HOUSTON, TEXAS | There are always a few. Every year at every open the obligatory parenthetical (A) pops up on the leaderboard, sometimes even bubbling its way to the top for a glimpse at the sky and a gasp of fresh air before submerging like a torpedoed cruiser.
Amateurs make opens special. We love learning their names and their stories. We love seeing their coaches or parents or significant others carrying stand bags marked with school colors. We love their big, fresh smiles and their “How did I get here?” outlooks. No matter how they finish, ams in opens are always fun to follow.
Remember 17-year-old Beau Hossler leading the 2012 U.S. Open at Olympic Club on Friday? It didn’t last long but for a few fleeting minutes, Hossler was the buzz of the golf world.
How about Jenny Chuasiriporn in the 1998 U.S. Women’s Open at Blackwolf Run? Remember the 40-footer she rolled in on the 72nd hole to get into a playoff with Se Ri Pak? Remember the look she gave her brother, Joey, who was carrying her Duke bag?
They’re unforgettable, even if you never hear from them again.
“… they hit it hard, they’re athletic, they’re fearless and they come in with a better understanding of the game than amateurs had a decade ago. I think the future is very bright … ” – Sean Foley
But something is different in the women’s game today. The amateurs in this U.S. Women’s Open are not wide-eyed kids who’ve fallen through a funhouse mirror and landed on their heads in Wonderland. On the range on Friday morning at Champions Club, for example, Katherine Kirk hit balls next to Amelia Garvey from Southern Cal and it was impossible to tell the college kid from the 16-year LPGA Tour veteran.
“We played with her in a practice round,” Kirk’s caddie, Vern Tess, said early Friday morning. “She hits it miles. High, hard and when it comes down you’re kind of shocked by how far it’s gone.”
Tess wasn’t the only one to notice. With a range full of golf swings to watch on Friday morning, Steve Elkington, a member at Champions who has been out all week, spent most of his time looking at the amateurs.
“That’s the way the game is going,” Sean Foley said a few minutes later. Foley, who is coaching a number of LPGA Tour players now including Lydia Ko and Sarah Jane Smith, sat in a tripod chair on the range and pointed to Garvey, Gabi Ruffels and Linn Grant, three of the 24 amateurs in the field. “Whether you’re talking about them or Emilia (Migliaccio), they hit it hard, they’re athletic, they’re fearless and they come in with a better understanding of the game than amateurs had a decade ago. I think the future is very bright out here.”
By day’s end on Friday, it looked even brighter. Six of the amateurs made the cut and three were among only 19 players to shoot under par. And two of them, Grant and Kaitlyn Papp, were sitting in second place and tied for third at 4- and 3-under par, respectively.
“I’m actually not surprised at that,” said Ruffels, who is one of the six amateurs playing the weekend. “It shows that women’s amateur golf is in pretty good form right now. But I’ve known that since I started college. I’ve been playing against the top amateurs in college and have been super impressed with how they’ve been able to compete against the best women in the world.”
“I think a lot of it has to do with college golf,” Papp, who played high school golf in Austin, Texas, with Kristen Gillman, said of the reason amateurs are performing so well on the biggest stage. “I feel like college golf really prepares us for the next level and to play well in championships like this. And, also, internationally for the girls who are coming from overseas, there’s been a lot of playing opportunities. I feel like with this whole COVID year we’ve all had the chance to get better at our games.”
COVID-19 could be a convenient excuse. No crowds and some of the best international players still knocking off rust after a lengthy break are easy answers to the “how did this happen?” question. But this isn’t a one-off. Seven amateurs made the cut at Shoal Creek in 2018. And in 2017 at Trump Bedminster, an amateur (Hye-Jin Choi of South Korea) finished second and led the championship with three holes to play.
“I’m still an amateur and I haven’t played a lot of tournaments but I definitely think that my game is good enough to play on the LPGA Tour,” said Grant, a Swedish golfer who plays at Arizona State. She was one of those amateurs who made the cut at Shoal Creek in 2018. In fact, Grant was tied for fourth going into the weekend that year before struggling on Saturday.
“I think we’ve been raised looking at a lot of good players and we’ve been able to look at them through Instagram and see what they do. And we just copy what they do,” she said. “When we feel that we’ve reached their level, we kind of move on.”
Only one amateur has won the U.S. Women’s Open: Catherine Lacoste back in 1967, two years before Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon and the same year The Doors released their first album. It’s unlikely that history will change this year in Houston. But it will almost certainly change some day. Sooner rather than later.
“I think it’s the same for the generations coming after us,” Grant said. “I think people are just going to get better and better.”
Top: Linn Grant was in second place at the end of Friday’s round at 4-under par. Photo: Robert Beck, USGA
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