Perspective requires time and distance, and so writing this column just weeks after the end of the 2011 American amateur season may seem like a rush to judgment. But my impulse is to say that this has been one of the most remarkable amateur years in golf in a very long time. What we witnessed this summer will, I am confident, stand up to the test of time as a truly great amateur summer. What’s unique about this season is that much of the accomplishments took place in professional events.
Any discussion of 2011 begins and ends with the breathtaking performance turned in by 19-year-old Patrick Cantlay. The kid is a stud. All he did was go out and make the cut at four professional golf tournaments and leave more than 300 thousand dollars behind to remain an amateur. He was on the leaderboard of the U.S. Open going into the final round, playing to win, not to capture low amateur honors. He shot 60 the next week at a PGA Tour event in Hartford. He challenged at the Tour event in Philadelphia the week after that. And then he went to the Canadian Open and made the top 10, again capturing low amateur honors in a national championship for the second time this summer.
Cantlay also managed to squeeze in a little golf on the amateur circuit as well, winning the Southern California Amateur and finishing runner-up at the U.S. Amateur and the Western Amateur.
In baseball terms, Cantlay is the classic, but rare, five-tool athlete. He is long, accurate, owner of a wicked short game, and excellent on the greens. The fifth tool? A quiet self-confidence that borders on cockiness, something all the great ones have.
Scott Verplank had a great year in 1985 when he won the PGA Tour’s Western Open, as well as the Western Amateur, Sunnehanna and the Porter Cup. Ryan Moore had an unforgettable year in 2004 when he won the U.S. Amateur, U.S. Public Links, Western Amateur and NCAA Championship (back when that still meant something). Cantlay’s summer has few wins, but it belongs in the same conversation.
He wasn’t alone in turning in impressive performances. Peter Uihlein made the cut at the Open Championship, proving that not all American kids are clueless when it comes to golf in the British Isles. He went the distance by flighting his ball and hitting the appropriate shots on a windblown links golf course.
Russell Henley won a Nationwide Tour event on his University of Georgia golf course. Weeks later, Harris English did the same, on another college campus – the Scarlet Course at Ohio State. It used to be that college kids showed up at these events and went home happy after 36 holes. No more.
As a group, they may be the most talented to come along in a very long time. They are fearless, and increasingly, they are athletes. They aren’t afraid to win, and they expect to win. Call this the first real Tiger Generation.
Think about it. These kids were 6 or 7 years old when Tiger lapped the field for his first Masters green jacket, in 1997. This generation grew up watching all that he subsequently accomplished in the next decade … the incredible performances at St. Andrews, Pebble Beach, Medinah, Bethpage, Vahalla, Torrey Pines … and on and on. They imitated his swing (Uihlein has just about perfected Tiger’s stinger shot. In fact, he is probably hitting it better right now than Woods is.), and they studied his fitness regimen. Hopefully, they avoided some of the less admirable traits. But make no mistake about it – this group was inspired by Tiger. When they play, they expect to win.
They also are not afraid to talk some trash.
“The top guys in college, the top 20 or 30 guys, can beat the top 20, 30 guys on the PGA Tour,” said John Peterson after finishing second to English at Ohio State. “Maybe with the exception of two or three guys, those top-20 college guys will beat those top-20 or 30 PGA Tour guys, if given the opportunity.”
Peterson’s comments didn’t sit well everywhere, but he wasn’t alone in his thinking.
“I definitely agree with that,” English said at the time. “You look at what happened here, you look at what guys are doing this week in Canada, at the U.S. Open, there are always a couple of amateurs playing well. On any given week when you give amateurs a shot, they’re going to do it because we’re ruthless. All college events are very competitive, and you learn how to go out there and win. The college golf system is awesome. You see guys coming out every year ready to compete.”
When you look at the overall performance of today’s 20-somethings on the PGA Tour, you wonder if this ruthlessness isn’t welcome. They are cashing checks, but not racking up W’s. Time will tell, but I expect Cantlay, Uihlein, English and Henley to win out there, early and perhaps often.