Pro Golf: What’s the Hurry?

I recall vividly standing behind the first tee of the final round of the 1992 Solheim Cup, played at Dalmahoy Hotel & CC in Scotland. Next to me was the father of one of the players, a guy I had gotten to know a little bit during the week. I found him to be a jovial partner at the 19th hole, and surprisingly relaxed despite the pressure associated with international golf competition.

But at that moment, as his daughter teed off amid typical final round fanfare, he looked at me with tears streaming down his face. “You cannot imagine what it is like to watch your child play for the American flag,” he whispered.


It looks like Russell Henley’s father, Chapin, might have the same privilege.

Five days before he was scheduled to graduate from the University of Georgia, the 22-year-old Henley became the second amateur to win a Nationwide Tour event. Playing on his school’s home course, Henley shot 12-under 272 to win by two shots.

This performance, although surprising, was not a fluke. Henley is ranked No. 12 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking, and he was low amateur in the 2010 U.S. Open, finishing T16. He was a first team All American after his junior season, and he was named the Fred Haskins Award winner in 2010, given annually to the nation’s most outstanding college golfer.

To the victor, it is said, go the spoils. But in this case, the spoils will wait.

Henley, playing in the tournament on a sponsor exemption, passed on the $99,000 first place check. And he passed on the opportunity to immediately turn pro, to take an exemption through 2012 on the Nationwide Tour. Instead, he is going to remain an amateur this summer, with the expressed goal of making the Walker Cup team.

“They talk about how much money you can make playing pro golf but I have never played golf to win money,” he said after the tournament. “I love to play golf and I love to compete and there are a lot of tournaments I want to play in. I am going to remain amateur for sure.”

How refreshing.

Playing in the Walker Cup is the ultimate honor in the amateur game. It can be a life changing event. Why some kids would turn pro and not even compete to represent the American flag befuddles me. Sure, it’s the dollar that causes the decision; I get that.

But think about it: Turning pro in June of any year with no status and nowhere to play makes no sense. The best you can hope for is the occasional sponsor’s exemption. Otherwise, you are left to play wherever you can on the minor league circuit. What you are really doing is preparing for the fall qualifying school process, and nothing is going to happen professionally between June and September to change that fact. So why not enjoy a victory lap around the amateur golf circuit and play for your country?

Consider the recent case of Rickie Fowler. Fowler was the complete package as he finished his junior year at Oklahoma State, as good a pro prospect as has come along in recent years. A member of the 2007 Walker Cup team at Ireland’s famed Royal County Down, Fowler delayed his pro debut so that he could play again in 2009, becoming a member of the victorious squad at Merion. After the conclusion of that match, Fowler said, “This is the whole reason I stuck around. This is the most fun I ever had in golf.”

Then he turned pro, signed the same deals that would have been there in June after the NCAA Championship, and it seems to have worked out pretty well for him. In fact, his Walker Cup experience and performance record (Fowler was 7-1 overall) may have been one of the reasons Corey Pavin selected him to play on the 2010 Ryder Cup team.

Morgan Hoffman and Bud Cauley were members of that 2009 team, but they have elected to pass on 2011 and will turn pro after the NCAA Tournament. At least they had one Walker Cup experience. Oklahoma State’s Kevin Tway, ranked No. 4 in the WAGR, will head to the pay-for-play ranks without ever having played for his country in the historic event.

So, kudos to Henley. He can start packing for Royal Aberdeen.

Speaking of Royal Aberdeen, members of the Great Britain and Ireland Walker Cup Squad played a practice match last week at the site of September’s Walker Cup. The squad was divided into two teams of eight players, and they played four foursomes matches on Wednesday, four foursomes and eight singles on Thursday, and eight singles on Friday.

“It was the first time we’ve played a training match in advance of the Walker Cup, and it proved to be a very valuable exercise,” said GB&I Captain Nigel Edwards. “The players all benefited from the chance to play competitively, and I was pleased that it was contested in a friendly but hard-fought manner. “It was a very productive couple of days. We achieved what we set out to do, and everyone is looking forward to the match in September.”

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