Photo: Mike Cestone (right) and NJSGA Hall of Famer Charles Whitehead (l)
The one constant in the countless newspaper clippings regarding the successful golf career of Mike Cestone -- one of the finest and most accomplished amateur golfers in New Jersey during the mid-20th century - is the reference to his job.
Included in those articles, usually within the first or second paragraph, were phrases such as “Montclair mailman,” “letter-carrier,” and “post office employee.” In response, Cestone, a long-time U.S. Postal Service employee, delivered with numerous triumphs in a career that spanned five decades.
Beginning with the NJSGA Caddie Championship in 1922 at age 17, and highlighted by the U.S. Senior Amateur Championship in 1960 at age 55, Cestone was a golf “ironman” who strived to compete at the highest level but also loved the game to such great extent that he spent the better part of his adult life playing 10 rounds per week, despite working a full-time job and raising a family.
As a young public links golfer, he played out of the Branch Brook Golf Course (now Hendricks Field in Belleville) where, during the golf season, he could be found each afternoon walking 18 holes following his mail route, also on foot. It was normal for him to play 54 holes on Saturdays and, as a concession to family, only 36 holes on Sundays.
When all was said and done, the prolific Cestone claimed victories in the NJSGA Caddie (1922 and ‘23), New Jersey Public Links (1935), and NJSGA Senior Amateur (1960 and ’63) Championships. Other titles included the Met Amateur (1941), the Met Public Links (1937), the Met Senior Amateur (1960), four NJSGA Four-Ball triumphs with four different partners (1935, ’37, ’38 and ’47), six NJSGA Father and Son titles, four runner-up finishes in the NJSGA Amateur, and one runner-up in the NJSGA Open. He also was a member of six winning NJSGA Stoddard Trophy teams.
Cestone’s dedication to the game earned him the New Jersey Public Links Championship in 1935 and the Metropolitan Public Links Championship in 1937. In his state Public Links victory, he was the co-medalist at Forest Hill Field Club with Eric Lenaeus, both shooting 134 in qualifying.
In his semifinal match against Pat Mucci, Cestone trailed early, going two down after just three holes, but then proceeded to birdie four of the next six holes in charging to a 3-and-2 victory. In the final against Lenaeus, Cestone was in control from the start, going two up through nine and never relinquishing his lead.
He played so well that year, he defeated defending champion Charles Whitehead of Plainfield in the second round of the NJSGA Amateur, but Whitehead gained his revenge a year later.
On June 5, 1938, Cestone found himself playing in the final match of the NJSGA Amateur Championship against Whitehead, the 1936 champion. Cestone never led in the 36-hole match, trailing by as many as five holes in the afternoon. But he battled back before losing, 3 and 2. Whitehead, an NJSGA Hall of Famer, would go on to win the next four State Amateur titles as well.
Beginning in 1943, Cestone would reach the final match of the Amateur three more times in succession, but each time met with disappointing losses; two of them in extra holes.
In the 1943 Amateur final match vs. 19-year-old Frank Bedford of Green Brook, Cestone rallied from four down with five holes to play to force extra holes. On the first extra hole, Cestone failed to get up and down from 20 feet and lost to Bedford’s par.
A year later, in 1944, the New York Times article called it “one of the most startling upsets ever registered in Garden State golf history,” when Cestone was defeated by 29-year-old Myron Friedman, 6 and 5.
His loss on the 20th hole in the 1945 Amateur final to recent West Point graduate Lt. Stanley Calder of Montclair was particularly disappointing. Cestone hooked his approach shot on the par-4 hole into a greenside bunker. As he approached it, he noticed the ball sitting on a rock inside a heel print. As the New York Times described: “His explosion was over the green between two saplings and he was unable to pitch near enough to match Calder’s (bogey) five.”
Equally disappointing was Cestone’s loss by two strokes in the 1944 NJSGA Open Championship to NJSGA Hall of Famer Sgt. Vic Ghezzi, a professional from Deal. Cestone had finished before Ghezzi with a 145 total over the then-36-hole tournament and Ghezzi needed to play the last three holes in even par or better to win. Ghezzi birdied the 35th hole from 12 feet to erase all doubt.
