ERIN, WISCONSIN | The U.S. Mid-Amateur has long been a tournament dominated by Americans, and for fairly obvious reasons. It costs a fortune to play in a week-long event like this one, even without international travel. The U.S. is also home to the world’s most developed mid-am schedule in addition to being the main hub for those preparing to play professional golf, a sector that always seems to include some of the top mid-ams.
Of the 40 champions in tournament history, Australian Lukas Michel (2019) is the lone international winner. It’s hard to even find international contestants going deep in this championship. The sweet 16 had only two international players in 2017, 2019 and 2021. In the 2018 edition, just one international player reached the sweet 16. Lack of geographic diversity has been a missing ingredient in what is otherwise one of the great celebrations we have in amateur golf.
So it came as a nice surprise this week at Erin Hills when three international players made the sweet 16, after another contestant had earned co-medalist honors during stroke play. The visitors weren’t from Canada or another nearby country. Much of the talk around the clubhouse centered around the impact of these players and the circumstances that led each of them to compete this week in Wisconsin.
Top of mind were a pair of Irishmen who cruised through stroke play before embarking on a pair of deep runs in match play that now have both into Friday’s semifinals. Hugh Foley and Matthew McClean made the spontaneous decision to enter when they learned that a World Amateur Golf Ranking exemption would put them in the field without having to qualify.
Now they are one win away from facing each other in the 36-hole finale with a Masters and U.S. Open berth on the line.
Foley, a 25-year-old from Dublin, is a full-time golfer who has succeeded during an extensive amateur schedule the past few years. Earlier this year, he became the first player since Darren Clarke in 1990 to win the North and South of Ireland Amateur titles in the same season. He also finished runner-up in the Irish Close, a title he won in 2020. Foley is aiming to possibly turn pro next year, although the allure of playing on a GB&I Walker Cup team at St. Andrews next September may keep him as an amateur. That would wash away the sting of not being selected for Ireland’s Eisenhower Trophy team, viewed by some as a snub.
The No. 195 player in the world won his first three matches at the Mid-Am in convincing fashion before beating North Carolinian Chad Wilfong, 2 up, in a dramatic quarterfinals match during which no hole was tied on the back nine.
“I had a feeling that a lot of guys would be good players but maybe not ranked,” Foley said. “I had a feeling it was going to be stronger than what the world ranking would suggest. I think that was right. I have met a lot of guys who were ex-pros, turned-back amateurs or who played great college golf.”
Foley had only played one tournament in the U.S. over the past five years, but figured it would be worth it to travel with a close friend. The Irish utilize match play on a consistent basis, far more than American mid-am events. That has proved to be an advantage this week.
“We have six major championships in Ireland, and I think three of them are match play this year, so I have played a lot of matches,” Foley said. “I have had a lot of experience; we do team events as well. I must have played upwards of 20 matches this year.”
McClean, a 29-year-old trained ophthalmologist who has played a similarly full schedule to reach No. 120 in the world, considered turning pro until the pandemic muddied the waters. He had no trouble in his first two matches, needed 20 holes to defeat stalwart Brad Nurski in the round of 16, and then won a hard-fought match against Scott Turner, director of tournament operations for the Minor League Golf Tour.
Another international player who caught everyone’s attention was James Leow. His stay at Erin Hills lasted only into the round of 16, but what a glorious run it was until then.
Leow, a 25-year-old from Singapore, is the No. 60 amateur in the world and a recent graduate from Arizona State. He won the Pacific Coast Amateur this past summer, one of the prestigious events included in the Elite Amateur Golf Series, and helped lead the Sun Devils to a runner-up finish in the 2022 NCAA Championship.
“I’ve taken a lot of (heat) this week asking about my age and what I’ve been doing and where I’m going after this event. I just thought that this was a great opportunity not only for myself, but also for my country.” – James Leow
The reason for his advanced age at this point in his career is not because he partied too hard at ASU. Before coming to Tempe, Leow spent 22 months as part of the country’s mandatory military service, which delayed his freshman year until he was 21. He was a platoon sergeant who trained recruits.
For him, this is preparation for professional golf. Leow is heading to the first stage of Korn Ferry Tour Q-School next week and plans to turn pro at year’s end. He was hoping to become the first player from Singapore to play in the Masters or U.S. Open.
“I’ve taken a lot of (heat) this week asking about my age and what I’ve been doing and where I’m going after this event,” Leow said. “I just thought that this was a great opportunity not only for myself, but also for my country.”
He looked like the man to beat for much of the proceedings. Leow opened with a 65 at co-host Blue Mound and then annihilated his first two opponents. He beat John Humphries, 7 and 6, before dismissing one of the nation’s top mid-ams, Evan Beck, 8 and 7.
The major-championship dreams came to an end at the hands of Turner, who won four holes in a row en route to a 4-and-3 victory.
Leow wasn’t the only player from a far-flung country making noise. New Zealander Sam Jones, 26, shot 7-under 134 in stroke play to share medalist honors with Duke graduate Jake Shuman.
Jones, winner of the 2019 New Zealand Amateur and 2022 New Zealand Stroke Play Championship, bowed out in the round of 32 to – you guessed it – Scott Turner. It was a tight match until Turner won three consecutive holes late in the match on his way to a 3-and-2 victory.
This was the first USGA championship for Jones. He went to school in the states at Spring Hill College and the University of West Georgia, but has been living in New Zealand. Jones qualified via a strong world ranking built on local pro tournaments – because of that, he has been traveling around the U.S. playing amateur golf this summer.
He doesn’t live in an area with a ton of golf courses, but it’s enough.
“We have a pretty little country course down there,” Jones said. “Manaia is the name of it. It’s 6,000 yards long and we’ve got one greenkeeper that works up to 40 hours a week. Humble beginnings, I guess, but playing on a track like this is amazing.”
A few people onsite surmised that the U.S. Mid-Am is bound to become more of an international affair as the years move forward. Professional golf is overflowing with talent, and it won’t be a surprise to see players stay amateur for longer. With how international college golf has become, it’s reasonable to think some players will remain stateside and hope to develop. It’s also one of the few legitimate opportunities for players of this caliber to reach the Masters and U.S. Open.
Some will be upset about a player such as Leow competing in the Mid-Am, but it’s more of a benefit to have an international player competing than it is a sacrifice to have someone who is about to turn pro.
If they earned their world ranking and they are at least 25 years old, let them play. The Mid-Am does have some players who are true amateurs in every sense of the word, but there have also always been players on the fringes of competing professionally who have success at the tournament. There is a healthy mix of competitors who play a lot at a high level and some who play as a side hobby around other pursuits. It’s fine the way it is.
Hopefully this isn’t the last Mid-Am with plenty of international flavor.
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