Sneak Peek: This article will appear in the Aug. 5 issue of Global Golf Post.
BENTON HARBOR, MICHIGAN | As expected, almost all of the candidates for the 2019 U.S. Walker Cup team showed up at this week’s Western Amateur, knowing that the USGA International Team Selection Committee would be paying close attention and that captain Nathaniel Crosby would be on site at Point O’ Woods Golf & Country Club.
Some of those players had not competed much this summer on the elite amateur circuit. In a surprising departure from past Walker Cup cycles, some of the candidates scaled back their amateur schedules. The challenge this presents to the USGA is how to evaluate players who don’t play frequently, and how to evaluate other candidates against them.
This situation is compounded by the fact that heading into the Western Amateur, the Walker Cup team makeup was as cloudy as it has been in recent memory at this late summer date.
Historically, America’s elite amateurs, almost all of whom are college players, would play in what is considered an elite amateur rota. These nine or 10 tournaments, plus the candidates’ performance in the preceding college season, would inform the International Team Selection Committee in its deliberations.
This summer has been different.
Ten days ago, the USGA named three players to the Walker Cup squad, in accordance with a new policy that called for the top three Americans in the World Amateur Golf Ranking to be named to the team before the U.S. Amateur. Cole Hammer, Akshay Bhatia and Stewart Hagestad were the three players selected for September’s match against Great Britain and Ireland at England’s Royal Liverpool Golf Club.
Consider their playing record this summer. Hammer had played in just one amateur tournament prior to the Western Amateur, finishing T4 at the Northeast Amateur. Bhatia played no American amateur golf, choosing instead to play in the British Amateur and the European Amateur. He did play in the U.S. Junior Amateur, bowing out in the round of 16. Hagestad qualified for the U.S. Open and played in two amateur events – the Northeast Amateur and the Players Amateur – finishing T2 in both of them.
Perhaps Hammer and Bhatia figured that even if their lofty WAGR rankings slipped and they weren’t selected before the U.S. Amateur, their rankings would still be high enough to make them likely choices after that championship.
Several other players who were invited to last December’s Walker Cup practice session in Florida were absent from much of the summer amateur circuit.
Brandon Wu played in the U.S. Open and the Open Championship, for which he qualified, but passed on the Western Amateur to play a Korn Ferry Tour event. Ranked No. 8 in WAGR, he is expected to make the team despite not playing any amateur tournaments this summer. Fellow practice-squad invitee Isaiah Salinda played just two events before the Western, as did Chandler Phillips and John Augenstein.
Surprisingly, several players who emerged as viable candidates after the practice session didn’t play a whole lot either. Steven Fisk played one amateur and one professional event before the Western. Austin Eckroat played in two amateur events in addition to qualifying for the U.S. Open, while Cameron Young played just once after competing in the Open.
It is a situation that Sunnehanna Amateur co-chairman John Yerger, a close observer of the amateur game, calls shocking. “Some of the summer tournaments have had historically weak fields,” he said.
Jim Holtgrieve, a past Walker Cup player and a two-time U.S. captain, called the situation disappointing. “I cannot imagine why a viable candidate wouldn’t play as often as they could in order to try to make the team,” he said.
One reason many Walker Cup candidates are playing less frequently relates to tournament scheduling. Of the key events, five are played in July alone. Some are played the same week, and some are even played concurrently.
Injuries may have been part of the issue for a few. For others, like Wu, it was happenstance. Qualifying for the U.S. Open and the Open Championship threw an unexpected wrench into his summer schedule, which otherwise would have resembled the traditional itinerary. For Hammer, it was about resting and prepping for his Western Amateur title defense.
Three mid-amateur candidates deserve credit for investing time and effort to make the team. New Englander Matt Parziale played a full schedule that included the U.S. Open, the Massachusetts Amateur and three prominent national amateur events prior to competing in the Western Amateur. Reigning U.S. Mid-Amateur champion Kevin O’Connell played in three elite amateur tournaments.
Unfortunately for both of them, mid-amateur Hagestad’s amateur performance fueled his WAGR rise and early selection, thereby nabbing what will likely be the sole mid-amateur berth on the team.
To be fair, some Walker Cup candidates played as frequently as Holtgrieve would expect. Tyler Strafaci played five tournaments prior to the Western, John Pak played four times and Alex Smalley played in three amateur tournaments, winning the Sunnehanna.
One reason many Walker Cup candidates are playing less frequently relates to tournament scheduling. Of the key events, five are played in July alone. Some are played the same week, and some are even played concurrently. Players have to pick and choose their spots in July, knowing that participation in a sixth July event that bleeds into August, the Western Amateur, is a given.
Another reason, according to Yerger, is cost. “I do think expense is an issue for kids and families,” he said. “We are seeing it firsthand with housing requests. We also see it with caddies too. Kids are carrying their own bag more frequently to save money.”
Several college coaches and amateur golf observers at the Western Amateur echoed this sentiment last week. Some feel that the USGA needs to provide financial support to enable Walker Cup team aspirants to play with greater frequency.
The Amateur Golf Alliance, a new entity created to promote the amateur game in America, addressed this issue by offering $5,000 grants to all players who were invited to the Walker Cup practice session in December. Depending on the availability of private housing, this grant could enable the recipients to play in as many as three tournaments.
Oklahoma State men’s golf coach Alan Bratton, a past Walker Cup player, suggests that the public nature of the WAGR may be a factor here. In Bratton’s day, the WAGR didn’t exist and whatever rankings the USGA utilized were private; Walker Cup aspirants were told to just go play, and play well. It has only been since 2011 that the USGA has embraced the WAGR and incorporated the rankings into amateur team selection. Now that the WAGR is readily available, some candidates may attempt to game the system. They may feel that not playing in a tournament is better than playing poorly.
Then you have to consider the issue of wear and tear. College players are asked to play an awful lot of pressure golf in their spring semester, including conference championships and the NCAA regionals and finals. Add in the Arnold Palmer Cup in June, and even young schoolboys get tired.
The upshot here is that it has been a challenging summer for the International Team Selection Committee. Candidates competing less frequently has resulted in a greater focus on the Western Amateur and this month’s U.S. Amateur. And it likely will cause the committee to put more emphasis on the WAGR than in past cycles.
As many as six Walker Cup team berths remain up for grabs as August arrives, an unusually high number compared to previous cycles. It is going to be an interesting month.
The Walker Cup shown during a practice session for the 2019 U.S. Walker Cup team. Photo: Darren Carroll, Copyright USGA
We are sorry that this post was not useful for you!
Tell us how we can improve this post?