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HARRIS PUTS THE 'AMATOR' BACK IN AMATEUR GOLF

For five hours Saturday, his demeanor rarely wavered. Good shot, bad shot, it didn't matter. John Harris wore the same grim, impassive expression on his face. He looked like a man who had never seen "Caddy-shack." Or an insurance salesman, which is exactly what he is.

Harris hasn't always sold insurance. At one time, he was among the best athletes in the country. In 1974, as a senior at the University of Minnesota, he was All-America in ice hockey and golf. He was captain of the hockey team, which won the NCAA title, and good enough to play one year as a center with the New England Whalers of the old World Hockey Association.

He quit the Whalers after one year, though, to give the PGA Tour a shot. After five disappointing years, in which he pocketed a grand sum of around $3,000, Harris decided to quit golf and sell insurance to support his family.

That doesn't mean he stopped being a fine athlete. Maybe Harris couldn't cut it on the pro tour, but he continued to play golf for the love of the game. That's what "amateur" is a derivative of, after all. From the Latin amator -- "lover." It's a grand notion, that of the sporting amateur. And it's nice that, once a year, the best amateur golfers come to the Niagara Falls Country Club for the Porter Cup, one of the top amateur tournaments in the world. Every now and then, it's a relief to get away from all the talk about holdouts and spousal abuse, and watch top athletes compete for no money, with nothing at stake but pride and a desire to master an unconquerable game. So that's why Harris was so serious Saturday. Just because you love what you're doing doesn't mean it's easy. Especially when you're 45 and struggling to hold off a bunch of 20-year-olds who hit the ball like Earl Woods' son. "I used to be like these kids and hit it a long way," Harris said. "But I don't anymore. It's hard to intimidate them. They're great young players. They aim at every pin. What they lack in experience, they make up in talent." In the end, experience won out. Harris shot a final-round 68 and finally won his first Porter Cup, expunging the memory of late collapses here in 1992 and '93. Straight and unflappable, he held off the big-hitting kids from the ACC schools, Matt Kuchar of Georgia Tech and Lewis Chitengwa of Virginia. When Kuchar and Chitengwa made a run at him early on the back nine, Harris responded with birdies at 11, 12 and 14. From there, it wasn't so much an emotional charge as an assured stroll. "John is all business," said Lonnie Nielsen, who is the head pro at Crag Burn and a good friend of Harris. "He's very organized, very detailed. He's always working to get better." Harris stays at Nielsen's home when he's in town. Neilsen knows what Harris went through during those bitter defeats in '92 and '93. He and his wife cried with Harris' father, Bob, after John 3-putted the 72nd hole in 1993. "Those losses were real tough for him to swallow," Nielsen said. "You never really put it behind you until you get over the hump." It's behind Harris for good now. He won a Porter Cup title to go with U.S. Amateur and Walker Cup championships, affirming his status as one of the best amateurs in the world. You can't help wondering how successful he might have been if he'd stuck around the PGA Tour a little longer. "I wouldn't trade my life for anybody's," Harris said. "You know what? I think everything happens for a reason. I certainly had enough talent to make it on the tour, but I didn't. I don't ever look back. I only look forward." It was nearly 6 p.m., moments after the awards ceremony, and Harris was sipping champagne. The only thing missing was his father, who hadn't been invited to play in the Porter Cup senior division. Harris said his dad stayed home in Minnesota rather than come all the way to watch. Bob Harris was a fine golfer himself, a runner-up in the 1992 U.S. senior amateur. He was the patriarch of one of Minnesota's greatest athletic families. He was captain of the university hockey team, a position two of his sons (John and his brother, Bob) held. He won the state's father-son title with all four of his sons. His daughter, Nancy, was 12-time Minnesota amateur champ. "He put his golf on hold for us kids," Harris said. "He was a national-caliber player, a wonderful player. He brought us to tournaments and sacrificed for us." Like his dad, Harris put his career on hold to raise his family. But you can't help thinking there's some unfinished business. In five more years, he will turn 50 and be eligible for the Seniors tour. "I guess I'd consider it an option," Harris said. "But my health, my family and my business all come first. Five years from now, I'll make that decision." He was smiling, so it looks good from here.

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