Amateur Season Opens At Ocean Forest
The Jones Cup Invitational, the first major amateur tournament of the new year, began Friday at Ocean Forest Golf Club in Sea Island, Ga.
It has drawn its usual outstanding field, full of top collegiate players and precocious junior up-and-comers. But the 2019 field had a new twist: it included nine mid-amateurs, the most in several years.
The Jones Cup was created in 2001 as a one-off tournament, intended to test the fledgling Rees Jones-designed Ocean Forest course ahead of the Walker Cup that would be staged there later that year. So successful was the maiden voyage that Sea Island owner Bill Jones and tournament chairman Jim Stahl worked to make it a biennial international event. In 2009, it became an annual tournament, the de facto season opener for the amateur game in America.
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“I thought it would be a great way for the Walker Cup teams to get to know each other,” recalled Stahl of the inaugural tournament. “We invited the practice teams for the U.S. and (Great Britain and Ireland) squads as well as some very good juniors and mid-amateurs.”
Roughly a third of those competing in 2001 were mid-amateurs from both sides of the Atlantic. Future Walker Cup captain Buddy Marucci led the American mid-amateur contingent, which included Danny Green, John “Spider” Miller, Duke Delcher, Jerry Courville, and Tim Jackson, among others. Marucci posted a T3 finish, six shots off the pace set by champion D.J. Trahan.
Over time, mid-amateur participation dwindled. The primary reason for this is the calendar. The older guys are not exactly in mid-season form in January, while many of the schoolboys are at or near the top of their games. Ocean Forest asks a lot from competitors, and the mid-amateurs don’t have all the answers in winter. So gradually, fewer mid-amateurs entered the tournament.
Stahl watched this trend, and it disturbed him. A skilled player who won the 1995 U.S. Senior Amateur, he had served on the USGA Mid-Amateur Championship committee for a quarter century. He wanted mid-amateurs to continue to be a part of the tournament, just as they were at the beginning.
And so Stahl and the golf shop staff at Ocean Forest re-engaged with the mid-amateur community. And the effort paid immediate dividends.
In Stahl’s mind, the equation is simple: elite players want to play against a competitive field on a great golf course. “It’s not any deeper than that,” he said. “For this caliber of player, this is the fun part of the game. And quite frankly, there is a bit of ego involved. These guys want to show that they can still play at this level.”
“Just getting an invite as a mid-am to such a prestigious tournament is an honor and one which I could not pass up.” – Joe Deraney on the Jones Cup
There is no mid-amateur division at the Jones Cup; the nine mid-amateurs are playing from the same tees (7,321 yards) as the younger competitors and competing for the same trophy. Stahl may yet consider a low mid-amateur award of some kind.
Veteran Louisiana mid-amateur Patrick Christovich channeled his inner Stahl when I asked him what the lure was this year for him to play. “I hadn’t been invited the past few years and definitely missed the challenge,” he said. “I only get a few chances a year to play against the top college players and it’s difficult to turn down the opportunity. They always treat us so well here and the course is by far the toughest challenge of the season. Most of all, it’s a great way to start the year and see what I need to work on before entering the mid-am schedule.”
Skip Berkmeyer was a bit more succinct when I posed the same question. “The lure is that it is a great event,” the St. Louis standout said.
And Joe Deraney echoed Berkmeyer. “Just getting an invite as a mid-am to such a prestigious tournament is an honor and one which I could not pass up,” the Kentuckian said.
It has to be gratifying to Stahl and his team that the two finalists in the 2018 U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship – the champion, Kevin O’Connell and runner-up, Brett Boner – chose to play this year.
Mid-amateur participation in tournaments like the Jones Cup serves one higher purpose. It informs the schoolboys in the field that, yes, there is life after professional golf. Most of the youngsters in the field hope to play professionally one day. Few will actually make a living doing so. When their dreams meet reality, many will return to the amateur ranks. Fortunately, there will be tournaments like the Jones Cup that will welcome them with open arms and enable them to compete at a very high level.
Jim Stahl will be there to shake their hand and point them to the first tee.
U.S. Mid-Amateur champion Kevin O’Connell during the 2018 U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach. Photo: Chris Keane, Copyright USGA
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