Each year, the memorable images at the highest level of amateur golf tell a story. The story in 2021 is that the depth of ridiculously talented individuals has perhaps never reached a level quite like this. While amateur golf still has its standout players, the overall sentiment is that the window between the great and good has shrunk considerably.
Start with the darlings in major championships. In past years, we have often seen at least one or two dominant amateurs announce their arrival with a terrific performance on a bright stage. On the men’s side, we’re thinking along the lines of Viktor Hovland (2019 Masters and U.S. Open), Jon Rahm (2016 U.S. Open), Bryson DeChambeau (2016 Masters) or Patrick Cantlay (2011 U.S. Open and 2012 Masters). On the women’s side, there have been great amateurs like Hye-Jin Choi (2016 and 2017 U.S. Women’s Open) and Patty Tavatanakit (2018 U.S. Women’s Open) who have made their presence felt.
This year, those great amateur performances in major championships were almost all from players nowhere close to the top 10 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking.
Georgia’s Davis Thompson and Florida State’s John Pak have turned pro – and both should have an excellent opportunity to develop into prolific tour golfers – but there are no dominant players remaining.
Scotland’s Louise Duncan, who was ranked well outside the top 100 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking as recently as this summer before winning the Women’s Amateur, nearly won the AIG Women’s Open at Carnoustie. Duncan’s inclusion on the GB&I Curtis Cup squad was no sure thing prior to that magical week.
What about Matthias Schmid, the German who shot 65 in the Open Championship to equal the amateur record for lowest score in a round? While Schmid won the European Amateur in 2019 and 2020, he hadn’t even earned honorable mention in his last semester of college golf at the University of Louisville. The only college victory of his career came ages ago, back in 2018.
Yuxin Lin, a Florida Gator from China, also made the cut at the Open Championship to finish behind Schmid. Lin – the 2017 and 2019 Asia Pacific Amateur champion – doesn’t have a single top-five finish in well over a year, as of this writing.
And then there was Megha Ganne, the high schooler from New Jersey who stole everyone’s heart at the U.S. Women’s Open when she climbed into contention at the Olympic Club. Ganne is a nice junior golfer at this point but she didn’t crack the top 60 at the Augusta National Women’s Amateur or the U.S. Women’s Amateur.
These are all solid players, but they were far from the top of the amateur golf mountaintop when they had their stellar performance.
It speaks to something bigger than just a few random weeks. The margins have narrowed and parity is reigning.
Take the muddled picture that is the men’s amateur game. Georgia’s Davis Thompson and Florida State’s John Pak have turned pro – and both should have an excellent opportunity to develop into prolific tour golfers – but there are no dominant players remaining.
That’s not to say the cupboard is bare. It may be the opposite. The talent gap between those inside of the WAGR top 10 and those just outside the top 20 is virtually indiscernible.
There are not enough tournament victories to go around for a vast group of deserving players, and that led to some surprises.
James Piot, a Michigan State player most of us had only heard of in passing, won the U.S. Amateur over Austin Greaser, a University of North Carolina player of similar stature.
Michael Thorbjornsen of Stanford won the Western Amateur, and he hadn’t registered a top-10 finish for the first 27 weeks of the year.
Turk Pettit of Clemson won the NCAA Championship before turning pro. It was only his second collegiate victory, the first coming three years prior.
Was there one men’s player to grab the amateur golf world by storm? It looked like that could have been Sam Bennett, a Texas A&M Aggie who won three big events in the spring, but he disappeared during the summer. Ludvig Åberg, a Swede who plays at Texas Tech, won the Jones Cup Invitational and collected nine other top-10 finishes in what could be called the best year of anyone to this point, but it wasn’t in the neighborhood of Maverick McNealy’s 2015 campaign, for example.
And is there any better portrait of parity in the men’s game than Nick Gabrelcik, a player from the University of North Florida of all places, who stunned us all by winning three college events in his freshman season before nearly adding the U.S. Amateur title? Gabrelcik is not even a top-20 amateur in the world, but you could argue he rose to the occasion more than anyone else this year.
The women’s amateur game has enjoyed more star power and is a clearer picture than on the men’s side, but the depth of talent is still remarkable. If there was a “top tier” this year, it may include more than a dozen players. And a couple of the biggest events weren’t even won by a woman in that top tier.
Jensen Castle from the University of Kentucky came completely out of left field to win the U.S. Women’s Amateur. Tsubasa Kajitani was outside the top 20 in the world when she won the Augusta National Women’s Amateur, and how about the leaderboard that was behind the Japanese player? There were seven women who finished within one stroke of the champion.
That event was a microcosm of much of the year in the women’s game. Of course Stanford’s Rachel Heck had a college season for the history books by winning five times as a freshman, but it may surprise some to hear that Heck’s season was only a step or two ahead of the other players lining up behind her in that top tier.
Sweden’s Maja Stark won twice, had a third-place finish in an LET event and finished 16th in the U.S. Women’s Open before she opted to leave Oklahoma State for the pro ranks. Her countrywoman Linn Grant won three times at Arizona State and also finished third in the same LET event. Ingrid Lindblad, yet another Swede, won three times and was among those one stroke away from a playoff at the ANWA. Pauline Roussin-Bouchard ended her South Carolina Gamecock career with three wins, and she would go on to be the low-am in the Evian Championship.
We haven’t even reached Rose Zhang, the No. 1 amateur in the world and 2020 U.S. Women’s Amateur champ. She won the U.S. Girls’ Junior, made the cut in an LPGA major and almost won a Symetra Tour event before ever enrolling at Stanford.
There are others who some believe could have just as much or even more success as pros than those previously mentioned.
England’s Caley McGinty has won four times this year for the Kent State Golden Flashes and also carried the GB&I Curtis Cup team with a 3-1-1 record. She hasn’t even cracked the top 30 of the WAGR.
Scotland’s Hannah Darling could easily emerge as a real star at South Carolina, stepping into Roussin-Bouchard’s shoes. Darling’s first collegiate start was a runner-up to Julia Johnson in the Annika Intercollegiate, which has one of the top fields of any women’s amateur event all year long. This comes after a summer where Darling won the R&A Girls’ Junior and was the top individual in the European Ladies’ Team Championship.
There are too many female players to name, really.
This isn’t announcing anything too outlandish, but amateur golf is becoming so developed around the world – just look at Sweden for women’s golf – that it’s hard to find significant separation between those ranked near the top and those deemed a peg or two below them.
This year illuminated that to a degree we have not seen before.
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