HERE IT COMES: golf's fifth major. The U.S. Amateur, like the other four biggies, is a fixture on the calendar, played each year in mid-August, just before the kids who dominate it return to campus. It has some history. Charles Blair Macdonald won the first one, in 1895 at Newport Country Club. Tiger Woods made his name with it, by winning the 1994, '95 and '96 editions. In between it has been won by Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Phil Mickelson and, in the ultimate one-off, Nathaniel Crosby, Bing's kid. Tomorrow's stars today. Some years, anyway.
This week, at Olympia Fields near Chicago, the galleries will be criminally sparse as 312 players tee it up in the 36-hole qualifier, intent on making it to the 64-player match-play portion. This is Tour-quality golf, and the stakes are sky-high. The runner-up gets invited to the 2016 Masters. The winner does too, along with a place for life in the par-3 tournament. Agents and opportunities come knocking.
Young and old golf sages (Jordan Spieth, Tiger Woods) have been saying this for a while: The quality of amateur golf has never been better. At Chambers Bay, 16 amateurs were in the U.S. Open field and six made the cut. At St. Andrews, five of the nine amateurs were around for the finish. In fact, through three rounds, a 22-year-old amateur from Ireland, Paul Dunne, was tied for the lead. You know what they used to say about Dunne when he played at Alabama-Birmingham? Pretty good golfer. That is, not one of the elite amateurs. But still good enough to play his way into the last pairing at the British Open.
Dunne closed with a 78, and the low amateur was Jordan Niebrugge. A Missourian who plays at Oklahoma State, Niebrugge tied for sixth. Dunne and Niebrugge will be at Olympia Fields. Brian Campbell, the low amateur at Chambers Bay, will not. The former Illinois golfer has taken his talents to the pros. So has Ollie Schniederjans, the Georgia Tech alum who made the cut at both Opens. But you will see Gunn Yang of South Korea, the defending champ. Also Jon Rahm of Spain, an Arizona State golfer and the top-ranked amateur in the world. And Maverick McNealy, the medalist at the inaugural USGA four-ball championship in May. Along with Romain Langasque, a Frenchman who made the cut at the British and, in June, won the British Amateur at ... Carnoustie! (See: Van de Velde, Jean.)
"The amateur game has become more like the professional game—there are more tournaments, better golf courses, harder golf courses and better competition," Spieth said at St. Andrews. "That's what I felt like when I was playing junior golf into amateur golf." He anticipated a day when an amateur would again win a U.S. Open or a British Open, or the Masters for the first time. (Amateurs aren't eligible for the PGA Championship.) The last amateur to win one of the great national championships was Johnny Goodman, who took the U.S. Open in 1933. "They're just coming in with no fear," Spieth said of today's ams.
As he said that, he was most likely recalling his own days as a boy among men. At the 2012 U.S. Open at Olympic, Spieth was the low amateur. He was 18, and he finished 21st. Before the year was out, he turned pro.
Most talented young pros had their passports stamped at a U.S. Amateur. They know what it's like to be Romain Langasque, champing at the bit, trying to get to the 36-hole match-play finale at Olympia Fields and anticipating everything that comes with it. When you're young and talented, it's hard not to look ahead. You're in the U.S. Amateur, and you imagine you'll be playing in the game's most sparkly events forever.
"They're coming in with no fear," Spieth said of the ams. As he said that, he was most likely recalling his own days as a boy among men.
IAN WALTON/R&A/GETTY IMAGES
ALMOST FAMOUS Hardly a phenom at UAB, Dunne made a run at history at St. Andrews.