Although he did experience much disappointment by finishing second in four NJSGA Amateur Championships, Cestone did secure an amateur championship win on home soil when the Metropolitan Amateur was contested at the Montclair Golf Club in 1941. His 9-and-8 victory over Martin Issler of Rock Spring in the 36-hole final match was the largest margin of victory since 1903.
Cestone, 37 at the time, played in even par for the 28 holes contested. He was five up after the first 18 holes, then won the first three holes of the afternoon session. It was Cestone’s first appearance in the Met Amateur. According to the New York Times, up to that point, Cestone “has won the Garden State pro-amateur and amateur-amateur titles three times” (presumably referring to his earlier NJ and Met Public Links titles, as well as the Met Amateur title secured at Montclair).
Cestone certainly had no trouble earning victories in the NJSGA Father and Son Championship. After winning in 1949 and 1950 with son Michael, he won the 1953 event with son Alan, won again in 1956 and ’59 with Michael, and won his sixth and final Father and Son title in 1960 with Alan.
1960 turned out to be Cestone’s greatest golfing year, for significantly bigger reasons than the victory in the Father and Son. In his first year of eligibility to play senior amateur events, the 55-year-old won the NJSGA Senior Amateur, the Metropolitan Senior Amateur, and the U.S. Senior Amateur Championship for an unprecedented triple.
Tied after the regulation 18 holes of the final, Cestone captured the U.S. Senior Amateur title 1-up over Cleveland’s David Rose, 56, when he birdied the 20th hole of the match. The championship was contested during a week of difficult weather on the Donald Ross-designed Oyster Harbors Club on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. The club is located minutes from the Kennedy compound in Hyannis, which would celebrate John Kennedy’s election as President just weeks later.
Severe rain which followed Hurricane Donna had forced the cancellation of qualifying for two days. The USGA then extended the event by one day, to Sunday, and was forced to schedule both the quarterfinal and semifinal matches for Saturday.
Senior golfers had never before been asked to play two rounds in one day, and in those days, many wouldn’t even attempt it due to health concerns. As a concession, the USGA decided to permit carts for Saturday, the first time carts were ever allowed in a USGA Championship.
That decision did not come without repercussions. Defending champion J. Clark Espie, Jr., of Indianapolis withdrew, believing that carts were improper for competitive golf. Espie’s departure may have opened the door for someone like Cestone to win the championship: Over the five previous U.S. Senior Amateurs, Espie had won twice and been runner-up once.
But Cestone was there to win and proved himself early. On the original qualifying day, Cestone was four under par for 15 holes before the deluge forced cancellation of the round. In his first two matches, he played the front nine of par 36 in 33 and 34 strokes, respectively, displaying a solid long game as well as very adept chipping and putting skills.
Those attributes came to the fore in the closing stages of his final match against Rose. On the 173-yard, par-3 17th hole, Cestone pulled his tee shot wide of the left bunker. From a sandy lie, he played a shot over the bunker and near the hole, which was located just 20 feet from the bunker. Cestone promptly drained a 15-foot putt for the par which kept him even with Rose.
Three holes later, on the second extra hole, a 509-yard par 5, both players were off the green by about 50 feet following their second shots. Cestone nearly holed his eagle chip, the ball stopping an inch from the cup for a kick-in birdie. Rose chipped to five feet but missed his birdie attempt and Cestone was able to celebrate his national championship.
In 1963, Cestone would cap his state golf career by winning the NJSGA Senior Amateur for a second time, at age 58.
Simply put, there were only a few players who could match or exceed what Cestone accomplished between 1935 and 1963, and they are already in the NJSGA Hall-of-Fame, great amateurs such as Whitehead, Chet Sanok, Jerry Travers, Joe McBride, Jeff Thomas and Bob Housen.
Now, Mike Cestone has taken his rightful place among them, as an NJSGA Hall of Famer.