PINEHURST, NORTH CAROLINA | On a steamy afternoon when the clouds bloom and walking inside from the heat feels like diving into an ice bath, the quiet urgency of the U.S. Amateur Championship moves from swing to swing in the place where golf lives.
Pinehurst and the U.S. Amateur have been reunited this week, the third time the men’s championship has been played in the spot that Donald Ross called home for many years.
Labron Harris Jr., won here in 1962 and Danny Lee deconstructed No. 2 in 2008. This year, someone else will win the 119th playing of what was once the most prestigious golf event in this country. Winning it remains a career-defining achievement.
“It’s the pinnacle,” said Brandon Wu, the medalist in the stroke-play portion of the championship.
The U.S. Amateur is, at once, a throwback and a glimpse into the future. Therein lies its charm and magic.
There are no grandstands or gallery ropes. Spectators can walk the fairways with the players and help them search for wayward shots that dig into the wire grass off fairways.
Some players have caddies. By one estimation, more than two dozen players had their fathers looping for them. Most of the fathers are there for the shared experience, leaving the golf to their sons.
It’s not unusual to see players with their golf bags strapped to push carts like many club golfers. Clumps of friends and relatives follow their favorites at their leisure.
At Pinehurst, where rough, ragged edges and sandy patches of scruff fit like dimples on a smiling face, nothing about the U.S. Amateur feels overproduced, at least not early in the week when 312 golfers play 36 holes of stroke play to determine which 64 advance to the match-play bracket.
Players on the 18th green at No. 2 are close enough to hear the clink of silverware and snippets of conversation from members having lunch on the back porch of the clubhouse. A putting green and small chipping green are near enough to the first tee at No. 2 that players pause when someone is teeing off nearby.
This is also where the future begins to show itself. Study the list of winners and while not all of them have become household golf names, capturing the U.S. Amateur offers a signal of who and what is to come.
Last year, Viktor Hovland won and a year later, he’s part of a celebrated trio of new professional stars along with Matthew Wolff and Collin Morikawa.
In 2015, Bryson DeChambeau won the Amateur while fellow future tour players Ryan Moore, Lee, Byeong-Hun An, Peter Uihlein and Matthew Fitzpatrick won the Amateur once Tiger Woods let loose of his three-year ownership of the trophy in the mid-1990s.
The meritocracy of the U.S. Amateur and its qualifying requirements gives it a breadth and depth that sets it apart from most other championships.
The field at Pinehurst included 57-year-old Sean Knapp, the 2017 U.S. Senior Amateur champion, whose résumé includes a round-of-16 loss to Woods in the 1995 U.S. Amateur.
It also included Jason Enloe, the 45-year-old men’s golf coach at Southern Methodist University, a reinstated amateur who won twice on what was then the Nationwide Tour. He was playing against two of his current SMU players, Mac Meissner and Ollie Osborne, and he’s also the father of two young girls whose mother – Jason’s wife, Katie – died from leukemia last summer. (Knapp, Enloe, Meissner and Osborne all failed to advance to match play.)
Starting today, it’s every man for himself. By Sunday, two players will have survived and they will start their scheduled 36-hole championship match on Course No. 4 then move to No. 2 in the afternoon.
Akshay Bhatia is a 17-year-old from up the road in Wake Forest, N.C., the fifth-ranked amateur in the world. Rather than attend college, Bhatia plans to turn pro following the Walker Cup next month and already has a schedule mapped out on the PGA Tour’s fall circuit. He advanced to match play with a pair of 72s and won his first-round match.
Parker and Pierceson Coody are twin brothers and teammates at the University of Texas whose grandfather, Charles Coody, won the 1971 Masters. The brothers also advanced to match play, Parker shooting 71-72 and Pierceson 72-71. Both won their first-round matches handily.
In match play, it’s every man for himself. By Sunday, two players will have survived and they will start their scheduled 36-hole championship match on Course No. 4 then move to No. 2 in the afternoon. It’s never been done like that before but the recent re-creation of No. 4 by designer Gil Hanse is impressive enough that the decision was made to play the final over two layouts.
Still, it’s No. 2 that is the star of the show. It has hosted three men’s U.S. Opens and one U.S. Women’s Open over the past 20 years while keeping alive bentgrass greens. A conversion to the heat-tolerant Bermuda a few years ago has allowed No. 2 to fully show its challenge.
The scoring average on No. 2 in stroke play was over 77, more than three strokes more difficult than on No. 4. Playing firm and fast, No. 2 has been as much a psychological test as a shotmaking test.
“This just might be the toughest course I’ve ever played,” Wu said – and he was the medalist after shooting 65-72 on Nos. 4 and 2, respectively.
With each passing day this week, the number of players will shrink while the pressure increases. The U.S. Amateur is scheduled to end on Sunday afternoon but for the champion, it will last a lifetime.
Brandon Wu said No. 2 might be the toughest course he’s ever played, and he was the stroke-play medalist. Photo: Michael Reaves, Copyright USGA
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