Jerry Gunthorpe, who grabbed the attention of the golf audience in Michigan and across the country with a runner-up finish in the recent U.S. Senior Amateur Championship at Country Club of Detroit, describes himself as very competitive.
“I’ve always been that way,” he said.
It was seeking an outlet for his competitiveness that first brought him to golf. When he started the 10th grade at Lansing Everett High School he stood just 5-foot 2-inches tall and was declared anemic by the doctor in his annual physical.
“I could shoot and handle the ball, and I could run, but I wasn’t going to play football or basketball at the Class A high school level at 5-2,” he said. “I had to find something else as a competitive outlet, and golf was that outlet. I wasn’t driven to play golf really. I was driven to be competitive, and golf fit that competitive aspect for a guy who was 5-2 at the time.”
A growth spurt, ironically, happened in the very next year with iron pills prescribed by the doctor.
“I went from 5-2 and 98 pounds at the start of my sophomore year to 6-foot and 98 pounds at the start of my junior year,” he said.
He added some weight and filled out over time, and today Gunthorpe, 58, fit and standing strong at 6-foot, still finds his competitive outlet in golf.
His recent run to the finals in the U.S. Senior Amateur might have been as surprising as a 10-inch growth spurt on the national level, but in Ovid, where he lives, at Owosso Country Club where he plays, in the Lansing area and in Golf Association of Michigan tournaments where he normally competes, it wasn’t as much surprise as it was verification.
“Jerry has a lot of game, and it’s just great he’s making a run,” said Bill Zylstra of Dearborn, who on the day Gunthorpe was competing in the finals at CC of Detroit was at Boyne Highlands Resort in Harbor Springs competing in the GAM Mid-Amateur Championship.
Zylstra, who is a former top-ranked national senior player, wasn’t surprised.
“It’s great they are playing it in Detroit,” he said. “It gives more Michigan guys a chance to see what they can do.”
Five Michigan players were in the starting field and three – Gunthorpe, Tom Gieselman and Rick Herpich, making it through stroke play to match play. Gieselman, in fact, reached the quarterfinals along with Gunthorpe.
Gunthorpe didn’t surprise himself reaching the finals. In a move to take his game national he had played in a trio of senior Golfweek tournaments in Florida last winter, had a top-five finish in the very first, and built enough ranking points to be in the top 30 at one point.
He had already met and competed against Gene Elliott of Iowa, who beat him 1-up in the title match of the U.S. Senior Amateur as a lead he held most of the match slipped away with bogeys on the final two holes.
“I don’t want this to come off as arrogance or anything like that because that’s not what this is,” he said, “but I believed I could play with and beat anybody my age. I still have the distance, I have longevity in the game, I’m in good shape at this age and I wouldn’t say I felt like I belonged there. It was more I never felt like I didn’t belong. It wasn’t a Genie in a bottle, a lucky swipe. You have to have a certain amount of luck to get that far in any tournament. That’s a function of the game, especially in match play, but as we went through the week I was trying to win it and thought I could.”
He almost did win it, and he said the most remarkable thing he will remember is the reaction of others to his accomplishment.
“The amount of congratulations has been amazing and humbling, and the amount that came from people I never even thought paid attention to me or golf was amazing,” he said. “So many people have told me they were riveted to the on-line scoring from the middle of the week to the end, and that others were, too. All over the country somebody that knew somebody who knew me, was pulling for me. I was so much in my own thing, competing, and to find out so many people cared about it, that is almost overwhelming. I never knew I could be the focus like that for so many people.”
Gunthorpe’s biggest takeaway from the experience, the thing he thinks he will remember most is having his son Nate caddie for him.
“He worked so hard and made it easy for me to play consistently well and not get caught up in whatever outside influences were going on. His demeanor, the interaction we had and my ability to hit quality golf shots came together. He was such a positive influence, helping me through warm-ups, being prepared to play and he was there to navigate whatever outside influences that were going on. I don’t think I will ever forget that experience.”
Golf is the competitive outlet for much of the family, and it is very competitive. Nate played collegiate golf at Michigan State University, and his son Nick played at Grand Valley State University and both are competitive amateur players at the state and national level. Gunthorpe figures the family battles with his boys and other top players at Owosso Country Club prepared him well for the championship run.
“Having your kids play golf has been a huge benefit,” he said. “They kept me in the game, kept me on the competitive side. I coached them in high school for seven years when they didn’t have a coach for the program. It was really about 15 years there where I was with them and golf was part of it.”
Gunthorpe and his wife Joani also have a daughter, Casey, who was a standout in competitive cheer in high school and also a cheerleader at Michigan State. He referred to her as the best athlete in the family.
“I met Joani back when I was in my second year of college (Lansing Community College) and I knew I wanted to get married and have her be a part of my life,” he said. “We had kids young because we wanted to have kids and saw no reason not to have them while we were young. The family was my focus. Yes, I still played golf, but the family and work were priorities for us.”
Gunthorpe is the president and owner of Gunthorpe Plumbing & Heating Inc., which is headquartered in Bath near East Lansing. His grandfather was a mechanical contractor. His father chose that path, too, and started Gunthorpe Plumbing & Heating in 1980. Gunthorpe and his late brother took it over. Nick and Nate now work in the business, too.
“Like with any family business you work 24 hours a day at it,” he said. “It’s doing really well, and I enjoy what I’m doing. It’s competitive in the business world like anything else, and that fits me and the family.”
Gunthorpe, who also likes to bow hunt and fish when he can find the time, said only so much time was carved out for golf over the years. He is going to take advantage of the exemption perks in the U.S. Mid-Amateur this fall and the U.S. Amateur and U.S. Senior Amateur next summer, but he isn’t planning dramatic changes in his life because of his run at CC of Detroit.
“I’m looking forward to the competition, that’s really it,” he said.