner, Kevin Yu, was a terrific guy, a terrific player. He shot six under that day. He was two under on the front, four under on the back. One of the holes that I birdied, that I got a stroke on for eagle, he eagled. We really worked well together and had a really good day.”
The surreal experience of winning the pro-am was capped off when Wielansky accepted the 30-lb. crystal trophy and stood next to Nick Dunlap, the pro winner. In a bizarre twist, Dunlap is also an amateur player. At 20 years old, he is the first amateur to win a PGA tournament in 33 years. Phil Mickelson was the last amateur to pull off that feat in 1991 before he turned pro.
It was a feat almost as rare as two Jewish PGA Tour players winning tournaments on back-to-back weeks, which actually occurred in 2021 when Daniel Berger won the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, followed by Max Homa winning the Genesis Invitational.
Wielansky may not have had any butterflies while playing, but his wife, Laurie Katzman Wielansky, said she was so nervous that she almost avoided watching the final round: “I was hesitant the last day to even go out there.”
“Part of me said, ‘I don’t want to make him any more nervous.’ But I knew I had to get out there. If he wins, I’ll never forgive myself if I wasn’t there,” acknowledged Katzman Wielansky. “I just was so proud. It was an experience like no other.”
This story was originally published in the St. Louis Jewish Light.