The United States Golf Association threw amateur golf a curve ball or two when it named four players to the 2011 Walker Cup squad before the first shot in the Western Amateur had been fired. In past years, the USGA named a first wave of seven or eight players immediately after the Western, and the remaining few after the end of the U.S. Amateur. The early announcement gave the Walker Cup a nice minute of exposure on NBC during the telecast of the Senior Open, and it also served to stoke some conversation among team candidates at the Western Amateur. This change in protocol also came about due to the fact that the first four had clearly separated themselves from the rest of the pack.
A shrewd move by the USGA. And then they surprised again by naming three more team members Sunday, rather than four, after the Western. That announcement raised a few eyebrows as well.
Patrick Cantlay, Peter Uihlein, Harris English, and Russell Henley were the first four chosen, and all were easy and obvious choices. Each of them have had outstanding years, albeit on different stages. Cantlay had a remarkable college campaign and then made the cut in four professional events, taking low amateur honors in two national championships. Uihlein is the reigning U.S. Amateur champion who had a great college season, won the Northeast Amateur this summer, and made the cut at the Open Championship. English won the Southern Amateur and a Nationwide Tour event, while Henley made the cut at the U.S. Open and also won a Nationwide Tour title.
The next wave includes three-time U.S. Mid-Am champion Nathan Smith, Patrick Rodgers, and Chris Williams. These seven will assemble this week at Milwaukee CC for another practice session.
Williams clearly used the Western Amateur to close the deal. He qualified for the U.S. Open at Congressional, and he won the Sahalee Players Championship earlier this summer. His win at the Pacific Coast Amateur was discounted a bit, coming as it did against a relatively weak field. However, his impressive performance at the Western, where he broke the stroke play qualifying record, removed any doubt as to whether he belonged on the team.
As the summer circuit began, most observers felt that if a “youngster” would be selected, it would be University of Texas-bound Jordan Spieth, who was invited to the practice session in January at Old Memorial. Although Spieth won his second U.S. Junior last month, Stanford-bound Patrick Rodgers outplayed him on the amateur circuit. Rodgers won the Porter Cup and had top five finishes at four other key tournaments. His third-place finish in the stroke-play portion of the Western clinched his spot on the team. Spieth also played well at the Western, and he remains a viable candidate.
Smith seemed to have sewn up a spot earlier this summer after his win at the Sunnehanna Amateur, but his spotty play and the performances of several others made this feel less certain recently than it was in June. He rallied at the Western, and his Merion Walker Cup experience and the extensive time he has spent playing with Uihlein likely weighed heavily in the final selection process.
So where do things stand for the rest of the team? There appear to be three leading candidates (Spieth, John Peterson, and Corbin Mills) but there may well only be two spots available. That’s because the U.S. Amateur champion will get one of the remaining seats on the flight to Scotland. The remaining hopefuls, along with Captain Jim Holtgrieve, are probably hoping that they, or one of the seven chosen so far, win the Amateur title later this month at Erin Hills.
Peterson may rue the decision not to compete at the Western. Uninvited to the practice session, the fiery LSU golfer sent a message to the selectors when he won the Jones Cup to start the year. He also won the NCAA Championship, and finished second to English in the Nationwide Children’s Hospital event after leading for most of the tournament. However, Williams and Rodgers had great weeks at the Western with Holtgrieve and the USGA’s Steve Smyers in attendance. Peterson will need a solid U.S. Amateur performance to close the deal, if he doesn’t turn pro.
Corbin Mills is probably wondering what is left to prove. He won the medal at the U.S. Public Links, and then took the title outright. He won the Players Amateur the very next week, and came close at the Palmetto Amateur. Only a poorly timed bogey on the final hole of stroke-play qualifying kept him out of the Sweet Sixteen at the Western.
Sadly, the Western probably marked the end of the line for David Chung, Scott Langley, Blayne Barber, and Bank Vongvanij. The latter three didn’t survive the first cut at the Western, and not one of them has a win this summer. Something special will have to take place at the Amateur for any of these four to earn a trip to Aberdeen.