PARAMUS, NEW JERSEY | Each year when the U.S. Amateur champion is crowned, there’s a moment of reflection to assess everything that transpired throughout the season. It’s a time to look back on the top performances, growing trends and indelible memories of the year.
Walking out of Ridgewood Sunday night after a dramatic 36-hole championship match between winner Sam Bennett and runner-up Ben Carr, here are a few thoughts on the amateur season that was:
The days of top-ranked amateurs playing a full summer schedule of individual amateur tournaments are endangered.
Of the top 20 players in the world – 10 on the men’s side and 10 on the women’s side – 16 of them played two or fewer individual amateur events all summer. Tournaments like the U.S. Women’s Amateur are struggling to pull in the best players because there just isn’t enough room in a schedule full of international travel.
There have even been, on rare occasions, agents telling tournament directors “no’ on their player’s behalf. To a lesser extreme, a lot of top players just aren’t as interested in using competition against good-but-not-great fields to get ready for bigger events against professionals.
Instead, the best amateurs are stocking up on major appearances, sponsor’s exemptions and team events.
The mentality is about preparation for professional golf, and preparation means measuring their games against golf’s best. It’s almost a cliche at this point, but it’s incredible how the gap between professionals and amateurs continues to close as competitive golf skews younger. Michael Thorbjornsen nearly won a PGA Tour event against a strong field, Ingrid Lindblad contended in the U.S. Women’s Open, and amateurs were making the cut in droves at big tournaments. Even a player like 17-year-old USC commit Bailey Shoemaker – certainly a rising talent but not yet a highly ranked player – eschewed amateur events to play two LPGA Tour tournaments, and she made the cut in both.
In a sense, these players are already professionals. We were reminded of that this past Saturday as Bennett and his opponent Dylan Menante sported sponsors on their hats. Bennett has a meaningful amount of NIL money rolling in, he told us, including deals with Ping, Johnnie-O and Suncast.
Said another way, there aren’t nearly as many college colors being flashed during the summer. Instead, it’s apparel brands or the colors of a player’s country.
We all knew “amateur golf” would be redefined in this new era. It’s not inherently worse, but there will need to be more brainstorming as to how we can protect top amateur tournaments so the best players are competing against each other. Ideas like the Elite Amateur Golf Series are helpful towards that end, but it does seem inevitable that tournaments will have to find a way to pay top players through sponsorship deals if they want to persuade them to come.
On the subject of team events, we get the sense that this generation of players cares so deeply about group play that they are willing to prioritize it beyond what we’ve normally seen.
The best players are routinely choosing the Palmer Cup, European Team Championships and World Amateur Team Championships over other tournaments, and that is already on top of the Walker Cup and Curtis Cup. This extends down to junior golf where events like the Junior Ryder Cup are highly valued.
And doesn’t it also seem like the best players are hanging on to their college experiences to be a part of a team? Bennett is headed back to Texas A&M for a fifth year; Rose Zhang and Rachel Heck have reaffirmed their commitment to Stanford; U.S. Open low-am Travis Vick is sticking for his senior year at Texas like his high-profile teammates did before him; and Dylan Menante is doing the same for a senior campaign at North Carolina. It’s hard to find college golfers willing to leave early.
PGA Tour University and NIL are contributing factors, but team golf clearly has a certain gravitational pull. Social media, AJGA team events, specialization in golf and more national junior schedules have collectively helped these young men and women have a lot of close friends in the game, whether they are college teammates or not. A few players and parents have told us that missing one of these teams can be borderline traumatic for that exact reason.
Another worthy note: some players have expressed that staying in school longer could be a benefit for their pro careers because it’s a safer place to develop amidst the vast pools of talent battling at professional golf’s lower levels.
One example we heard: Cameron Young stayed in school all four years, a decision that looks solid when compared to Matthew Wolff, who left Oklahoma State after two years.
It’s too soon to anoint Bennett or U.S. Women’s Amateur champion Saki Baba, but both players have the personality to match their exquisite talent.
Bennett is interesting in that he has struggled mightily in limited professional starts prior to making the cut at the U.S. Open this summer. He is not a long player off the tee, nor does he have an ultra-repeatable golf swing, but he is crafty and confident. His outward belief will attract some fans and push others away, but they won’t be apathetic. The PGA Tour could desperately use more players in that vein, especially with so many of the game’s characters and villains taking off for LIV Golf.
Baba, meanwhile, has the potential to be a true international star. It’s a grand statement to make for a 17-year-old kid, but her game is scary good and her affable personality is difficult not to root for. Even the name Saki Baba packs a certain punch. She’s a player that could be a celebrity in Japan, and maybe even more marketable to an American audience than other Asian players.
It’s early, but there is more to these two winners than the low numbers they put on a scorecard.
A final parting thought: Amateur golf is spoiled with the current collection of venues. Not only is there the Augusta National Women’s Amateur, but the U.S. Women’s Am has stepped up their game with host sites. Bel-Air, Southern Hills and Bandon Dunes are the next three in the rotation.
Lest we forget, the Curtis Cup just went to Merion and the Walker Cup is heading to St. Andrews and Cypress Point. That’s not too bad, either.
At every level, USGA championships are going to superb, historic courses. It’s noticeable, and it elevates all of the top amateur championships.
© 2022 Global Golf Post LLC
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