In the world of competitive sport there are very few things that have not changed precipitously over the last 100 years, but the U. S. Amateur Championship is one of them. It is played with the same traditions, rules, and formats that governed it back at the turn of the last century when it was first recognized as one of the most coveted prizes in the world of men’s golf. Traditionally it is 36 holes of stroke play qualifying to identify the top 64 amateurs in the world followed by a grueling match play format with six matches over five days ending with a 36 hole marathon final match to determine the finest amateur in the world. There was a brief spell from 1965 to 1972 when the U.S. Amateur was entirely a stroke play event, but fortunately the U.S.G.A. came to it’s senses and went back to the traditional format.
What intrigues most of us about this tournament is that they are playing a format that is familiar to all of us-it is the same format most of us play every Saturday with our regular group-mano-a-mano match play. In some regards this is more forgiving than medal play-a blow up hole costs you only one hole, not the entire round. But if we consider that the U.S.G.A. hosts this event on the most difficult and revered courses in the land and tweaks the course, as they do with the U.S. Open, to challenge every aspect of the competitor’s games, we realize that someone has to have great skill, great composure, a bit of luck, and a truck load of determination to prevail in this championship.
Most of the great’s of the game have won this championship-Bobby Jones won it five times, Jerome Travers four times, Tiger Woods three times in a row, and eight guys have won it twice in consecutive years. The Havemeyer Cup bears the name of famous men connected to the game in so many ways-Charles Blair McDonald, Francis Ouimet, William Fownes, Harvie Ward, Arnold Palmer, Deane Beman, Jack Nicklaus, Nathanial Crosby, Jay Sigel, Scott Verplank, Phil Mickelson, and Matt Kuchar just to name a few. The youngest winner was Danny Lee at age 18 in 2008 and the oldest winner was Jack Westland at age 47 in 1952. There have been many winners who are not house hold golf names or even had distinguished pro or amateur careers. But for one week these men had the best judgement, the most veracity, and probably the hottest putter in the game because it takes all of that and more to prevail marathon test like this.
Maybe equally interesting to the competitors are the venues on which this championship is held. The U.S.G.A. has always sought to hold it on courses with the history and credentials worthy of testing the best amateurs of their time. Many of them are famous courses like Pinehurst, Hazeltine, Merion, Olympic Club, Winged Foot, Cherry Hills, and Muirfield Village. But the U.S.G.A. has also used the event to showcase lesser known gems or new courses like Canterbury, Plainfield C.C., Newport C.C., The Honors Course and Pumpkin Ridge.
In recent years, under the leadership of David Fay and Mike Davis, the U.S.G.A. has gone out of it’s way to identify some creative new venues that are clearly out of the mainstream of American course architecture. Peter Uihlein beat David Chung in a gripping final in 2010 on Robert Trent Jones Jr.’s Chambers Bay links course on Puget Sound outside of Tacoma, Washington. They introduced American golf viewership to the fact that brown is the new green. This course, built in an old gravel mine, features the stark treeless terrain with holes meandering up and down sand hills providing the players with the steepest challenges of controlling where their golf balls sought to wander. As they are apt to do, the U.S.G.A. used the amateur as a test case for this venue and they were so pleased with what they saw the U.S. Open will be held there in 2015.
2011 featured another pilot project, the championship was contested on a relatively new Hurzdan/Fry/Whitten track called Erin Hills in southern Wisconsin. For all that has been said about Whistling Straits looking like an authentic Irish links course, this one looks more like Royal County Down than anything I have seen in America. Mike Davis called it Shinnecock Hills on steriods. It was built on a piece of ground outside of Milwaukee that was left by a receding glacier about 10,000 years ago with an array of sand and gravel mounding and a topography of such varied amplitude that it just seems like a piece of linksland in the middle of farm country. The designers moved a minimal amount of dirt to create a course that is viscerally exciting and totally unique for the American golf scene. As Paul Daley said in his book on Golf Architecture, “The enthusiasm and appreciation of Erin Hills has run from lavish praise to near malicious slander, so some controversy will always be part of it’s heritage”.
The entire course is fescue grass-fairways and roughs-and it can be made to play hard and fast as a result. The length of the holes on the scorecard mean nothing because the combination of the abrupt topography and firm fairways makes the most difficult challenge picking the right club and predicting the roll out of shots on these fairways and approaches. It takes a particularly cerebral approach and extraordinary tactical judgement to figure out how to manage your ball and be successful on this course.
Kelly Kraft and Patrick Cantlay playing the final 36 hole match was like watching Chinese water torture on grass. This is a course where there is no such thing as finding a comfort level-there is a train wreck around every sand dune and many of them are blind shots so you can’t see them coming. Kraft, the eventual winner, was cruising along 4 up in the match near the end of the first 18 and he took a triple bogey eight on the 18th hole. Six holes later the match was all square and it was a nail biter the rest of the way. The match turned on the drivable par 4 15th when Cantlay, the number one ranked amateur in the world, with a one lead after a marvelous birdie on the previous hole, decided to lay up from the tee with an 8 iron-yes an 8 iron. He misjudged the elevation change and the bounce on the fairway leaving his tee shot up against the six foot face of one nasty fairway bunker from where he did not stand a chance to recover. He went into bogey-bogey slide from which he never recovered. The pros will play this place in a medal play format at the 2017 U.S. Open. If the wind blows that week all bets are off on the winning score.
It is drama like this, man to man on a tormenting battlefield that makes this event so unique and memorable. Woods coming back from the oblivion to beat Trip Kuehne at TPC Sawgrass, Nathanial Crosby’s emotional overtime win at The Olympic Club, and Jeff Quinney beating James Driscoll in three extra holes the next day at Baltusrol in 2000. These are the type of scenarios play out almost every year at the U.S. Amateur it is just that the names are changed to protect the innocent. Winning this event may not lead to fame and fortune but having this trophy on your mantel for a year with all those names on it under yours has to lead to a boat load of big fish stories that will last a life time.