I went to see BYU, but unknown Utah State golfer stole the show at memorable 1980 NCAA Golf Championship
Jay Don Blake shocked the golf world with his unlikely victory at Ohio State
SALT LAKE CITY — Over the last 40 years, I’ve covered thousands of sporting events, many in far-flung places from Scotland to Puerto Rico to Hawaii. Nowhere more than Las Vegas, where I’ve covered more than 50 basketball, football and golf events.
But as memorable as any was my very first out-of-state sporting event, 40 years ago this week.
I was just past my first full year at the Deseret News when I was sent to Columbus, Ohio, for the NCAA Golf Championships at Ohio State University.
The main reason was to cover the BYU golf team, which had been one of the top college golf programs in the country for several years under legendary coach Karl Tucker. That year the Cougars were one of the top teams in the country with future PGA Tour players Keith Clearwater, Dick Zokol and Bobby Clampett, who was the No. 1 player in the country.
There was also a young golfer from Utah State named Jay Don Blake, competing as an individual, who I had to keep an eye on. I knew he had made it to the finals of the Utah Men’s Amateur a couple of years earlier and had won some college events, but didn’t know much else about him.
As expected, BYU competed for the national championship all week, eventually finishing second to Oklahoma State, four strokes back. However, the big story turned out to be how this unheralded golfer from St. George, Utah, ended up winning the NCAA individual title over several more prominent golfers, many of whom went on to become stars on the PGA Tour.
Back then I didn’t even know anything about renting cars or maybe I was just trying to save the company a few bucks, but I had to bum rides up to the course with whomever I saw in the hotel parking lot headed that way. For sending my stories back to Utah, I had something called a telecopier, a bulky machine that was a precursor to a fax machine, except that it would take six minutes to send one page of your typed story as it spun around. However, I made a rookie mistake and checked it as luggage rather than carry it on and the machine broke, forcing me to dictate all my stories over the phone for the whole week.
Before the tournament, I remember talking to Utah State coach Dan Roskelley at the Columbus airport, or perhaps it was at an airport connection along the way there — hey, it’s been a long time — and having him tell me that Blake was going to contend that week.
I didn’t really believe him — coaches say things like that all the time, but the following day, who should be atop the leaderboard, but the 21-year-old from Utah, whose 3-under-par 69 put him in a tie with Oklahoma State’s Bob Tway.
“I wasn’t a big-known player or thought of as a player to be a contender. All the articles were about a bunch of other players, but slowly as the week went along my name kept hanging around. But I didn’t mind that, they could think what they thought. I had a reason to prove a point.” — Jay Don Blake
When Blake followed that with a 71 and took a two-stroke lead over the field, people began to take notice, even if they couldn’t get his name right. The scoreboard had him listed as Jay “Donblake.” On the local sports news he was referred to as Joe Don Baker, who was actually a second-rate movie actor of the era.
“I wasn’t a big-known player or thought of as a player to be a contender,” Blake said recently from his home in St. George. “All the articles were about a bunch of other players, but slowly as the week went along my name kept hanging around. But I didn’t mind that, they could think what they thought. I had a reason to prove a point.”
Years later, Roskelley, who himself was referred to in a news article as “Dan Ross Kelley,” laughed about how he and Blake were disrespected that week.
“They thought we were a couple of hicks from Utah,” he said. “The media back there didn’t know (Blake) from a load of coal.”
The lack of respect didn’t faze the unassuming Blake, who just kept making birdies and staying ahead of the supposed superior competition.
Besides Clampett, the NCAA field was full of big-name amateurs, many of whom went on to become successful professionals. There were a half-dozen players who went on to win major championships, including Tway (eight PGA Tour wins, 1986 PGA), UCLA’s Corey Pavin (15 PGA Tour wins, 1995 U.S. Open) Florida’s Mark Calcavecchia (13 PGA Tour wins, 1989 British Open), Centenary’s Hal Sutton (14 PGA Tour wins, 1983 PGA) Minnesota’s Tom Lehman (five PGA Tour wins, 1996 British Open) and Colorado’s Steve Jones (eight PGA Tour wins, 1996 U.S. Open). Other top players included Ohio State’s Joey Sindelar (seven PGA Tour wins), Tennessee’s Jim Gallagher (five PGA Tour wins) and defending NCAA champion Gary Hallberg of Wake Forest (three PGA Tour wins).
But the best of the bunch that week turned out to be Blake, who never showed any signs of the pressure getting to him. In fact during a rain delay in the third round, after a TV reporter requested an interview, Roskelley searched for Blake and finally found him on the floor of the golf shop — sound asleep.
There were two weather delays that Friday (I remember getting soaked to the bone running in from the seventh hole trying to beat one of the thunderstorms) and that pushed the end of the third round into Saturday when the final round was scheduled. Blake played six holes in the morning and finished with another 71 and went into the final round two shots ahead of Sutton.
But Blake struggled early in his final round and finally looked like the pressure of being an unknown atop the leaderboard all week was getting to him.
He was 2 over par on the day through 13 holes and Sutton, one of the country’s premier amateurs at the time, was in the clubhouse with a 70 and a 5-under-par total, two shots ahead of Blake.
Reporters were interviewing Sutton and one eastern writer, already forgetting about Jay whats-his-name, had the audacity to ask Sutton if it was his “biggest victory ever.”
A befuddled Sutton answered in the affirmative, assuming he must have won the tournament.
However, Blake wasn’t done. He was informed of Sutton’s standing at the 14th tee and he promptly made a birdie to cut the lead to one. When he missed the green at the par-3 17th hole and then faced a tricky 25-foot par putt, things were looking bleak for Blake.
But he calmly sank a putt that had about 4 feet of break to it and went into No. 18, needing a birdie to tie Sutton. His 300-yard drive left him with a wedge to the 412-yard par-4 and he knocked it within 12 feet. With Sutton looking on from a distance, Blake confidently rolled the putt, forcing a playoff.
“I remember seeing him on the back of the green,” Blake said of Sutton. “He watched me putt it and as soon as it went in he just turned around and walked toward the clubhouse.”
I was already shaking my head at Blake’s two clutch putts, but there was more to come.
The playoff was to start on 17, where this brand-new, all-sports network called ESPN was taping it. If needed, the playoff would continue on 18 and then go back to the same two holes.
Sutton appeared to be on the verge of winning on the first playoff hole by hitting the green, while Blake landed in a greenside bunker. After Sutton assured himself of a par, Blake had to make a 10-foot par putt to stay alive, which he did. At 18, Blake’s 25-foot putt for birdie rimmed the cup, while Sutton’s 12-footer never came close.
As I wrote back then, Blake appeared to be going for the victory, while Sutton was waiting for Blake to fold.
The two went back to 17 and both made pars and again to 18. Sutton missed his long birdie try, leaving Blake with a 10-footer for the win, “almost the identical same putt I’d made at the end of regulation,” he said. Blake stroked it firmly and it hit the center of the cup.
The kid from St. George was the NCAA champion.
“It was one of the neatest things I’ve ever been through,” Roskelley said. “It’s a great memory.”
I have to agree. Of the many sporting events I’ve covered in my long career, Jay Don Blake’s victory at the 1980 NCAA Golf Championship is still right there at the top of the list.