“I am afraid the mid-amateur game is dying.”
So said one of the nation’s most talented mid-amateurs this winter, a guy who still regularly tees it up across the country in elite amateur events. And it dawned on me along the trail of the recently concluded winter/spring amateur circuit that he has a point, that the golden age of the mid-amateur golf is likely over. But it also seems to me that a new era has begun.
Quietly over the past several years, the mid-ams have retreated from competing at the highest levels of the amateur game. Not all of them, to be sure. Nathan Smith still burns hot, and he won at Sunnehanna last summer. Mike McCoy chased the Walker Cup hard in 2011, mixing with the schoolboys and more than holding his own. But, for the most part, the elite mids are playing elsewhere. You won’t find many at the Jones Cup, the Northeast Amateur, the Southern Amateur or the Western Amateur.
That golden age began in 1981 when the USGA created the mid-amateur championship, won for the first time by Jim Holtgrieve. It continued for about 25 years, and what an era it was. Jay Sigel would win back-to-back U.S. Amateurs and play on nine Walker Cup teams, totaling 33 matches. Buddy Marucci went to the final of the U.S. Amateur, where he fell to a kid named Tiger Woods. Guys like Danny Green, George Zahringer, Spider Miller, Bob Lewis, Tim Jackson and John Harris could compete with any amateur of any age. As Smith remarked to me, just by showing up at an elite amateur event like the Northeast or the Southern, they could record a top-five finish. Age and guile beat youth and beauty every more often than not.
Many point to the Walker Cup as the root of the problem. From 1993 to 2003, a span that included six Walker Cup competitions, there were always at least four mid-ams on the team, and sometimes five. Then suddenly in 2005, there were none. The last three American Walker Cup teams have had one mid-am each. Somewhere along the way, winning trumped all other Walker Cup values, so the reasoning goes. The USGA decided to select our best amateurs; never mind that they have never heard of Just For Men hair color and aren’t legally old enough to drink the winning champagne. The result was a lost incentive for mids to train hard and play at the elite level.
Others believe the issue is bigger than just the Walker Cup. This school holds that the real issue is that the game has changed. Today’s youngsters – college kids and the top-of-the-rung juniors – are simply more talented than ever before. And they certainly are more talented than today’s 30- or 40-something mid-am. They may not be as smart or savvy, but they have an awe inspiring skill set. They are fit, and they have optimized their equipment. They bring the power game to the course every day, and as befits youth, they are bullet proof.
There is no par 5 they can’t hit, no flag they cannot find. As one mid-am competitor said, sometimes you just have to ask, “Why bother?” Why take on schoolboys on a difficult 7,200-plus yard track with pins tucked? Why enter when your very best, which would have contended five or more years ago, is good enough only for the middle of the pack?
But all is not lost. I think a new paradigm is emerging, one that has mid-ams facing off mostly against each other. And the debut of two new events this year gives credence to this point of view.
The Coleman Invitational and Crump Cup remain our nation’s premiere, can’t miss mid and senior amateur tournaments. The Stocker Cup, a relatively new addition to the calendar, has quickly risen to the top of the next tier of individual mid-am tournaments, as has the Carlton Woods Invitational. But it is the addition of the Crane Cup, launched this year at the Floridian, and the George Thomas Invitational at Los Angeles Country Club’s famed North Course this summer that have added heft to the schedule, as well as some badly needed geographic balance. Couple these events with the U.S. Mid-Amateur and great four-ball tournaments like the Charlie Coe Invitational, the Champions Cup, the Anderson Memorial and International Four Ball and you have a year-long, healthy mid-amateur circuit … no flatbellies welcome.
In the best of all worlds there would be a Walker Cup-style competition between our best mids, and perhaps our best seniors, against those from Great Britain and Ireland. Without evidence, I suspect that the USGA and R&A may even have discussed this once or twice, perhaps over a pint. But one clear problem is the mid-am game is weak, very weak, in the UK. So, too, is the senior amateur game; there is just no depth. While there is the occasional good player, all young amateurs turn professional, and they don’t seem to pursue reinstatement like American players when they realize that’s not their calling.
No, the mid-amateur game in America isn’t dying. It’s changing. And isn’t that part of the essence of the game of golf?