Sneak Peek: This article will appear in the June 10 issue of Global Golf Post.
The men’s NCAA Championship has been decided, U.S. Open qualifying is complete, and now the summer elite-amateur circuit begins. Hanging over each of those tournaments, beginning next week with the Sunnehanna Amateur, will be the long sprint for a berth on the U.S. Walker Cup team that will travel to England’s Royal Liverpool Golf Club to face Great Britain and Ireland in September.
The team makeup is wide open at this juncture, as open as I can ever recall at this time of year. The USGA International Team Selection Committee, led by Martha Lang, will be busy over the next 90 days.
Sixteen prospective team members assembled in South Florida last December for a practice session, a mix of evaluation and indoctrination. Of the 16, just one looks to be guaranteed a spot on captain Nathaniel Crosby’s squad.
University of Texas rising sophomore Cole Hammer had a solid freshman year, earning NCAA Division I All-American honors and winning the Phil Mickelson Award as freshman of the year. He did not finish outside of the top 10 in any of his 2019 college events, and he won three of them. Hammer, ranked No. 4 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking, advanced to the semifinals of the 2018 U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach. Captain Crosby had to love how he took down NCAA individual champion Matthew Wolff in their semifinal match in the team portion of the Division I nationals.
Hammer would be safe sending his clothing specs to USGA headquarters.
Most of the other practice-squad invitees remain in contention. A few took big steps forward by qualifying for the U.S. Open on Monday. Matt Parziale, the 2017 U.S. Mid-Amateur champion who tied for low amateur at the Open at Shinnecock Hills last summer, qualified for Pebble Beach, as did 2016 U.S. Mid-Amateur champion and 2017 Walker Cup team member Stewart Hagestad. Aided by a hole-in-one in his first round on Monday, Hagestad will make his third consecutive U.S. Open start his 17th USGA championship appearance. Having a USGA history and qualifying for the Open can be very helpful at the margin in the selection process.
Practice-squad invitee Brandon Wu also qualified for the Open. He had a solid spring semester for NCAA champion Stanford University, posting a victory and five top-10s. Ranked No. 11 in the WAGR, Wu had a disappointing NCAA stroke-play outing, finishing T53, but he roared back and won all three of his team championship matches with identical 4-and-3 outcomes.
As expected, several players not invited to the practice session have emerged as contenders for the team.
As usual, the final team makeup will be greatly impacted by those who elect to launch professional careers before the Walker Cup. Justin Suh and Collin Morikawa passed on participating in the practice session, knowing that they would not wait until September to turn pro. Wolff, Bryson Nimmer and Will Gordon, all of whom attended the practice session, have either departed or are expected to depart the amateur ranks.
There is likely to be only one mid-amateur on the team, although three were invited to the practice session. Parziale and Hagestad helped themselves by qualifying for the U.S. Open, and they both are committed to chasing a berth. Current U.S. Mid-Amateur champion Kevin O’Connell finished third at the Coleman Invitational in April, but his summer schedule is unknown. He’ll have to play, and play well, in the traditional summer elite tournaments if he wants to be selected.
As expected, several players not invited to the practice session have emerged as contenders for the team. NCAA Championship runner-up Steven Fisk has been on a roll since March and is in the mix for a berth. Fisk recorded five top-10 finishes this spring for Georgia Southern University, including the NCAAs. He was named an NCAA Division I first team All-American and has vaulted to No. 10 in the WAGR. If he continues this level of play in the summer, he likely will make the journey to England in the fall.
Florida State’s John Pak played his way into the conversation by reeling off a streak of seven college events in which he finished seventh or better, including three victories and two second-place finishes. Ranked No. 18 in the WAGR, he too is in the mix.
Oklahoma State’s Austin Eckroat qualified for the U.S. Open, as did recent Wake Forest grad Cameron Young, who claimed the medal at his New York sectional by shooting 4-under-par 137, five strokes better than runner-up Parziale. Young shot 4-under 31 on the final nine of his 36-hole qualifier. Both Young and Eckroat are players to keep an eye on this summer.
And then there is Akshay Bhatia, the junior standout who will forgo college and turn professional at some point in the next year. He began the year by winning the rain-shortened Jones Cup, capturing a prominent junior event, missing the cut at a PGA Tour stop and finishing T42 in a Web.com Tour tournament. He has signed with an agent and is thought to be playing the British Amateur and the European Amateur in June, passing on the Northeast Amateur. Those decisions may not send the right message to the International Team Selection Committee. Although he is ranked No. 7 in the WAGR, Bhatia is a wild card.
Keep in mind that, in July 2018, the USGA announced revisions to the international team selection process that created automatic selections to the U.S. Walker Cup team. The 2019 U.S. Amateur champion, the Mark H. McCormack Medal winner (given to the WAGR No. 1 immediately after U.S. Amateur) and the top three U.S. players in the WAGR (as of early August) are guaranteed to be on the team. This is the first time these new criteria have been in place.
No one is quite sure how it will play out. But at least some of the selections are in the players’ hands.
Nathaniel Crosby leads a Walker Cup practice session last December at Seminole Golf Club. Photo: Darren Carroll, Copyright USGA
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